Josh Hawley has a history degree from Stanford, where he wrote a thesis on the righteousness of Theodore Roosevelt, graduated with honors, and was remembered as “a serious scholar of the Constitution.” It’s reasonable, then, to assume that he is familiar with the basic premises of the American experiment. Yet Hawley is also a Republican politician in the era that has seen his party mount a determined assault on the honest teaching of American history about everything from race to foreign policy. So the relentlessly ambitious senator from Missouri has chosen to toss aside his learning in favor of a right-wing ideological fantasy and the political rewards that he hopes will extend from it.
That’s the best explanation for the misinformation that Hawley disseminated on July 4, when he tried to turn the 247th anniversary of American independence into a fact-free celebration of Christian nationalism.
Hawley’s 1.4 million Twitter followers were offered up a supposed pronouncement from one of the most outspoken advocates of American independence, Patrick Henry: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”
The problem is that Patrick Henry never uttered those words. While he was at times in disagreement with fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison on precise questions of separating church and state, Henry is today recalled not only for his “Give me liberty or give me death!” rhetoric but also for his reflections on the value of a “general toleration of Religion.” Hawley’s inaccuracy was immediately called out by historians, religious scholars, and patriots of varying political tendencies. A clarification was attached to the senator’s tweet, which explained, “Patrick Henry never said that. This is a line from a 1956 piece in The Virginian that was about Patrick Henry, not by him.” With it came a link to the Fake History website, which explained why the attribution to Henry was especially “puzzling”:
The language is twentieth-century. The word “religionists,” for example. In Patrick Henry’s time, it meant a fanatic, a person obsessed with religion; not as here people of different religions (or something like that). The piece looks back on the founding of “this great nation” (would Patrick Henry really have used that phrase?) as something in the past, and it seems to know that “peoples of other faiths” are going to be “afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship” in it. It’s wrong historically, and it’s wrong linguistically.
Presumably, a “serious scholar of the Constitution” should have recognized the disconnect. Or, at the very least, should have been embarrassed when it was pointed out. Not Josh Hawley. A week after the incident, the tweet was still featured on his Twitter timeline, where it had been viewed 3.4 million times. Worse yet, Hawley responded to rebukes from historians with the snarky observation, “I’m told the libs are major triggered by the connection between the Bible and the American Founding.” To support the latter assertion, Hawley featured quotes from John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster. The problem, of course, is that Adams was just 8 years old when independence was declared, while Webster was born eight years after the Declaration was made—making both men flawed as exemplars of the founding circle.
The most prominent of the founders celebrated religious diversity. Early in his presidency, George Washington informed the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I., that “the children of the stock of Abraham” were valued citizens of a new nation in which “all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” Washington recognized that by the time the United States had adopted a bill of rights that respected religious pluralism, Sephardic Jewish congregations had been flourishing—in some cases for more than a century—in New York City, Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston, and, of course, Newport. He was very likely aware that Jews were among the first supporters of the American Revolution, and that Francis Salvador, a Jewish member of South Carolina’s Provincial Congress, was among the first to die in the fighting—just weeks after the Declaration of Independence was approved.
John Adams, the nation’s second president, sought congressional approval of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, which stated that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” That treaty was signed with the leader of the Eyalet of Tripolitania, a predominantly Muslim region of what in now Libya. Adams was familiar with Islam, having described the Islamic prophet Muhammad, in his 1776 treatise Thoughts on Government, as a “sober inquirer after truth.” Four years later, he drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, which granted “the most ample liberty of conscience…to Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians.” By the time of the American Revolution, Muslims had been building for well over a century what would become the United States, as many of the enslaved peoples taken to the American colonies came from Muslim regions of Africa.
Thomas Jefferson, the third president, owned an English translation of the Koran, along with texts from other religious traditions. He championed the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he argued was enacted by legislators who “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” While serving as president, the author of the Declaration of Independence wrote of how he believed the Constitution established a “wall of separation” between church and state:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
These actual statements from actual founders aren’t hard to find. They’re available via the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
What was the source of Hawley’s misinformation? The origins of the misquote, which has circulated for years in Christian nationalist publications, can be traced to that 1956 article in The Virginian, a segregationist-era publication that Willamette University history professor Seth Cotlar has described as “virulently antisemitic & white nationalist.”
“There is an American fascist tradition,” Cotlar told The St. Louis Post Dispatch, “and The Virginian is a part of that history.”
This is the “history,” as handed down across the decades in extreme right-wing circles, that Josh Hawley borrowed from when he decided to put his unreliable spin on the American story.