The trouble with history is that most of it happened off camera, which hadn't been invented yet.
We've had to rely on hearsay for a lot of famous things famous people said that made them famous. Hearsay isn't allowed in court. Why do we let it get into history books without rigorous cross-examination?
Occasionally, there has been a scribe or an apostle or a James Boswell to write things down. When Rodrigo de Triana, the young lookout on the Pinta on Oct. 12, 1492, saw the New World and shouted, "Tierra!" we can be pretty sure that's what he said because his boss was a great navigator. Columbus kept a log.
"You have found land!" Columbus hollered across the water to Martin Alonso Pinzon, the Pinta's skipper, as indeed he had. Or Rodrigo had.
But some of those deathless quotations uttered from flaming quarterdecks or in the midst of historic chariot charges just sound too finely honed. Consider how a whispered message gets garbled when relayed from guest to guest around a dinner table. And we're talking about hearsay being passed down over centuries.
This train of thought was put in motion by a recent use in print of a famous American quote: "Millions for defence (or, sometimes, "defense"), but not one cent for tribute." The writer, myself, attributed this to one Robert Goodloe Harper because the second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations did so, right there on Page 238.
This prompted a letter from a woman in Virginia who wrote: "It has always been my understanding that it was Charles Coatesworth Pinckney who said, 'Millions for defense (etc.).' Right?"
Accuracy demanded an investigation, even though the writer put an "a" in Cotesworth, which Pinckney did not. The 1946 edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations attributes the quotation to Pinckney (1746-1825) when he was minister to France in 1797. A footnote says that the quote is engraved on a cenotaph in Pinckney's memory in St. Michael's Church, Charleston, S. C. It adds: "What Pinckney really said was more forcible: 'Not a damned penny for tribute.' "
Traced to a Toast
Did this make Harper a plagiarist? Who was Harper? Oxford said he said "Millions, etc." in a toast given at a congressional gathering in Philadelphia on June 18, 1798, which was printed two days later in Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser. That was a year after Pinckney. What was Harper doing hobnobbing with Congress? Was he a waiter who had had too much Madeira? Who was covering the banquet circuit for Claypoole? Was he to be trusted?
Further digging unearthed the fifth edition of the Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates. Page 117 identifies Harper. He was a congressman from South Carolina. His toast was the 13th of 16 given at O'Eller's Tavern on June 18, 1798, in Philadelphia in honor of John Marshall. Marshall, who was to become a famous chief justice, had been part of a delegation with Pinckney sent to Paris to head off a war with France. Agents of the wily Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, tried to bribe the Americans, the notorious XYZ Affair. That's when Pinckney was alleged to have come up with "Millions, etc." Whatever Marshall said was, in effect, "No soap," which was why he was being toasted at O'Eller's.
American Facts and Dates goes on to say that Harper's toast "came to be identified . . . with Pinckney (and) because the expression seemed more apt to (a) diplomatic reply than as (a) forensic toast, legend persisted."
The cloud of plagiarism seemed to be lifting from Harper, but what did Pinckney himself have to say? William S. Walsh's International Encyclopedia of Prose and Political Quotations says on Page 181 that Pinckney "is said (note Walsh doesn't say by whom Pinckney is said to have said) to have denied the story." That work quotes Pinckney as saying, "No, my answer was not a flourish like that but simply, "Not a penny; not a penny.' "
Notes on a Napkin?
This indicates that Pinckney at least laid the groundwork for Harper. But, after 13 toasts, is it possible that Harper, when his turn came, really said: "Millions for tribute, but not a cent for defence"? After 16 toasts, how did anyone remember what anyone said? Was Claypoole actually there taking notes on a napkin, a beastly habit that persists, like legends, to this day?
We'll never know.
On the same subject, let's consider Nathan Hale. Every schoolchild knows he said as he was about to be hanged as a spy: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose (some say give) for my country."
Capt. Frederick Mackenzie was with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers that Sept. 22, 1776, in New York. His diary does not make clear whether he attended the execution, but it does say Hale "behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good officer to obey any orders given him . . . and desired the spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear."