Today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of German-occupied France on the beaches of Normandy, but it is also the anniversary of Patrick Henry’s death in 1799. Henry was, of course, a Founding Father and former governor of Virginia, who said in a speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Or did he? “Not one of his speeches lives in print, writing, or memory,” complained Henry biographer William Wirt, who got the quote from a judge who had been present at St. John’s Church in Richmond that day and who shared his recollections with Wirt several decades after the fact.
It seems less certain still that George Washington said to his father, “I cannot tell a lie,” when caught in a cherry-tree chopping caper. American book agent and author Parson Weems got the story from a distant cousin of the first president and included the inspirational tale in his 1800 The Life of Washington.
Marie Antoinette, ill-fated Austrian-born Queen of France until 1792, may or may not have said of her hungry subjects, “Let them eat cake.” But if she did, she was probably remembering having read it first in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, written in 1765 when she was 9.
Roughly two centuries earlier but at the same address, Henry IV, née Catholic, converting to Protestantism and then reinventing himself as a Catholic for political expediency, may have said what they say he said, “Paris vaut bien une mess” (“Paris is well worth a mass”). In any case, the statement aptly captures his actions and motive.
“There’s a sucker born every minute” does have something to do with huckster and circus impresario P.T. Barnum, but it was his irate competitor David Hannum, not Barnum, who actually mouthed the words—if we can believe even that.
Groucho Marx was funny enough that one needn’t have made up quotes for him. Nevertheless, the comedian and film star told interviewer Roger Ebert in 1972, “I got $25 from Reader’s Digest last week for something I never said. I get credit all the time for things I never said.”
As for me, I’m sticking with the Bible, which is full of things that I trust were really said:
“The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6, ESV).
Back to D-Day, we can also rest assured that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces in Europe, said these words 70 years ago: “Let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.” I listened to him say it myself this morning in a recording of his message to the Allied Expeditionary Force just before they embarked on a mission that changed the world.