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.
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.”