Did George Washington Actually Say the Words at Top of the Washington Square Arch?

“Let Us Raise a Standard to Which the Wise and Honest Can Repair”

Words attributed to George Washington on the Arch are from the 1797 U.S. Constitutional Convention – but some dispute he said them

At the top of the 127 year old Arch at Washington Square Park is, appropriately, a quote from George Washington, for whom the monument is named.

It reads: “Let Us Raise a Standard to Which the Wise and Honest Can Repair. The event is in the hand of God.” – Washington

I believed initially that it references war but I was corrected by a reader a couple years ago.

Officially, the structure is named Washington Arch and it marks 127 years (thereabouts) this year.

Commenter Richard wrote:

The quote is in reference to the U.S. Constitution at the opening of the Constitutional Convention on May 25 1787, but there’s some question as to whether or not Washington actually said it. See the “Disputed” section at this page: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Washington#Disputed

This George Washington Disputed Wikipedia page states:

Americans! let the opinion then delivered by the greatest and best of men, be ever present to your remembrance. He was collected within himself. His countenance had more than usual solemnity; his, eye was fixed, and seemed to look into futurity.

It is (said he) too probable that no plan we propose will be adopted. Perhaps another dreadful conflict is to be sustained. If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.

This was the patriot voice of Washington; and this the constant tenor of his conduct. With this deep sense of duty, he gave to our Constitution his cordial assent; and has added the fame of a legislator to that of a hero. Attributions in an “Oration upon the Death of General Washington, Delivered at the Request of the Corporation of the City of New York On the 31st of December, 1799”, by Gouverneur Morris.

Though these words, supposedly given at the opening of the Constitutional Convention, were not recorded in James Madison‘s summary of the events of 25 May 1787, George Bancroft accepted them as genuine (History of the United States of America, volume VI, Book III, Chapter I). Henry Cabot Lodge however gave cogent reasons for rejecting them (George Washington, Volume II, Chapter I).

The attribution to Washington was so widely accepted that it was engraved above the Fifteenth Street entrance to the Department of Commerce Bldg. in Washington, D.C., on the arch in Washington Square Park in New York City and on a bronze plaque above the Eighteenth Street doorway to Constitution Hall.

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Richard added, “That said, even if he didn’t say the words, they were strongly associated with Washington and not out of place on the Arch.”

What do you think of this?

Photo: Cathryn

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3 thoughts on “Did George Washington Actually Say the Words at Top of the Washington Square Arch?”

  1. Everyone who has not yet done so should read Gore Vidal’s “Burr”, an elegantly written “possible history.” In it, George Washington is depicted unflatteringly as an extremely political and mediocre leader. Here, the “dispute” section on Wikipedia quotes from a different work of Gore Vidal’s:

    “George Washington was a famous general who never won a battle. He was our first millionaire, and he believed in property and the dignity of those who held it, and they put together a constitution which would protect property for all time. No nonsense about democracy!”

    – Gore Vidal, “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” documentary film (2013)

    How to interpret the quote in question, whether Washington uttered it or not?

    Most interpret it as Cathryn did, at first, as being about war, but it seems to me that he was arguing for a highly sectarian approach to all issues: Here’s what we believe, Let’s argue for it against anyone else (and especially against the multitudes whom we’d hope to win over to it), and — here’s the part that takes it away from admirable principle and into rabid sectarian nonsense — “let’s not strive for consensus nor even consider others’ experiences or views, because we know what’s right and they can all go f*#k themselves.”

    Sort of “History will absolve me” without Fidel’s flare and his sense of revolutionary communal purpose. Put that on NYU’s arch!

    Then again, I’m just reading between the lines. Hopefully some proper historian will show up here and set things right!

    Mitchel Cohen
    Brooklyn Greens/Green Party

  2. When I read the quote I was prejudiced to think it had anything to do with war. Maybe that is because I am a veteran and don’t associate a war standard with a symbol to which wise and honest can repair.

    Rather, I agree with Richard. Whenever I have a question about my interpretation of anything, I do exactly as Richard did. I look at the context. From the context one can see that Washington clearly anticipated disagreement that stemmed from irreconcilable differences that politically astute leaners of the time acknowledged. And if there was to be a document that would be presented by the Convention, then it obviously would be a compromise where everyone surrendered something.

    The document would then be a concept that no one agreed with completely. But Washington argued that a compromise is better than another war. And so he advised his colleagues to support the compromise as something that people who are honest with themselves can wisely justify as the alternative to another bloody war between themselves that would doom the Revolution ultimately to failure.

    Now, Gore Vidal can judge Washington with all of his contemporary cynicism. Washington was not perfect, far from it. But he had what was desperately needed, a steady hand. A lesser leader would have crumbed at the failures Washington endured. The Revolution was not intended to be built on the talents of one man for the everlasting glory of that man and his descendants. Of course, Vidal, coming from the age of over-indulgence, wouldn’t have known that. But the irony is that Washington’s wealth was a thorn in the side of an over-indulged contemporary. Washington died from pneumonia. Vidal lived in an age where medical technology had conquered pneumonia, and many other challenges that faced Washington, like the small pox that scared his face. Yes, Vidal’s criticism is very ironic.

    Agree with Richard, a relevant quote as it is strongly associated with Washington.

  3. Thanks, Mitchel and Kevan, for adding to the information and discussion here on George Washington and the ‘disputed’ quote at the top of the Arch! Your thoughts and insights are appreciated.

    Cathryn

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