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14 Juni 2004 @ 19:02
Rose, by any other name  

In a post marking the fiftieth anniversary of the addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, Geoff Pullum argues that a failure to exist, on the part of God, would not invalidate the substance of the Pledge [links added]:

But the thing about these conventionally implied extra statements is that they aren't the main point. Suppose someone said to me, in front of my lawyer, I hereby permanently and irrevocably give to you this garage, the very one where the Hewlett-Packard company was born. If I find out later that Hewlett and Packard never worked there, it's the wrong garage (the real one is in Palo Alto, and if you happen to walk along the right street you can see it, there's a plaque outside), then I may be annoyed with you, and say that you gave me some bad information about my new garage, one thing is for damn sure: it's my garage now. No question about that. The main thing your utterance did was to give me the garage free and clear. The stuff in the appositional NP was secondary, and although its falsity does mean you said something false, that doesn't undercut what the main part of the utterance accomplished. So what I'm saying is that even if there is no God, it doesn't matter. The pledge is valid anyway.

Actually, it's not that simple. Perhaps Pullum is unfamiliar with Sherwood v. Walker, a case decided by the Supreme Court of Michigan in 1887.

Hiram Walker, the founder of the Canadian Club distillery, contracted to sell, to a banker named T. C. Sherwood, an Aberdeen Angus cow, Rose 2d of Aberlone, whom both parties believed to be infertile. Accordingly, Rose's purchase price was set, on the assumption that she was of value only qua beef, at five and a half cents per pound (minus fifty pounds for shrinkage). Upon being weighed, Rose turned out, in fact, to be pregnant. Walker reneg(u)ed; Sherwood sued; the case went to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Mr. Justice Morse wrote, in his opinion:

If there is a difference or misapprehension as to the substance of the thing bargained for; if the thing actually delivered or received is different in substance from the thing bargained for, and intended to be sold,—then there is no contract; but if it be only a difference in some quality or accident, even though the mistake may have been the actuating motive to the purchaser or seller, or both of them, yet the contract remains binding.


[T]he mistake was not of the mere quality of the animal, but went to the very nature of the thing. A barren cow is substantially a different creature than a breeding one. There is as much difference between them for all purposes of use as there is between an ox and a cow that is capable of breeding and giving milk.


She [Rose] was not in fact the animal, or the kind of animal, the defendants intended to sell or the plaintiff to buy. She was not a barren cow, and, if this fact had been known, there would have been no contract. The mistake affected the substance of the whole consideration, and it must be considered that there was no contract to sell or sale of the cow as she actually was. The thing sold and bought had in fact no existence.


The judgment of the court below must be reversed, and a new trial granted, with costs of this court to defendants.

Now, I'm prepared to believe that having been worked in or not by Messrs. Packard and Hewlett is merely "some quality or accident" of Pullum's hypothetical garage, and would probably not affect the validity of its sale. But what Sherwood tells us is that in order to know whether the validity of the Pledge depends upon the existence of God, we actually have to figure out what, if anything, the contentious phrase "under God" means. Is a "nation under God" substantively different from a nation not under God?1 I don't propose to answer this question here; I only wish to point out that the syntactic status of "under God" as an adjunct is not conclusive.

Of course, we don't need to know what "nation under God" means, or even whether God exists, in order to assess the validity of the Pledge under those circumstances in which it is most frequently uttered: it is patently obvious that any pledge recited under coercion by schoolchildren too young to enter into binding contracts, many of whom are ignorant of its meaning,2 cannot possibly have any legal force or moral significance.

Now, I should probably dispel the illusion I may have just created that I am capable of citing hundred-year-old state supreme court opinions at will. The fact is, Sherwood v. Walker is the only such case at my fingertips, and the only reason I am so well acquainted with it is that my late grandfather, the legal scholar Brainerd Currie, wrote a long poem (mostly in the style of S. T. Coleridge's "Christabel") about Rose 2d of Aberlone. (Members of my immediate and extended family can sometimes be heard quoting the immortal refrain Ah me! — Ah moo!) A few lines from section 4 will give you a sense of the flavour of the thing:

Now, there's a distinction, as I've been taught,
Twixt a cow that's pregnant and one that's not.
In fact, the fallacy is arrant
That places a potential parent
In even the same taxonomy
With that drain on our economy
That we deprecate by all that's holy—
The wretched beast that's sine prole.

The whole poem, together with commentary and a summary of the case, can be found on E2. "Aberlone, Rose of (Being an entry for an index)" also appears in the collection Quidsome Balm, published by The Green Bag Press in 2000.

1It might be, if, for example, we take "nation under God" to mean "theocracy."

2I remember quite distinctly being the only kid in my grade two class who had any idea what indivisible meant; everyone else defined it as "impossible to see," and no one appeared to have any qualms about swearing fealty to a putatively invisible republic.