We get a lot of questions from the public asking us to verify quotations as Jeffersonian or not, but these almost always concern only a single quotation. The other week I got a query from an inquiring person that contained not one, but 10 quotations. The source of the query was a sort of chain-email calling Jefferson a “prophet” – an appellation I suspect he would not in fact like very much – and listing 10 purported Jefferson quotations. Too bad Jefferson didn’t actually say all those things – here are the ten contestants, with the questionable quotes in red; misquotes are in orange.
- “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” This is a slightly incorrect quotation from a letter to James Madison of 20 December 1787 – see the TJ Encyclopedia for the correct quotation (it’s the fourth one in the list).
- “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” This is not a genuine Jefferson quotation – I’ve seen this one before…
- “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.” This is genuine, from a letter to Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy of 26 December 1820: “it is incumbent on every generation to pay it’s own debts as it goes. a principle which, if acted on, wou [ld] save one half the wars of the world; and justifies, I think our present circumspection.” Polygraph copy is at the Library of Congress.
- “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.” This is a misquotation of something Jefferson did write; an enterprising patron actually figured this one out and let me know about it just a few weeks ago.
- “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.” This is actually somebody else, in a speech about Thomas Jefferson.
- “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” This is from Jefferson’s draft of the Virginia Constitution.
- “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” I see this one tacked onto the end of #6 all the time. It doesn’t actually appear with “no freeman shall be debarred the use of arms” in Jefferson’s drafts of the Virginia Constitution, although the Encarta Book of Quotations seems to think it does- whoopsy daisies!
- “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This is genuine, a fairly famous TJ quotation – see the TJ Encyclopedia for citation and fuller context.
- “To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” This one gave me quite the runaround. The wording is slightly incorrect, which accounts for some of the difficulty. I sometimes use Google to see if a quotation is being attributed to someone else besides Jefferson; I actually found one person using this quotation as their signature line on a bulletin board and they had attributed it to, rather bizarrely, Flava Flave. I hope Flave is flattered – this is in fact a genuine TJ quotation, from his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
- “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.” This has been a popular one recently. Fortunately I’ve given it the full treatment on the TJ Encyclopedia.
Well, I’m ready for a nap now.