Last September, I received a question from someone looking for a Jefferson letter titled, “The Value of Constitutions.” Jefferson didn’t usually bother to give his letters titles, so this was a bit puzzling. I finally figured out that this letter had been published in a volume edited by Edward Dumbauld, chapter 4 of which was titled, “The Value of Constitutions.” It seemed pretty obvious that somewhere along the way, someone had quoted from the letter and attached the chapter title in such a way that people assumed that it was the title of the letter. Whoopsies.
That was kind of amusing, and a relatively straightforward thing to untangle. But later we dealt with a question that proved to be the same general phenomenon, in a rather more pernicious form. This February, someone emailed me about this quotation: “Loading up the nation with debt and leaving it for the following generations to pay is morally irresponsible. Excessive debt is a means by which governments oppress the people and waste their substance. No nation has a right to contract debt for periods longer than the majority contracting it can expect to live.” Apparently it had appeared in the patron’s local paper and she immediately smelled a rat, so to speak – and rightly so. This quotation comes from Eyler Robert Coates’ very excellent collection of Jefferson quotes on politics and government, hosted by UVA, and is actually Coates’ introductory summary of this particular section of the site – it expresses Jefferson’s opinions as evidenced by his letters, but is not a direct quotation of Jefferson. This morning I saw this same thing again – someone quoted Jefferson in a comment on a letter to the editor of the Delaware, Pennsylvania Daily Times as saying, “Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society. ” Sure enough, it’s another Coates summary. Gah!
But just when I feel like banging my head against the nearest wall with the sheer frustration of battling against what often seems like an overwhelming ocean of bogus quotations, I find some sign that I’m not the only one who cares about getting this all right. Here’s a Mr. Allison who is on to the whole Coates-Quotes problem, and has managed to find sources for questionable Jefferson quotations of which I was heretofore unaware. Perhaps we should deputize him.