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Posts Tagged ‘quotations’

Increasingly I’m coming to believe that I’m totally wasting my time in assiduously searching all sorts of websites, databases and books to figure out whether or not Thomas Jefferson is the source of a given quote.  Really (I tell myself), if it quacks like a duck, it’s most likely a duck.  Or, in my case, if it sounds like a Hallmark card or a self-help book, it’s probably not from the pen of Thomas Jefferson.

Just to entertain you, here are some of my favorite silly quotes that people have attributed to  Jefferson:

Ha ha!  Those are awful.  No way Thomas Jefferson ever wrote any of that twaddle!

The latest “clunker,” as I call these types of, er, obvious non-TJ quotes, is apparently fluttering around the Twitter-verse, and goes like this: “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”  Gah!  It sounds like a Hallmark card.

But, as you may have already surmised from my title, my TJ-quotation radar was totally off in this instance.   He did write that.  “I am sure [the succeeding generation] will have more worldly wisdom, and enough, I hope, to know that honesty is the 1st chapter in the book of wisdom.”  (to Nathaniel Macon, January 12, 1819)

So, no intuitive shortcuts.  Even the author of the Declaration of Independence wrote cheesy stuff sometimes.

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One of our alert former fellows brought Hillary Clinton’s quotation of Jefferson during her recent Secretary of State confirmation hearings to my attention.  Of course I can’t help myself from checking to make sure that famous people quoting TJ have actually gotten their quotes correct, because a) I’m a stickler, and b) someone else will surely ask about it.

This one is a weird little documentary curiosity, as it turns out.  Jefferson did in fact write this, but only in a draft, which was later revised to exclude the portion that Hillary is quoting.  Jefferson’s “Paragraphs for the President’s Annual Message to Congress,” which he prepared for George Washington in October 1792 at Washington’s request, begins:

The interests of a nation, when well understood, will be found to coincide with their moral duties.  Among these it is an important one to cultivate habits of peace and friendship with our neighbors.  To do this we should make provision for rendering the justice we must sometimes require from them.  I recommend therefore to your consideration Whether the laws of the Union should not be extended to restrain our citizens from committing acts of violence within the territories of other nations, which would be punished were they committed within our own. – And in general the maintenance of a friendly intercourse with foreign nations will be presented to your attention by the expiration of the law for that purpose, which takes place, if not renewed, at the close of the present session. (Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 24:486; letterpress copy at Library of Congress)

That was the version of October 15, 1792.  Before Washington gave the address on November 6th, however, Jefferson sent Washington a new version, which read:

Instead of the paragraph ‘The interests of a nation &c. –within our own,’ formerly proposed, the following substitute is thought better.

All observations are unnecessary on the value of peace with other nations.  It would be wise however, by timely provisions, to guard against those acts of our citizens, which might tend to disturb it, and to put ourselves in a condition to give that satisfaction to foreign nations, which we may sometimes have occasion to require from them.  I particularly recommend to your consideration the means of preventing those aggressions by our citizens on the territory of other nations, and other infractions of the law of Nations, which furnishing just subject of complaint, might endanger our peace with them. –And in general the maintenance &c.  (Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 24:552 – letterpress copy at Library of Congress)

Ford, bless his persnickety soul, does in fact note that Jefferson “suggested an alteration in this paper,” and printed the text of the revised version. Although it’s only clear in the Princeton edition of TJ’s papers what, exactly, Washington ended up actually using.

In the end, though, Hillary very cleverly phrased her quotation such that all the above particular-ness about drafts and revisions doesn’t necessarily signify: “I take great comfort in knowing that our first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, also subscribed to that view, reminding us across the centuries: ‘The interests of a nation, when well-understood, will be found to coincide with their moral duties.'”

Jefferson did write this, and we’re now reading it, so he is talking to us “across the centuries,” whether he meant to or not.  I have noted this one for posterity in the TJ Encyclopedia – the article includes the full text of TJ’s first draft (which is in fact rather boring – the most exciting part of the whole thing is the first sentence).

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A patron asked us about a very unusual quotation the other day: apparently someone, sometime said that Thomas Jefferson was “…a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father…”; this was supposedly a comment made by Jefferson’s political opponents in the election of 1800. But who actually said this? One of my neighbors in grad school once gushed that librarians were “like wolverines, man! I mean, you ask them a question and they just WON’T LET GO until they answer it!” He wasn’t kidding. In hopes that somebody will find this enlightening, useful, or even just entertaining, here’s how I ran this particular question down and killed it.

  1. Checked contemporary full-text sources for pamphlets, newspaper articles, etc. that might have contained such a claim: Early American Imprints I (nothing); Early American Imprints II (zippo); America’s Historical Newspapers (nichts); 19th Century American Newspapers (dud); American Broadsides and Ephemera (whole lot of nothing). (I searched for both of the phrases, “half-breed Indian squaw” and “virginia mulatto father” in each database.)
  2. Searched for the entire phrase on Google. It’s all over the Internet, of course, uncited. No help there. I narrowed the search down to Google Books, only, and found the quotation used in a small selection of secondary sources on dirty election campaigns. Some of them even have footnotes, but Google won’t show them to me. Curses.
  3. I started searching for only portions of the entire quotation. This yielded slightly different results. One of them was a book that Google only showed me part of (and it was the wrong part, even), but this isn’t the Jefferson Library for nothing! We have the book in the stacks. It mentions this quotation appearing in something called the Jonnycake Papers. Hmmm.
  4. I googled “Jonnycake Papers” and found nothing useful. Just to cover all the angles, I googled “Johnnycake Papers” too, and got lots of sites chastising people for spelling “Jonnycake Papers” wrong. Okay then. I searched for these fabled “Jonnycake Papers” on WorldCat and found NOTHING.
  5. I sat around for a day or so thinking about this.
  6. I googled another portion of the original quotation in question, just to see what came up. Lo, I got “The Jonny-Cake Papers” on Google Books! (Silly hyphen!) These Jonny-Cake Papers are so old (1915) that Google showed me the whole thing, and there on page 232 was my reference. I still have no clue what it is, though.
  7. I turned my attention to finding out more about the Jonny-Cake Papers, and right off the bat found an article on JSTOR from the Journal of American Folklore from 1945 all about the Jonny-Cake Papers. (I LOVE the Internet sometimes!) It turns out the J-CP’s were a rambling collection of local oral history and tall tales from Narragansett, Rhode Island. Back to our original question, the narrator seems to be recalling (not to say hyperbolizing) the election campaign of 1800. Since it seems highly unlikely to me that the narrator could be recalling, verbatim, a printed comment about Thomas Jefferson, I’m fairly convinced that this is the source of our quotation.
  8. Just for fun, I looked for the quotation again on the Internet to see where it’s appearing. Unfortunately it seems some sites are taking it as legitimate information about Thomas Jefferson’s parentage. Oh dear.

My attempt to set everybody straight is on our encyclopedia here.

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