Posts Tagged ‘spurious quotations’

True Story:

In 1820-something, John Adlum, one of America’s first wine geeks and sometime correspondent of our TJ’s, writes to his friend Nicholas Longworth, “In bringing this grape [by which he meant the Catawba] into public notice, I have rendered my country a greater service, than I would have done, had I paid the national debt.”  Twenty years later, in corresponding with one C.W. Elliott, Longworth repeats Adlum’s comment.  Elliott publishes his correspondence with Longworth – including Adlum’s comment – in The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.  The comment is also subsequently published in all sorts of fora, including Patent Office documents, wine encyclopedia, and other journals.

Fast-forward to 2009: every single wine website on the planet is trumpeting the quote, “By making this wine vine known to the public, I have rendered my country as great a service as if I had enabled it to pay back the national debt…”  – Thomas Jefferson

How did this come to be attached to Jefferson?  As I said, he did correspond with Adlum, and on the subject of wine.  Perhaps someone saw the statement out of its original context and assumed it appeared somewhere in Adlum’s letters to Jefferson – a not-unreasonable assumption, actually.  It’s only a short leap from there to attaching the statement to Jefferson himself.  Generally speaking, I suspect that the obscure and feeble chain of this quote’s true genealogy was no match for the gravitational pull of Planet Jefferson.


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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.

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Most quotations we’re asked about sound nothing like Thomas Jefferson, but since I can’t pin down their true source, they sort of hang frustratingly out there in Quotation Limbo.  So it gives me great satisfaction to be able to actually run one to ground once in a while.  I just laid this one to rest:

“My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”

This displays a phenomenon which I’ve noticed before, in which somehow someone commenting on Jefferson is mistaken for Jefferson himself – this seems an eggregious bit of sloppiness to me, but I guess sometimes people can’t be bothered to notice what they’re actually reading, they just like the words and they like the name Jefferson.

Anyway, this was in fact Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi (1854-1932), in a speech given at Columbia University in 1912.  I have, of course, noted this in the TJ Encyclopedia.

On a related note, I spotted someone fighting the injustice of spurious TJ quotations using the Encyclopedia…it almost brings a tear to my eye!

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Well, it took me all day but I plowed through all of the Google Alerts I’ve gotten in the past week (even the weekend ones, that’s how dedicated I am), just as I said I would, and came up with the following numbers:

A total of 22 websites quoted TJ in some form or fashion.  (Mind you, the Alert catches only new material cropping up on the Web, not material that’s already there.)  The total quotes used came to 85, 35 of which were spurious.  So if you choose to take my sampling as representative – and I’ll admit we’re being horribly unscientific here – 41% of the time, when people out there drop the name “Thomas Jefferson,” they are not actually quoting him at all, or are quoting him in such a mangled fashion that you couldn’t in all honesty call it a Jefferson quotation.

What’s more, that plaguey list of 10 quotations is having a rather alarming effect out there in WebberWorld: of the 22 websites, 5 were repeating that list of 10 supposed TJ quotes verbatim or nearly so.  Some repeated single quotes from that list (especially that bothersome Private Banks one), but I didn’t even start to count those.  I was too sick with the horror of it all.

But, it wasn’t all depressing misquotations!  I found some very entertaining and sometimes touching stuff in my little experiment as well, including:

So there you have it.  TJ is alive and well on the Internet, being analyzed, loved, quoted, admired, hated, misquoted, used as a role-playing persona, quoted, trounced, represented by plastic figurines and forced to do battle with other plastic figurines, and misquoted some more!  What a fascinating world the Web is…

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A few days ago I set up a Google Alert to let me know when any new material appeared on the Internet (or technically speaking, in Google’s index of the Internet) with the phrase “Thomas Jefferson.” Amidst all the reportage of Thomas Jefferson High School’s basketball triumph over West Diddlyfunk and so forth, in each day’s update is a huge preponderance of blogs, columns and news articles that quote Jefferson. A good portion of them are not actually Jefferson quotations, and from my brief look at all these sites it looks like the website or chain email – I haven’t determined which – that was the subject of my Epic 10-Part Reference Question is responsible for a lot of it.  What an unjust universe in which that thing is more popular than our meticulously-researched encyclopedia compilation!

So, just out of curiosity, I’ve decided to do a little experiment.  For the next week, I’m going to look at all the TJ-quotation included in my Google Alert, and see what percentage of it is wrong.  Meet me back here next Friday for the results…

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I know: again with the quotations!  We are experiencing a strange swell in quotation questions, however, so it’s pretty much all I have to talk about these days.  There’s one in particular that is bugging me, so I thought I’d throw it out to our 6 loyal readers in case there’s a chance others can help crack this one.

“Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic. But will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the path of destruction.” (Some sites have the last part as “the surest way to destruction.”)

What is so aggravating about this quotation?   It looked so innocuous, but my investigation of this quotation has become a Moby-Dick-esque chase around the Internet.  This quote just might do me in, too.

Very often, we can tell immediately whether a quotation is a real Jefferson original or not, simply by the style of writing.  Thomas Jefferson’s actual writing style is much more elegant and subtle than most pretender quotations out there. This one, unfortunately, doesn’t display a crudeness of style that would help me to rule it out.  But neither this quotation, nor any parts thereof, appear in any of the Jefferson writings collections that we can search. (That includes the Ford edition (1892), Lipscomb-Bergh edition (1903-7), and the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, which draws largely on Ford and the mid-nineteenth-century H.A.Washington edition of Jefferson’s writings.) Nearly all “famous” Jefferson quotations come from these sources, because they are the ones that people can most easily access.

If we assume, based on the above, that Jefferson never wrote this, then someone else must have.  It’s not impossible that another Founding Father-ey type wrote this, and it was somehow mistakenly attributed to Jefferson; it’s happened before.  But I cannot find one single website that attributes this quotation to anyone other than Jefferson.  If it was really Benjamin Franklin, for example, somebody out on the Internet would surely have said so.
If it’s not Jefferson, and not another of his contemporaries, some modern source must have fabricated this quotation and attributed it to Jefferson.  But neither can I come up with a likely “ground zero” for such a thing.  There are books using this quotation and pinning it on Jefferson back to at least 1960, but none of these texts seem likely to be responsible for such a massive, widespread belief that Jefferson wrote this.  (I notice that Ron Paul and Chuck Norris like this quotation very much, however, which could certainly be responsible for a recent rise in popularity.)

And just to make things interesting, I discovered this yesterday:  Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire uses two of the significant phrases from this quote: “…it was artfully contrived by Augustus that, in the enjoyment of plenty, the Romans should lose the memory of freedom.”  Jefferson did own this work, but that is hardly proof of anything.  It does seem likely, however, that whoever originated this quotation was familiar with this passage in Gibbon.

So we are left with a frustratingly inconclusive situation.  I judge it relatively unlikely that Jefferson actually wrote this passage, given its absence from major print sources of Jefferson’s works, coupled with the complete lack of a citation on any of the hundreds of websites that use it.  But neither do I have any evidence of an alternate source for the quotation, or a plausible theory of how it came to be attached to Jefferson.  I’ve put my findings, such as they are, up in the TJ Encyclopedia.

So for now, I suppose I will just have to wait for Google to digitize some more books, and try again in 6 months or so.  Go, Google, go!

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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.

  1. “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).
  2. “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…
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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.
  6. “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” This is from Jefferson’s draft of the Virginia Constitution.
  7. “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!
  8. “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.
  9. “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.
  10. “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.

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