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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Beware of Misquoting Thomas Jefferson


Beware of Misquoting Thomas Jefferson

In recent months an email quoting Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, has been forwarded multiple times by many well-meaning, sincerely patriotic Americans. However, this email is actually a mixture of false and true, spurious and authentic. See http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/chain-email-10-jefferson-quotations .

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., a private, nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation, is the present owner of Jefferson’s home, known as Monticello, as well as the holder of the copyright for all the content posted @  http://www.monticello.org/. This website is an excellent source of information on all things Jeffersonian.

Next time you are confronted with a “quotation” from Thomas Jefferson, it would be a good idea to fact-check @ http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/quotations to determine authenticity. If the quotation you wish to check has not already been posted and fact-checked, you can submit it on a form on this page.

Now, let’s run that frequently forwarded email through the fact-checker. The following quotes appear in red, and commentary in black. Each quote is marked by my own coding system:

P = authentic;
X = not found in any of Jefferson’s writings.

P- "When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe."
-- Thomas Jefferson


This is a variant of an authentic quotation from Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 12:442; Context: 1787 December 20. (To James Madison). "I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe."

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x"The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not."
-- Thomas Jefferson

This exact quotation has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. It bears a very vague resemblance to Jefferson's comment in a prospectus for his translation of Destutt de Tracy's Treatise on Political Economy: "To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association,“ ‘the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, & the fruits acquired by it.'" http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/democracy-will-cease-to-exist-quotation

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P"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."
-- Thomas Jefferson

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 its 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.

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x+"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."
-- Thomas Jefferson

This is a (slight) misquotation of "If we can but prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy." - Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, November 29, 1802, http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/wasting-labours-people-quotation

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x"My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government."
-- Thomas Jefferson

This exact quotation has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. It bears some slight resemblance to a statement he made in a letter to John Norvell of 14 June 1807, "History, in general, only informs us what bad government is." [Ford 9:72. Transcription available online. Polygraph copy at the Library of Congress.] However, the quotation as it appears above can definitely be attributed to John Sharp Williams in a speech about Jefferson, [Suzy Platt, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989), 147.] which has most likely been mistaken at some point for a direct quotation of Jefferson. http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/bad-government-results-too-much-government-quotation

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P"No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms."
--Thomas Jefferson

This sentence comes from Thomas Jefferson's three drafts of the Virginia Constitution. The text does vary slightly in each draft: First Draft: "No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms." Second Draft: "No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms [within his own lands or tenements]." Third Draft: "No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms [within his own lands or tenements] This sentence does not appear in the Virginia Constitution as adopted. Note: This sentence is often seen paired with the following: "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." That sentence does not appear in the Virginia Constitution drafts or text as adopted, nor in any other Jefferson writings that we know of. http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/no-freeman-shall-be-debarred-use-arms-quotation

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(P)"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."
-- Thomas Jefferson


This sometimes appears as "When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. 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." We have not found any evidence that Thomas Jefferson said or wrote, "When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny," or any of its listed variations.

One source attributes this quotation to Thomas Jefferson in The Federalist. The Federalist, however, was the work of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison; it also does not contain the text of this quotation. This quotation is vaguely similar to Jefferson's comment in an 1825 letter to William Short: "Some are whigs, liberals, democrats, call them what you please. Others are tories, serviles, aristocrats, &c. The latter fear the people, and wish to transfer all power to the higher classes of society; the former consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent." To date however, the most likely source of this quotation appears to be a series of debates on socialism published in 1914, in which John Basil Barnhill said, "Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty." http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/when-governments-fear-people-there-libertyquotation
* * *

P"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
-- Thomas Jefferson

This one is authentic, occurring in the following context: "I do not know whether it is to yourself or Mr. Adams I am to give my thanks for the copy of the new constitution. I beg leave through you to place them where due. It will be yet three weeks before I shall receive them from America. There are very good articles in it: and very bad. I do not know which preponderate. What we have lately read in the history of Holland, in the chapter on the Stadtholder, would have sufficed to set me against a Chief magistrate eligible for a long duration, if I had ever been disposed towards one: and what we have always read of the elections of Polish kings should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life. Wonderful is the effect of impudent and persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, and what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusets? And can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it's motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independant 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusets: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order. I hope in god this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted." - Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Paris, 13 Nov. 1787, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 12:356-7 http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/tree-liberty-quotation

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P"To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."
-- Thomas Jefferson


This one is an authentic quotation, from his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/virginia-statute-religious-freedom.

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Thomas Jefferson said in 1802:
"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 quotation is at least partly spurious, often cited as being in an 1802 letter to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, and/or "later published in The Debate Over the Recharter of the Bank Bill [1809]."

x The first part of the quotation ["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 them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered"] has not been found anywhere in Thomas Jefferson's writings, to Albert Gallatin or otherwise. It is identified in Respectfully Quoted as spurious, and the editor further points out that the words "inflation" and "deflation" are not documented until after Jefferson's lifetime.

P- The second part of the quotation ["I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies..."] may well be a paraphrase of a statement Jefferson made in a letter to John Taylor in 1816. He wrote, "And I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” [Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, Monticello, 28 May 1816. Ford 11:533]

x+ The third part of this quotation ["The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs"] may be a misquotation of Jefferson's comment to John Wayles Eppes, "Bank-paper must be suppressed, and the circulating medium must be restored to the nation to whom it belongs." [Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, Monticello, 24 June 1813. Ford 11:303.]

x Lastly, we have not found a record of any publication called The Debate Over the Recharter of the Bank Bill. There was certainly debate over the recharter of the National Bank leading up to its expiration in 1811, but a search of Congressional documents of that period yields none of the verbiage discussed above. http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/private-banks-quotation).
* * *
My extensive academic experience consistently shouts to me, “Verify by citing credible sources!” When I fail to do this, I frequently find myself eating humble pie. I sincerely wish that my well-meaning friends and kinfolks would be more careful when forwarding emails.

Cheryl J. Rutledge, Ph.D.
Musician, Educator, Editor
www.AcademicEnglishEditing-DrRutledge.com

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