|The Breed's Hill Gazette May 2009|
MISQUOTING THE FOUNDERS
By Dan Shippey & Michael Burns
The aspiring politician stood at the microphone with a receptive crowd standing attentively before her. She launched into her speech with energy and passion, making her points and picking up steam. Then it happened--she reached for the one foolproof tool that all politicians wield at some point, a quote from a Founding Father.
“Thomas Jefferson said, ‘All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.’ But we are here today doing something.”
The crowd applauded, obviously excited by the familiar quote and the idea that they were following in the spirit of a great American thinker and leader. The only problem with this scene that has been repeated many times across the country is that Thomas Jefferson never said that, never wrote that, and quite possibly never thought it.
Our aspiring politician had fallen victim to the perils of popular misattribution. You could fill a book with misquotes and misattributed quotes we hear repeated regularly today. Right now if I Google “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent” the entire first page of results wrongly attribute it to Thomas Jefferson. The quote and its many variants have been attributed in the past to Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, but no record exists of the quote in any of their writings or contemporary accounts.
In its most recent use, the quote was being held up as an argument against the ever expanding size and power of the government, accusing the Obama administration of infringements on the Constitution and Bill of Rights. A short while ago other politicians and citizens used it in protest against the Bush administration regarding the Patriot Act and their infringements on the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Apparently it isn’t easy for either side of this argument to see that tyranny might just exist on both sides.
Who suffers for misquotes used as political attacks? We all do. Both sides in our ongoing political debate seem to recognize the value of the Founding philosophy and wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, but when we attack with a misquote we don’t actually get that wisdom or understanding. If we take the time to read his actual words however, we find ideas that are sometimes exciting, sometimes challenging, and often empowering.
I’ve included some of his actual
quotes (with notation on where they can be found) below. I have
chosen quotes that seem close to or relevant to the incorrect quote
that kicked off our article. These quotes are guaranteed for
political rallies, signs, t-shirts and even for keeping
In questions of powers, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson Kentucky Resolutions 1798 (This was written to oppose the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition acts)
"When wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality." -Thomas Jefferson to Madame de Stael, 1807.
"If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions." -- Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787
"On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed." -Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823
"I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive." -- Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 12/20/1787