February 27, 2013

Jefferson Said What? ~ Neil Alexander

People who think they are quoting Thomas Jefferson are far too often deceived.

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity”

~ Abraham Lincoln

Reading through the recent posts of an online political forum, I noted where one of the participants asserted: “Schools should teach real history.” He then followed this statement with a completely contrived Thomas Jefferson “quote.”

Since the December 14th Newtown school shootings, the internet has once again been flooded with a host of such quotes, often alleged to have come from one or another of the founding fathers, and which conveniently support current popular interpretations of the second amendment. Certainly one can’t help but wonder what such historical figures as Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Franklin would have thought about the tragedy.

The only problem with the quotes being freely passed around is that too many have the same singular distinguishing trait: They are wholly fictitious.

Apocryphal quotes misattributed to the founders have been used as supportive commentary to the arguments surrounding all sorts of contemporary issues, the role of the second amendment no less and often more so than others.

Thomas Jefferson may be the most misquoted man on the internet. The many statements misattributed to him range from the plainly false to the patently fantastic. A number of these have been debunked by such sites as Snopes.com and UrbanLegends.about.com.

On the issue of Jefferson, I generally defer to Monticello.org. They are a site without an agenda beyond that of promoting Monticello VA, the location of Jefferson’s principal residence from 1770 until his death there in 1826, and with portraying an accurate representation of our third president.

Here is a ubiquitous Jefferson quote on the internet commonly used to justify widespread gun ownership:

“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.”

Jefferson never said it.

According to Monticello.org this quote first appeared in 1914 and was subsequently attributed to Jefferson much later, in the 1990s.

Statements of this sort depend on what is often called “The Insurrectionary Theory of the Second Amendment,” which represents the second amendment as having been put in place to protect us from our own government.

However that theory doesn’t make sense on several grounds. In brief, anyone who believes that the constitution gives its citizens the right to rebel against their own government needs to go back to that same document and reread Article III, Section 3, Clause 1, which defines treason and gives Congress the power to declare punishment. You don’t criminalize a behavior in one part of the constitution and then enthusiastically endorse it in another.

More to the point, the overriding concern for the drafters of the constitution was in the survival of their newly born nation, not in providing for its eventual destruction. This fraudulent quote is merely another example of countless efforts to superimpose 21st century concerns on 18th century concepts.

Another popular alleged Jefferson quote being circulated:

“You will not need the second amendment until they try to take it away.”

Seems to be perfectly clear, succinct and to the point. However, it’s not in any of Jefferson’s speeches or writing, including his many letters. Monticello.org can’t find it appearing anywhere at all until 2007.

Here is a small sampling of the many false quotes attributed to Jefferson, which all too conveniently address contemporary controversies:

“Government that is big enough to give everything you need and want is also strong enough to take it away.”

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”

“Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.”


And so on. Not a single one of these reportedly Jefferson quotes is legitimate, nor did they originate with any of the other figures of his time. And yet I have seen people happily declare themselves to be “Jeffersonians” on the basis of their enchantment with a manufactured quote that they came across on the internet and never questioned, never verified.

A long list of false quotes misattributed to Jefferson can be found at Monticello.com.

We really have no way of conceiving what Jefferson or any of the several other frequently misquoted founding fathers would have to say about the Newtown school shootings. We can justifiably assume they would be horrified. Would they call for more firearms in our increasingly gun soaked society, would they believe that you can prevent a pot from boiling over by adding more hot water? We will never know.

Revisionism is no way to deal with history. You don’t honor the founders by planting falsehoods in the mouths of dead men.

Because I agree: “Schools should teach real history.” And so should the rest of us.


 Neil Alexander is a professional magician, a Tai Chi enthusiast and occasional Tai Chi instructor, and the owner of the Online Ginseng Store. A former nightclub comic who spent years on the road, he currently resides in his hometown of NYC, and has lived on both coasts and several points in between. An unabashed practitioner of the art of alliteration and its resultant mix of prose and poetry, he is on an endless quest to uncover the perfect word—the philosopher’s stone of writers. In the meantime he is willing to accept all reasonable substitutions.


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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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