Did he really say that? Historical figures get hijacked through misquotes

“The problem with Internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy.”

 

– Abraham Lincoln, 1864.

 

See? Like that one.

Modern communication has made it easier than ever to put words in the mouths of famous dead folks. About once a month or so, I come across a letter to the editor in which the writer quotes a historic figure – Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, usually. Here’s one I’ve gotten a few times, attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

 

“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.”

I like the sentiment. Only Jefferson never said it.

It happens a lot. It happens so much, apparently, that the website for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has a page devoted to “spurious quotations.”

It’s obvious why people do it. People who mount their electronic soapboxes on the Internet find it appealing to tweak history to suit their modern agendas.

Here’s another example I came across the other day. It’s been making the rounds on Facebook. It’s a picture of Sir Winston Churchill. The accompanying caption tells the story of how the legendary British prime minister was approached during World War II with the idea of cutting government funding for the arts to better finance the war effort.

His response? “Then what are we fighting for?”

I like the sentiment. Only Churchill never said it.

That’s not to say he didn’t mean it. Here’s an authentic Churchill quote, when he addressed the Royal Society in 1938: “The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The state owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them. ... Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

 

OF COURSE THE real quote doesn’t have that 21st-century snappiness we’re accustomed to seeing in a Twitter post or a Facebook
status update. So quotes get retrofitted into a dead politician’s mouth.

There’s a long George Washington quote that’s been floating around for years, called the “liberty teeth” quote for short, that supposedly comes from the first U.S. president’s address to the second session of the first Congress. The remarks mount a good defense against gun-control arguments.

A bit too good, it turns out. It’s chock-full of anachronisms. And nowhere in Washington’s papers can the quote be found. Yet the quote made its way into an article titled “Once and for All: What the Founding Fathers Said About Guns,” in the December 1995 edition of Playboy magazine. (Presumably, Playboy’s editors don’t read the magazine for the articles, either. It had to publish a lengthy correction.)

I can understand people getting taken in by certain misquotes. They can be so clever and so appropriate to the argument you’re trying to make that you want them to be true.

 

BUT WHENEVER I come across one in someone’s letter to the editor, I dutifully fix it or take it out. Then the writer can rely on his or her own words to make their point, even if it’s a point I don’t agree with.

It’s just like Voltaire said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Only Voltaire never said it. It’s from a 1906 book called The Friends of Voltaire, written under a pseudonym by British writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

And you can quote me on that.

 

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