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.

Comments (13) Add comment
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Riverman1
90771
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Riverman1 06/01/14 - 06:29 am
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0
Been Around for Awhile

Yeah, George Washington never cut down the cherry tree either. These exaggerations in various forms have been going on long before the Internet.

Little Lamb
48011
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Little Lamb 06/01/14 - 08:13 am
1
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Government Coercion

I have posted the following quote in the Chronicle forums many times, and I attribute it to George Washington:

Government is not reason, it is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it can be a faithful servant, or a fearful master.

Of course, the emphasis (italic) is mine, not Washington’s. And some readings of the quote use the word troublesome in place of faithful. I like faithful because of the alliteration; but since Washington had experience in owning slaves, it is likely that he indeed did use the word troublesome (if he ever actually made the statement at all).

myfather15
55844
Points
myfather15 06/01/14 - 08:29 am
2
1
So, are you going to start

So, are you going to start removing everything people from the LEFT say; which they can't substantiate?

Just curious, because it appears this letter is only aimed at those who support the 2nd Amendment!!

Darby
28400
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Darby 06/01/14 - 11:15 am
3
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"I like the sentiment. Only Jefferson never said it."

Don't you mean that you can't find documentation that he said it? How can you be certain that he didn't?

You can't!

You weren't there, were you?

A caveat from the writer might be nice.

Darby
28400
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Darby 06/01/14 - 11:15 am
5
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We don't know what Lincoln said at Gettysburg either.

There are at least five handwritten versions of the speech he gave that day. All of them slightly different. We don't really know his actual, verbatim presentation. (Maybe MSNBC has the video.)

Let's not become too presumptuous.

Somebody needs to get a hold of Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine before we state conclusively what some historical figure said or didn't say.

Gage Creed
18920
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Gage Creed 06/01/14 - 02:28 pm
2
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Not a quote from John Wayne...

Life is Tough, and it's even tougher if you're stupid.

RunAmok
10
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RunAmok 06/01/14 - 08:11 pm
2
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"Proving" a negative...

...is nearly impossible, but when one is able to find a first appearance of a quote that's not contemporary to the alleged speaker/writer, it's not unreasonable to suspect that a quote is fabricated. From Wikiquotes: "Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action."
Attributed to "The First President of the United States" in "Liberty and Government" by W. M., in The Christian Science Journal, Vol. XX, No. 8 (November 1902) edited by Mary Baker Eddy, p. 465; no earlier or original source for this statement is cited; later quoted in The Cry for Justice : An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest (1915) edited by Upton Sinclair, p. 305, from which it became far more widely quoted and in Frank J. Wilstach, A Dictionary of Similes, 2d ed., p. 526 (1924). In The Great Thoughts (1985), George Seldes says, p. 441, col. 2, footnote, this paragraph “although credited to the ‘Farewell’ [address] cannot be found in it. Lawson Hamblin, who owns a facsimile, and Horace Peck, America’s foremost authority on quotations, informed me this paragraph is apocryphal.” This can be found with minor variations in wording and in punctuation, and with “fearful” for “troublesome,” in George Seldes's book, p. 727 (1966).

Little Lamb
48011
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Little Lamb 06/01/14 - 08:38 pm
1
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Who?

Who the heck is "W.M." cited above by RunAmok?

And who is so bold as to attest that "W.M." is the "first appearance" of the fearful master quotation?

RunAmok
10
Points
RunAmok 06/01/14 - 09:11 pm
0
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W.M.

That's the listed author of the essay cited above. A facsimile of that issue of the Christian Science Journal is available here - scroll down to read for yourself: http://books.google.com/books?id=MQorAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA456-IA3&lpg=PA456-IA3...

Little Lamb
48011
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Little Lamb 06/01/14 - 10:25 pm
0
0
Thank you

Thank you, RunAmok, for that link. I read the entire article. You assert that the 1902 Christian Science Journal is the "first appearance" of George Washington's quotation. But what we really see is the earliest quotation you found in your Google search. There might really be a manuscript out there that is older than 1902. But, then again, there really might not.

thauch12
6982
Points
thauch12 06/01/14 - 11:21 pm
1
1
Beware

My favorite is the armchair theologians who love to quote the Bible and offer some sort of interpretation on it as if they had coffee with Jesus the day before after defending their doctoral thesis on classical Greek language. Faith is a beautiful thing, but one can twist anything (including the Bible) to suit an agenda...

Young Fred
19459
Points
Young Fred 06/02/14 - 02:02 am
2
1
Here's one

Obama and Putin:

Obama: I think you need to stop, I'm trying to help my boys in the dem party, if you keep flexing, I'll have a hard time.

Putin: "Flexing"? I'm just doing what I've been born to do for Mother Russia!

Obama: OH! OK! Just let me give a heads up to CNN, and the rest.

Putin: Don't much care what you do, what I do is destiny!

Obama: Destiny? I've got the media in my pocket, "destiny" will be what I tell them.

Putin: I prefer to write my own destiny!

Obama: well, I have the AP, UPI, NYTimes, CNN, and the OPARAH, behind me (said with a self satisfied smirk)

Putin: ?! You will wish you'd took advantage of your resources!

Obama: Resources? Bring it! I've got the biggest, baddest, bureaucratic,nightmare you've ever seen - if you don't believe me just ask my citizens (chattel).

Putin: You tire me. I'll do whatever I wish to do, wherever I wish to do it!

Obama: uuu'm, ok, just give me a heads up for my peeps at the nytimes.

Putin: screw you!!!

Obama: I'm sorry...

RunAmok
10
Points
RunAmok 06/03/14 - 02:47 pm
0
0
Again, you're asking to prove a negative

However, IF a quote is actually attributable to a major historical figure, whose words were widely recorded during his lifetime and assiduously preserved by his contemporaries, why would the first evidence of that quote come along a century after the death of the alleged speaker?

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