Cameron McWhirter: To Quote Thomas Jefferson, ‘I Never Actually Said That’

Jefferson-Memorial-998x665

Librarian Tracks Sayings Misattributed to Founding Father; ‘A Fine Spiced Pickle’

Cameron McWhirter writes: Thomas Jefferson once famously wrote, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”

[Also see Aldous Huxley and the Mendacious Memes of the Internet Age at National Review Online, by Charles C.W. Cooke]

Or did he? Numerous social movements attribute the quote to him. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to U.S. Government and Politics” cites it in a discussion of American democracy. Actor Chuck Norris‘s 2010 treatise “Black Belt Patriotism: How to Reawaken America” uses it to urge conservatives to OB-VP466_BADQUO_BV_20121207000400become more involved in politics. It is even on T-shirts and decals.

“On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.”

–Never said by Thomas Jefferson

Yet the founding father and third U.S. president never wrote it or said it, insists Anna Berkes, a 33-year-old research librarian at the Jefferson Library at Monticello, his grand estate just outside Charlottesville, Va. Nor does he have any connection to many of the “Jeffersonian” quotes that politicians on both sides of the aisle have slung back and forth in recent years, she says.

“Winston Churchill had so many sayings misattributed to him that one academic gave the phenomenon a name: ‘Churchillian drift.'”

“People will see a quote and it appeals to an opinion that they have and if it has Jefferson’s name attached to it that gives it more weight,” she says. “He’s constantly being invoked by people when they are making arguments about politics and actually all sorts of topics.”

A spokeswoman for the Guide’s publisher said it was looking into the quote. Mr. Norris’s publicist didn’t respond to requests for comment.

jefferson memorial

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. A website lists bogus quotes attributed to the founding father. Bloomberg News

To counter what she calls rampant misattribution, Ms. Berkes is fighting the Internet with the Internet. She has set up a “Spurious Quotations” page on the Monticello website listing bogus quotes attributed to the founding father, a prolific writer and rhetorician who was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

“It’s a hopeless task. You would need an army of secretaries to reply to all these tweets. Twitter and Facebook have made it worse, because people glom onto these things and pass it on and there it goes.”

The fake quotes posted and dissected on Monticello.org include “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government has grown out of too much government.” In detailed footnotes, Ms. Berkes says it resembles a line Jefferson wrote in an 1807 letter: “History, in general, only informs us what 51BF9zMLqjL._SL250_bad government is.” But she can’t find that exact quotation in any of his writings.

[Check out Chuck’s bookBlack Belt Patriotism: How to Reawaken America” at Amazon.com]

Another that graces many epicurean websites: “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.”

Jefferson never said that either, says Ms. Berkes. The earliest reference to the quote comes from a 1922 speech by a man extolling the benefits of pickles, she says.

“People will see a quote and it appeals to an opinion that they have and if it has Jefferson’s name attached to it that gives it more weight. He’s constantly being invoked by people when they are making arguments about politics and actually all sorts of topics.”

Jefferson is a “flypaper figure,” like Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and baseball player and manager Yogi Berra—larger-than-life figures who have fake or misattributed quotes stick to them all the time, says Ralph Keyes, an author of books about quotes wrongly credited to famous or historical figures.

In 2010, President Barack Obama used a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln in a speech to Democratic lawmakers (“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have”). The remark quickly was outed by John Pitney Jr., a professor at Claremont McKenna College who tracks fake quotes attributed to Lincoln, Alexis de Tocqueville and others. Mr. Pitney says the remark isn’t found in any of Lincoln’s papers, speeches or known remarks….(read more)

WSJ

Write to Cameron McWhirter at cameron.mcwhirter@wsj.com

 



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.