Cameron McWhirter: To Quote Thomas Jefferson, ‘I Never Actually Said That’Posted: June 12, 2015
Librarian Tracks Sayings Misattributed to Founding Father; ‘A Fine Spiced Pickle’
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 become 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.
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 bad government is.” But she can’t find that exact quotation in any of his writings.
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)
Write to Cameron McWhirter at firstname.lastname@example.org
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