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Misquoting the Founding Fathers

An interesting article in the Washington Post talks about the increase in misquotes of the founding fathers, and blames it on the internet, where incorrect information is repeated so much that even politicians think it is true. Here are a few examples:

“Thomas Jefferson wrote that government is best that governs least.” – Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) in his victory speech on the night he was elected. Jefferson never said that, Henry David Thoreau did.

“Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” – Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) claiming to quote George Washington, even though Washington never said those words.

“As Jefferson said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” – Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC). At least Foxx has the excuse that this quote has been misattributed to Jefferson since 1838. And a virtually identical statement was attributed to Jefferson by Congressman Marlin Stutzman (R-IN).

“President George Washington said that the right to keep and bear arms is ‘the most effectual means of preserving peace'”. – Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT). But Washington actually saidTo be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”

“The democracy will cease to exist, when you take away from those who are willing to work to give to those who would not.” – Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), claiming to be quoting Jefferson. Except those words were never said by Jefferson, and in fact were first uttered in 1986.

While not a quote, Sarah Palin also got into the act by claiming that Paul Revere warned the British that they couldn’t take away the guns of the colonists.

And then there was Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) giving a speech where she claimed that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place in New Hampshire.

Getting it wrong is not exclusive to Republicans. Even Obama gets it wrong. At least twice he has quoted the Declaration of Independence, saying “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that each of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But the document actually says “that they are endowed by their Creator“.

While misquoting the founders seems to be increasing, it has a very long tradition. During George Washington’s second term as president, his political enemies circulated letters that expressed admiration for England’s King George III (an enemy) claiming they were from Washington. However, the letters had been faked.


© Stuart Carlson



  1. Bard wrote:

    you can blame the internet, but I don’t think they are trying too hard to make sure they get the right quote. As long as they can find quotes that match their ideology, they are fine.

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  2. Sammy wrote:

    Why do you think Snopes exists?

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  3. starluna wrote:

    In fairness, everyone tries to find quotes that support their ideology. To misquote something that is constantly misquoted I think can be forgivable. To intentionally make up a quote and ascribe it to something is simply lying. What’s hard is to know when someone is unintentionally or intentionally misquoting.

    Bachmann’s and Palin’s gaffe’s are something altogether different, though. I believe what they are saying could rightly be called bullshit. They don’t even care whether what they are saying is true.

    My husband once got me a book titled “They Never Said It.” Lots of fun. Highly recommended for the bathroom.

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  4. Bard wrote:

    A witty saying proves nothing.

    Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 3:10 am | Permalink
  5. Don wrote:

    I always like to look to Mr. Twain for insight into matters such as this.

    The following seems to be apt: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

    Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  6. il-08 wrote:

    Voltaire never said that!

    Friday, June 10, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  7. Iron Knee wrote:

    You guys crack me up.

    Friday, June 10, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Friday, June 10, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  9. David wrote:

    Everyone who is really interested in the lives and achievements of the Founding fathers will read serious books about them. So there is no need to accuse the Internet of such misinterpretations.

    Saturday, June 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink