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Friday, December 7, 2012

Fake Jefferson Quotations

Previous posts have discussed fake quotations from Lincoln, Tocqueville, and Jefferson, among others.  At The Wall Street Journal, Cameron McWhirter writes about fake Jefferson:
Thomas Jefferson once famously wrote, "All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent."

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.
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.
The piece offers a guide,  "How to Spot a Fake Jefferson Quote."
Tips from Anna Berkes, a research librarian at the Jefferson Library at Monticello
  • Word Contractions: Jefferson almost never used them. 
  • "You" as an indefinite pronoun: He rarely used the second person singular unless he was addressing someone directly. 
  • Modern language: Quotes about American gumption or industriousness, presenting a "pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps" sentiment, are unlikely to have come from Jefferson. He was a wealthy planter in what was then a largely non-urban country. 
  • Pithy aphorisms: "The ability to encapsulate his entire philosophy on a topic in one sentence was not among Jefferson's many talents," according to Ms. Berkes. 
  • No citation: If there is no citation for a primary document, that is a red flag. 
  • Only appears in modern publications: "If you search further for the quotation on Google Books ... and the only place you find it is in business and self-help books, it's almost certain doom," according to Ms. Berkes
Several of these tips apply more broadly.  The "modern language" item provided an instant way to spot a fake Lincoln quotation:  the Great Emancipator could not have said that corporations had "hijacked" democracy because the word did not exist in his lifetime.