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Friday, April 4, 2014

West's Familiar Misquotations

Many posts have discussed spurious quotations. The Palm Beach Post reports:
Former Rep. Allen West outlines his political philosophy, warrior code and experiences as a black conservative in a new book that’s peppered with quotations attributed to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other famous figures.
Several of the quotes in West’s “Guardian of the Republic” — including one that’s also been used by President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain — have a familiar ring from frequent repetition, but have been flagged by historians as erroneous.
Thomas Jefferson said it first: ‘A government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take it away,’” West writes.
The quotation doesn’t appear in Jefferson’s writings, according to researchers at the Charlottesville, Va.-based Thomas Jefferson Foundation. But variations of it have appeared on coffee mugs and T-shirts with Jefferson’s name and have ricocheted around the Internet enough that the foundation included it in a “Spurious Quotations” list of popular sayings misattributed to the Declaration of Independence drafter and third president.
Obama (as a senator in 2005) and McCain (as a 2008 presidential candidate) are among those who have quoted George Washington as saying that “the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.”
West includes that quote in his book. But the words aren’t Washington’s, according to Mary V. Thompson, a research historian with the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.
West’s book quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French observer of America, as saying democracy “can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result being that a democracy collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”
Tocqueville did see danger in big government, but the quote in West’s book “certainly” is spurious, said Harvard historian Harvey Mansfield, who translated a 2000 edition of Tocqueville’s seminal “Democracy In America.”
During the 1996 campaign, H. Ross Perot attributed the line to Scottish historian Alexander Tytler.  But as I wrote at the time, Tytler didn't say it, either.