A Fake Jefferson Quote

I'm finding it rather amusing that so many blogs, particularly of the conservative variety, are making a huge deal out of Mark Steyn's article in the Chicago Sun-Times about a fake Jefferson quote. The quote, which we've all heard attributed to Jefferson repeatedly, goes like this:

"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

Steyn makes sure to point out that John Kerry, Ted Kennedy and Nadine Strossen of the ACLU have all used that quote, and he points out that, according to the Jefferson library, the quote is a fake. Fair enough, I'm all for historical accuracy and always happy to see fake quotes called fake quotes. But in this case, at least, the quote is probably considered accurate by those who've passed it on without checking it first because it really is the sort of thing that Jefferson would have said. Remember, this is the same man who said that the tree of liberty must be nourished with the blood of tyrants and patriots.

I just wonder where these folks are when those on the right constantly, repeatedly pass on a list of fake quotes from the founding fathers about religion. I've never heard a peep from them about quotes that are far more obviously fake and that are passed around and cited literally thousands of times. A google search for the famous Patrick Henry fake quote gets over 26,000 hits. The fake James Madison "ten commandments" quote gets almost 10,000 hits. They are repeated by politicians and pundits constantly. So if we're going to fight against historical revisionism, let's do it consistently.

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Just this morning I heard someone on the radio recite a quote supposedly from Lincoln: "I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." It seems, however, to be the work of Williams Adams. The line is embedded in a more extensive quote from Adams at quoteworld.com.

Another bogus Lincoln quote has him talking about wanting to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the moment he was shot. Very dramatic as recounted by D. James Kennedy, the Presbyterian minister who specializes in right-wing politics and anti-evolution activism. He managed to lump both of these together while bearing false witness against Sir Julian Huxley. According to Kennedy, Huxley embraced evolution in order to have sex without guilt.

Kennedy seems to be projecting: Who is the one who doesn't care if it's wrong, so long as it feels right?

It's a real quotation, it apparently is erroneously attributed to Jefferson. Jim Lindgren at Volohk.com had a post this morning in which he gives what he believes is the probable correct attribution. He attributes it to Dorothy Hewitt Hutchinson. Of course, she's dead now, so it would be impossible to ask her whether she got it from someone else.

Yes, it was Lindgren's post that prompted this post, though he was about the 10th blogger I'd seen mention Steyn's column. It was a very odd post from Lindgren. He implied that Hutchinson was hypocritical for saying that dissent is the highest form of patriotism while not allowing the dissent of others to convince her that she was wrong. That's just plain weird reasoning.

Well, since Ed is drawing some comparisons about the use of made up quotes on the right as opposed to on the left [broadly speaking], it occured to me that what will really be interesting now is how the phoney TJ quote fares down the line on the left. Will Democratic Congressmen and women continue to cite it? Will it's life as a Lefty Quote go on unimpeded or will it sink to occasional use by the desperate undergraduate and high school student with a term paper due? Of course, we know the exposure of the the whole gaggle of phoney founders-and-religion quotes so beloved of the Christian Right as frauds has apparently not impeded their use in the least. Will be interesting to see how things work out for the TJ phone quote on the Left.

By flatlander100 (not verified) on 02 May 2006 #permalink

Suppose it were discovered that Einstein didn't really say "e=mc2"? Would it not still be true?

It seems clear that this nation was founded on the voices of dissent. This would imply that, regardless of who said it, the quote has merit that stands on its own seven words.

As a side note, I'm in no way implying that Einstein did or did not say anything, it was just the first example that came to mind.

cfeagans: The core problem with the fake quote is that dissent for its own sake is destructive political squabbling. The character of dissent is what distinguishes good democracy and productive participation from anarchy. The public today is so easily captured by soundbites that a misleading soundbite attributed to a great thinker can do huge damage to the quality of public discourse.

By Michael Poole (not verified) on 02 May 2006 #permalink

Michael-

I don't think that's a core problem with the quote. Surely no one would assume that Jefferson, had he said it, could have meant that all dissent, no matter how frivolous or absurd, is the highest form of patriotism. Surely he would not have said that the mere act of dissent, even if the position being taken was morally or factually unjustified is a good thing. If someone screamed "I dissent. 2 + 2 is not four, so this budget bill is all wrong", surely no one would say that this pointless dissent amounts to patriotism. He would no doubt have been speaking of principled dissent, of men standing up to the consensus or to the whims of his government when those actions violated a set of principles. I think you're reading into the statement only the most ridiculously literal meaning that no one one, particularly someone of Jefferson's intellect, could have intended.

Ed- I have not seen any of the attributions use the quote in a way where a reasonable interpretation applied. Sen. Kerry used it when proposing an ultimatum to the Iraqi government -- which is hardly relevant to American patriotism. Sen. Kennedy used it when proposing to tell American citizens the truth about the war in Iraq -- which is dissent only to the extent that the "truth" contains heaping portions of opinion, but it hardly seems patriotic for politicians to spoon-feed predigested opinions to the public. If you know of any reasonable uses of the quote, I am certainly willing to reconsider.

By Michael Poole (not verified) on 02 May 2006 #permalink

Conservatives and Republicans shouldn't gloat, though -- the real stuff is pointed enough.

For example, according to TheodoreRoosevelt.org:

Recently several people have written to ask us about a viewpoint TR had on criticism of the presidency. This quote was part of an editorial he wrote for the "Kansas City Star" durning World War I.

"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else."

"Roosevelt in the Kansas City Star", 149
May 7, 1918

Not just dissent, but criticism of the president. Maybe Steyn should fisk Roosevelt's quote, to be fair about it.

By Ed Darrell (not verified) on 02 May 2006 #permalink

Michael Poole wrote:

Ed- I have not seen any of the attributions use the quote in a way where a reasonable interpretation applied. Sen. Kerry used it when proposing an ultimatum to the Iraqi government -- which is hardly relevant to American patriotism. Sen. Kennedy used it when proposing to tell American citizens the truth about the war in Iraq -- which is dissent only to the extent that the "truth" contains heaping portions of opinion, but it hardly seems patriotic for politicians to spoon-feed predigested opinions to the public. If you know of any reasonable uses of the quote, I am certainly willing to reconsider.

You seem to be confusing how to interpret the statement, had it been made by Jefferson, with the question of whether the position being taken by two particular people when they used it was true. Those are two different issues. Even so, I think you're wrong - that statement, regardless of who said it, was intended precisely to apply to situation where one is intending to tell the truth about a government action that the government itself isn't telling us the truth about. Now, whether Kennedy was telling the truth about the war in Iraq, or the Bush administration was telling the truth (and frankly, I wouldn't bet a plug nickel that either of them would know the truth about any issue if it announced itself with a marching band) is not really relevant to the applicability of that quote in the context of a war.

There is no more popular or ridiculous sentiment than the one so common on the right during times of war that says that any disagreement with whether we should go to war is an unpatriotic attack on our poor boys in harm's way. In that context, it cannot be said often enough or loudly enough, regardless of the actual source, that criticism of the government is not only a right it is a duty of an informed citizen - and not even in times of war but especially in times of war. Kennedy may well be wrong on the war in Iraq, but it's still a reasonable argument to make that dissenting from a war is every bit as patriotic, often more so, than going along with it.

Ed, your comment of 2:14 PM suggests that Democratic speakers do not use the literal reading I suggested. I disagree, and my second comment was an attempt to illustrate that. Informed citizens certainly have the right and duty to vocally point out where the government is wrong. However, dissent over policy questions far from first principles (as in Kerry's case) or analysis questions far from objective truth (as in Kennedy's case) is not the highest form of patriotism. That dissent is of a quite different character than demonstrated by our Founding Fathers -- or by Poland's Lech Walesa.

By Michael Poole (not verified) on 02 May 2006 #permalink

Michael-

No, my 2:14 pm comment suggested nothing of the sort. In fact, I quite explicitly said that I wouldn't trust either Kerry or Kennedy to know the truth under any circumstances (nor would I trust Bush or anyone on the other side either). It suggested that the statement itself - "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism" - cannot reasonably be interpreted to mean any dissent, no matter how absurd or pointless. As for the rest of your post, it's complete nonsense. Standing up and saying that the government is doing something wrong - even if one's analysis is poor - is a form of patriotism. If the person dissenting does so because they genuinely believe the government is wrong, this absolutely is far more patriotic than those who shout down anyone who disagrees with the government and takes the "if you don't love this country, get out" position.