False Founding Father Quotes from Our Side

I have written probably a couple dozen essays taking the religious right to task for their constant misquoting of the founding fathers, and for sometimes just plain passing on false quotes attributed to them. I'm disappointed to see the same thing done in this post on Talk2Action by an advocate of church/state separation. At the end of a long essay rightly criticizing the Patriot Pastors, David Barton and others for their distortions, the author, someone with the nickname moiv, offers a few misquotes of his own. Like this one from Jefferson:

"I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature. The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his Father, in the womb of a virgin will be classified with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."

This is a misquotation. The first sentence has often been credited to Jefferson, but I've never seen an accurate citation. John Remsburg's Six Historic Americans cites it only as coming from a letter to a "Dr. Woods", but as far as I know no such letter has ever been found. In fact, it's often appended to various other legitimate Jefferson quotes, as it is here. For example, this page quotes it thusly:

"I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth."

And it gives the citation of Jefferson's Notes on Virginia. In fact, the first sentence appears nowhere in that document, while the rest of the quote is accurate. The same is true of the quote that moiv uses - the first sentence is not part of a legitimate quote. The second part of the quote comes from a famous letter he wrote to John Adams on April 11, 1823, but it says nothing at all about not finding in Christianity one redeeming feature.

He also attributes two nearly identical quotes to both Washington and Adams:

"The United States is in no sense founded upon the Christian doctrine."

George Washington


"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion ..."

from the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by John Adams, June 10, 1797

The second quote is accurate, not the first. The treaty was initially negotiated while Washington was President, but was signed by John Adams. It should not be attributed as a quote to Washington.

If we're going to be critical of the religious right for their many misquotations of the founders, it is important that we be scrupulously accurate when citing them ourselves.


Just a note for future reference (and so obvious as to probably not need stating), the best Jefferson quotes for separation of church and state are, of course, his bill for the Virginia House of Burgess for religious freedom (1779). It is still, 225-ish years later, the best philosophical defence of a strong split between secular and religious powers.

Let's be fair -- the Treaty of Tripoli shouldn't be credited as John Adams' words, either. It's a Treaty; as ratified by the Senate, it was (may still be) the law of the nation.

Yes, Adams signed the treaty, and it was ratified in his administration -- but they are not really in any sense Adams' words.

They are accurate words, however, contrary to Bartonistas who complain that the Treaty itself was somehow misquoted. It's the language the Senate approved, and when I checked the State Departement's archives, it was the language in the official version there.

By Ed Darrell (not verified) on 07 Jul 2006 #permalink

With that, let me clarify by saying that you should quote Jefferson's original draft of the religious freedom act of 1779 and not the version that was ultimately adopted by the house of burgesses (or however you spell that).

Let's be fair -- the Treaty of Tripoli shouldn't be credited as John Adams' words, either. It's a Treaty; as ratified by the Senate, it was (may still be) the law of the nation.

To my mind, the fact that it was ratified by the Senate with a minimum of a 2:1 majority gives the words more force than if they were only the words of Adams or Washington.

Pieter was being careful -- the treaty had to have had at least a two-thirds majority for ratification. But in this case, yes, the vote was unanimous.

By Ed Darrell (not verified) on 07 Jul 2006 #permalink

I was, yes, being careful, not having taken the time to look up the vote on my way out the door. Thank you both.

And now we can quite truthfully tell the christjackers that:

By a unanimous vote of the Senate, it was declared in 1797 that "the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."

I like this.

[and, hallelujah, I can once again comment from my Macintosh]