By Alexander Marriott
The internet is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest inventions of all time. It has revolutionized the ways in which commerce occurs, the ways in which information is accessed and exchanged, the ways in which people find romance, and the ways in which people read, generate, and comment on the news. These are merely a few of the myriad ways in which the internet daily alters and enhances the quality of the lives of anyone who has the ability and patience to access and use it.
Of course, like any inanimate object, the internet is subject to the motives and purposes of the people using it. And, like most everything else, those who are either willfully nefarious or woefully oblivious have been using the internet in ways that make professional historians cringe. Here I mean to fabricate and disseminate fake quotes attributed to a wide variety of historical actors. The motives for those doing this knowingly are diverse--they are from all political persuasions and all philosophical and religious schools of thought. Most of the people spreading these fake quotes on the internet, however, are well meaning people who think they have found authoritative succor from one of history's giants. Or, sadly for the professors amongst us, they are hapless undergraduate students in history classes who have yet to fully grasp the proper methodology involved in vetting and evaluating primary and secondary sources. That historians are so sensitive to these matters and other people who majored in something else seemingly are not suggests a disturbing lack of formal training in other disciplines about how to evaluate evidence. But that's a matter for a different day.
The desire to have quotes on topics one cares about is natural, but it is symptomatic of the propensity to error and fallacious reasoning; namely arguing from authority--argumentum ad verecundiam--and arguing from popularity (in this case, the popularity of the Founding Fathers)--argumentum ad populum. Let me be clear, evidentiary exposition from qualified authorities not taken out of context can be valid supports for an argument. But, quotes, by themselves, or out of context, are not arguments. FAKE quotes, are not anything at all except evidence that the person doing the quoting is careless and lazy—and, by implication, possibly dishonest and unreliable.
I have personally come across a number of quotes in online contexts--many on Facebook, from well meaning friends--that are obvious fakes. There are just some quotations that strain credulity. For instance, this "famous quote" from a sad Woodrow Wilson:
Salon has already done the legwork to show that this quote is fraudulently misleading. But one only has to read the opening pages of Allan H. Meltzer's History of the Federal Reserve to gain a sense of just how proud Wilson was of the Federal Reserve for having removed the role of lender of last resort from the hands of private bankers like J. P. Morgan. The hysteria and nonsense that Ron Paul and other prominent pseudo-historians and actual anti-Semites have stirred up around banking and the Federal Reserve in particular has led to works of insanity like this. Every quote that I checked in that video is a fake--and I didn't check them all, it's too crazy to put in that much effort after the first half dozen or so flunk out.
Traveling back in time to my own period of study and interest, let's take just two of the Founding Fathers who have cottage industries of fake quotations spewing forth from them--or mangled quotations, another popular method of attaching quasi-legitimacy to an argument--Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Some Franklin quotes about which historians are skeptical (rightly) way very well be real. For instance, James McHenry's notes include an anecdote of an alleged exchange that occurred between Franklin and an anonymous woman as the delegates left Independence Hall having just signed the Constitution in September 1787. The woman allegedly asked Franklin if they had signed off on a monarchy or a republic and Franklin, according to McHenry, quipped back, "A Republic, if you can keep it." Of course, the quote is perfect and vintage Franklin--short and profound. It's the Poor Richard homespun that the legend of Franklin has enshrined solidly from his own day straight down to ours almost unscathed. But, for historians, there are a couple of issues that prevent them from putting much stock in this quote. For one, it's an anecdote reported by one man in an undated entry in his notes that was not widely known of until, in the 1930's, Max Farrand issued a new series of volumes on the Constitutional Convention and the State Ratification Debates--and then only as a footnote. For another, it's a little odd that a random woman would sling this particular question at Franklin. Few people--even in the Convention, where there was far more trepidation about democracy than among the people of democratic Philadelphia and democratic Pennsylvania--expected the Convention would produce anything except revisions to the Articles of Confederation, let alone the stupendous usurpation of a monarchy. It would be tantamount to asking Franklin if he were walking on Mars or Earth as he exited the building. This is not to say the exchange did not occur as McHenry remembered it--it may very well have--but it would still be extremely peculiar all the same. The sentiment of the answer, however, is perfectly consistent with the widely acknowledged fragility of the republican form of government--among the very paramount reasons for the Convention's meeting in the first place. So the quote, real or not, has found a resonance in popular, historically minded political culture that is not easy to dislodge--as seen here in this recent work from Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.
Another famously mangled and misused fake Franklin quote goes something like this: "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither." Of course, Franklin in the 1750's--in the context of the French and Indian war raging in western Pennsylvania, and the confrontation of pacifist Quakers with the those who wanted to fight the war, including Franklin, in the state legislature--did say this when he wrote to the Governor: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." As Michelle Malkin points out here, the differences in the quotes are critically important to getting at the contextual accuracy of Franklin's meaning. If we place the quote in the actual paragraph it occurs in--a message to the Governor on behalf of the Pennsylvania Legislature concerning the failure to properly arm and supply the frontiersmen doing the fighting and being chased eastward, the meaning becomes fairly plain:
To see the entire message, the Papers of Benjamin Franklin are online (like most other primary documents collections from such prolifically famous statesmen of this time period) here (the reply is from November 11, 1755).
From the uncertain and the mangled, there are the outright frauds. For instance, a very popular Franklin fake goes like this: "The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself." One need not be a historical expert to smell this as a fake immediately. First of all--the Founders did not believe that rights were "given" by documents; rather, rights existed a priori as facts of man's nature and the nature of the universe. Hence, their unalienability. Secondly, Franklin was present for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence--playing a crucial role on the committee as a lead editor of Jefferson's original draft--where the phrase "pursuit of happiness" occurs and not, as the "quote" seems to suggest, the U.S. Constitution. Franklin was also present, of course, for the drafting and debate of the U.S. Constitution as was already discussed above. The Constitution does not recapitulate that phrase; in fact, the Constitution as presented from Philadelphia contained no Bill of Rights at all. Furthermore, Franklin died before the amendments that became known as the Bill of Rights were ratified and became a part of the Constitution and, of course, none of the proposed amendments recapitulated the phrase "pursuit of happiness." So, on the face of it, this quote is highly suspicious. On top of that, like most fake quotes, it has no attribution that would allow a curious person to look it up and find out more of its context for themselves. This is the hallmark of every two-bit fake on the internet--but just having attribution guarantees nothing. Fortunately for those curious about this particular "quote," the blog of The Economist has already debunked it, along with a popular "quote" of Thomas Jefferson (“The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite").
Aside from the above, Jefferson is mistakenly "quoted" all the time for every conceivable end--religious and atheist, right and left. I have recently debunked two lousy fakes passed along as real wisdom of the sage of Monticello from Facebook friends of diametrically opposing worldviews. From what I would kindly describe as a leftist friend came this gem "from" Jefferson:
This is a hodgepodge combination of fake and out of context "quotes." According to the team working out of Monticello--which has been diligent in hunting down these fake "quotes" from Jefferson--Jefferson said some things partially similar to this in private letters and some things not at all. As you can see from their excellent discussion of the sourcing for this "quote," most of it is simply imaginary--the glaring giveaway is the sudden appearance of the words "inflation" and "deflation." Neither was used in Jefferson's day. Also, words like that—so seemingly prophetic of today’s problems—are classic signs, I have found, of the Ron Paul, Lyndon LaRouche, anti-banking conspiratorial fringe. Those working in that backwater are some of the worst offenders when it comes to creating, and then running through an echo chamber over and over and over again, fake quotes. When I pointed out that this quote was bogus and provided the link to Monticello that explains how and why, the literal response I received from some person I am not familiar with was: "fake or not... it is the truth..." A stunningly honest admission that the entire hunt for a confirming authority quotation is all a bit of a canard for many would-be internet historians.
From a friend much more to the right, came this, perhaps the most highly exposed fake quote around right now; from the alleged lips of Thomas Jefferson: "When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny." Again, the historians at Monticello have already taken care of this quote and have been nice enough to announce their work to the world, but people evidently cannot be troubled to look into the authenticity of quotes. Judge Andrew Napolitano, a sadly misinformed blowhard from the Fox Business Channel and the Fox News Channel (where he incredibly serves as the "Senior Judicial Analyst"), uses this quote like it's going out of style both on TV and in private speaking engagements. For instance, see this one (where other fake quotes abound) and skip to the 29:40 mark for this particular quote delivered as the stirring conclusion to a speech otherwise laced with deluded fantasy.
It is remarkable how much people 1) wish to wrap their ideas and opinions up in the mantle of some historical authority and 2) how little time they spend in actually learning about the history involved and reading the actual primary sources that would allow them to do so with some manner of skill. It is not as if the sources are locked away and hidden from people. Aside from manuscripts that are held in institutions--academic or otherwise--that have some manner of procedure in place for anyone to come and have a look at the collections, a great deal is available digitally (and free) at the Library of Congress, Google Books, and any number of University or research institution affiliated websites--like this one or this one. Beyond that, public and local college and University libraries have most or all of the published papers of figures like Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln etc. (and in the links you can see all their papers digitized from the Library of Congress) and a great number of primary sources are published for public consumption from presses like the Library of America and the Liberty Fund. Spreading false quotations unknowingly is an inexcusable error that should not occur--it's simply too easy to verify a quote for it to happen. But, since it seems to be a recurring issue, below are my easy to follow guidelines for evaluating quotes that you don't know for sure are authentic.
Finally, you do not need a famous person to validate your arguments for anything. It can be a nice touch, it can add a flourish to your conclusion or lend brilliant phraseology to your point, but at the end of the day—you and George Washington can both be wrong for the same reasons. But if you wish to quote someone, please be mindful of context and accuracy—because there is no easier way to upend any argument that relies on authoritative quotations than to point out that either 1) it’s a fake, or 2) you’ve horribly misrepresented the meaning of the quote in question.