Friday, November 04, 2011

The Curse of the Internet: Fake Historical Quotes

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:

"I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men. We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated Governments in the civilized world — no longer a Government by free opinion, no longer a Government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a Government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men." -- Wilson is alleged to have said this circa 1916 in regret for having championed the Federal Reserve Act of 1913

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:

"In fine, we have the most sensible Concern for the poor distressed Inhabitants of the Frontiers. We have taken every Step in our Power, consistent with the just Rights of the Freemen of Pennsylvania, for their Relief, and we have Reason to believe, that in the Midst of their Distresses they themselves do not wish us to go farther. Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. Such as were inclined to defend themselves, but unable to purchase Arms and Ammunition, have, as we are informed, been supplied with both, as far as Arms could be procured, out of Monies given by the last Assembly for the King’s Use; and the large Supply of Money offered by this Bill, might enable the Governor to do every Thing else that should be judged necessary for their farther Security, if he shall think fit to accept it."

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:
"I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [these banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power [of currency] should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs."

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.

1)      If the quote seems very prophetic of specific modern concretes, then be wary.

2)      If the quote has no attribution, be very wary.

3)      If the attribution is impossible for you to hunt down, DO NOT repost until you have done more work.

4)      If you quote the quotation into a Google search and all that pops up are fringe and wacko websites peddling conspiracy theories—reposting the alleged quote ad nauseum—you almost certainly have a fake.

5)      Only repost a quotation when you know for sure that it is authentic and you are familiar enough with the context in which the quote came about to explain why, where and when it was either said or written.

a.       Do not be afraid to demand such information from those who post or repost unattributed quotations.

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.


Mike said...

Thanks for this blog post Alexander and thanks to alluding to ron paul. What I noticed from this sort of crowd is that they also hate lincoln quite alot and use the quote on protecting the union as a reason to suggest that the civil war was not about slavery

Alexander V. Marriott said...

Yes, the reasons for that range from a set of legitimate contemporaneous criticisms leveled at Lincoln which culminated in the case of Ex Parte Milligan (1866)[] to what is, essentially, a continuous rehash of the criticisms leveled at Republicans and Lincoln by radical Democrats in the North during the war and which became the line of attack from unreconstructed ex-Confederates in the South after the war--most notably in the memoirs of Jefferson Davis. But, in order to separate the Davis and pro-Confederate critique from the stain of promoting slavery, modern Lincoln critics of this stripe--and Ron Paul is certainly one of them--must assail Lincoln's motives on the slavery issue. And to do that--they focus on a number of things, not the least of which is Lincoln's letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley in August 1862 (just as Lincoln was preparing to issue the preliminary emancipation proclamation following the victory at Antietam in September). The letter can be viewed here [], but I quote the relevant portion now for convenience sake: "I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save th ise Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views."

Alexander V. Marriott said...

This letter is often quoted to prove the conclusion that Lincoln--and by extension, everyone else--thought the war was simply for the Union and that slavery, as such, was a means to an end. But, of course, Lincoln did not start the Civil War--the Confederates, who purported to withdraw legally from the government FOR the explicit defense of the morality of slavery seized federal property and fired the first shots--first on an unarmed supply ship trying to bring food to the garrison at Fort Sumter and then on the fort itself. Lincoln had always made clear that outside the context of a war that, while he thought there could be no moral defense of slavery, legally it was a local state-wide institution the Federal government could not touch. But the Federal government had, historically, and under Lincoln would resume preventing the spread of slavery to the territories of the United States. To avoid Civil War--a calamity that could destroy the entire republic--he was prepared to make all manner of concessions to the South that in the minds of most people merely affirmed what everyone at the time thought was the case, i.e. that the Federal Government could not abolish a local institution in the states where it was established, like slavery. But the Confederates rejected these concessions because the only concessions they truly wanted were the recognition of an imaginary right to take slavery anywhere in the country outside of states that legally recognized it--and they also, it should be noted, wanted the Northern States to close down abolition presses and newspapers and prevent the spread of abolition literature as an affront against their "way of life" and a means of promoting slave insurrection. Lincoln's letter to Greeley, published as the Union was on the ropes militarily and still trying to make sure that Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland remained loyal, made sure that everyone remained aware that Lincoln was not a wild-eyed radical on the issue of slavery in the states. But, his position was clear, if the rebellion continued, congress and the President were within their rights to confiscate the property of rebels. The preliminary proclamation issued in September was a warning that, if the rebels continued in that posture past the 1st of the year, 1863, the government would declare their slave property forfeit (which is why the document famously does not free slaves in loyal areas of Louisiana and the states of Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, etc--Lincoln was still trying to persuade these states to accept a compensated emancipation plan, which they stubbornly refused and consequently saw the institution wiped out without compensation when the 13th amendment was ratified).

Alexander V. Marriott said...

What amazes me in the Woods, Paul, Wilson, DiLorenzo, etc. critique of Lincoln is that they pillory him for his well-known moderation (he was never an immediatist on abolition until after four years of civil war the institution was dead anyway) on slavery and race, but then accuse him of being some manner of radical opportunist who trampled laws underfoot like it was going out of style. It's a lame and confused critique and ignores several important contexts--the most important of which is the existence of a terrible civil war in the country and the very real dangers that existed to the existence of the government and the republic it represented. It also ignores Lincoln's attempts during the war to offer moderates and rebels alternatives to total uncompensated abolition which they rejected repeatedly. Lincoln only abandoned compensated emancipation and colonization of freed slaves abroad when it became clear that those for whom these concessions were designed were not at all interested in any compromises. Lincoln was also a great politician who wanted to make sure that no one could credibly accuse him of unrelenting belligerency and of being unwilling to negotiate--but there was no meeting of the minds because even in the border states, most slaveholders were simply not interested in the British model of compensated emancipation. Either, might I add, were the West Indian planters in the British Empire. They fought the decision for compensated emancipation tooth and nail and the final vote was very close. But they had no choice but to acquiesce in the final decision because rebelling, on islands where the slaves heavily outnumbered them, was completely out of the question. In the United States, not only did the slaves rarely outnumber the non-slaves in any particular state, but Lincoln and the Republicans weren't even proposing a plan of abolition--compensated or otherwise--and yet the Confederates rebelled simply for fear that Republican postmasters would allow the free dissemination of the ideas that slavery was morally outrageous and that they would not be able to take their slaves to New Mexico, Kansas, or South Dakota. Lincoln, in hindsight, did not keep a firm enough hand on some of the Generals in the North who went after Copperhead Democratic critics, but given the historical context and the very real situation he faced, he was quite measured and the overwhelming majority of Northerners concurred (not to mention the 100,000 men from the Confederate controlled states who joined the Union armies).

Mike said...

thank you for all this info Alexander. It sounds like the guy was a product of the enlightenment much like the USA at its founding and the rest of the founders. Truly a very good/great president he was.

something else which I forgot to allude to is their critique of pearl harbour, particularly the fact that FDR put an oil embargo on Japan while conveniently forgetting that Japan invaded China, which was an ally of the USA back then. It seems their disgust with FDR (which is understandable) has actually completely blinded them.

Alexander V. Marriott said...

Yes, the conspiratorial non-sense surrounding FDR and the attack on Pearl Harbor is disgusting. The oil embargo was a response to the fact--as you point out--that Japan had launched a completely unprovoked and fraudulent invasion of China. The war that ensued included horrendous atrocities--the rape of Nanking merely being the most prominent and well-publicized because many of its would-be victims ran into the part of the city where Western diplomats lived and were protected. According to the Ron Paul's of the world, a foreign policy that recognized this as the most naked sort of aggression and cut off the supply of a resource Japan could easily enough supply peacefully (i.e. through trade) but which was essential to their war machine is an unforgiveable provocation that justifies a Japanese attack on the United States for which we ought to have felt guilty over. It's moral equivalence of the worst and most degrading sort and, ipso facto, reason to ignore such people.

Mike said...

Just a side question Alexander, regarding studying history. I was wondering what, in your opinion, are interesting topics or themes to explore in American history for a masters thesis course in this subject.

Alexander V. Marriott said...

Before I can properly attempt an answer, what topic/period are you referring to? We've jumped in and out of a few here.

Mike said...

well I was thinking of the Civil War Era, but I think this might have been exhausted, I also thought of the cold war era, which I think has already been exhausted, so I have narrowed my focus down to the Civil Rights era

Alexander V. Marriott said...

HAHAHA, all three of those broad fields have been heavily written about. It can be hard to isolate a topic to do some original research and writing about. My recommendation is to go with what interests you and then read the secondary books that are considered THE BOOKS on the topic. Then read some of the recent works from the last five years--both books and journal articles. Take notes on all of it, and you're sure to find unexamined questions or methodoligical problems or faulty theorizing that you can exploit in a research project. Of course, always keep your head in the primary sources and as you're reading the secondary stuff, you're going to notice familiar sources being used in ways you don't necessarily agree with. You're also going to find things in the primary materials that haven't been used--or been used very little or in a different context--that seem more important to whatever motivating questions interest you about the historical topic. A person with a good mind, a keen eye, and a respect for the sources can never fail to develop a topic in any subject in history--even something like the American civil war or Abraham Lincoln, which each have tens of thousands of books published about them.