The internet’s great promise of infinite information brings with it one of the internet’s persistent curses — namely, near-infinite bullshit. One of the most persistent forms of this misinformation arrives as misattributed and completely made-up quotes. Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain are certainly subject to their fair share or misquoting and misattribution, but perhaps no one in history has generated more phony quotes than founding father Thomas Jefferson.
Spurious quotes attributed to Jefferson have taken on a life of their own, often completely removed from what the author of the Declaration of Independence actually wrote. Chances are the next Jefferson meme you see dancing down your Twitter timeline or Facebook wall will contain a quote that is either misattributed, misquoted, or completely made up.
To help pinpoint exactly how misquoting Jefferson has become its own unique internet art form, I called up Anna Berkes, a research librarian at the Jefferson Library at Monticello since 2004. Berkes has spent a good chunk of her 12 years at the institution crusading against spurious Jefferson quotes, even helping to create and administer an entire section of the Monticello website dedicated to determining the validity of quotes attributed to the third President; the list of the worst offenders exceeds 50 quotes. Some you may be sorry to hear are bogus. For example: “Beer, if drunk with moderation, softens the temper, cheers the spirit, and promotes health.” And: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” And: “The best government is that which governs least.” And: “The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.” All of these look better on a T-shirt, bumper sticker, or shareable meme with a Jefferson attribution, but none of these quotes are his.
Berkes explained why Jefferson in particular seems to have words put in his mouth in the internet age — though the phenomenon, for him, is hardly a new one.
Why do so many false quotes tend to attach themselves to Jefferson, as opposed to contemporaries like James Madison, whose words and thoughts were just as important to founding the nation?
Jefferson is just more quotable. And he’s known. That’s also an important component. Even if people can’t quote Jefferson’s writings to you at a cocktail party, even if they haven’t read an entire volume of Jefferson papers, or studied much U.S. history in high school, a lot of people have a general sense that Jefferson was a very eloquent, wise, sage kind of character. And people like to glom on to that.
In terms of the internet, do you find that the spurious quotes are created at a faster frequency or are these old false quotes that keeping get circulated?
Both, I think. It’s hard to tell sometimes, because you can track the misquote back as far as you can, but there are clues that there are even early sources, that we can’t track down. There are some spurious quotes that are born digital, but with those it’s even harder to tell because it’s harder to tell when they first appeared on the internet. Google actually doesn’t help with that; we were trying to trace a born digital quote, the quote about Jefferson smoking hemp on the back veranda. I was searching for it, trying to sort it by time period, but most of the results had the exact same date from 2001 citing a source that clearly did not exist back then. So the born digital quotes are a lot harder to track down. But I will say though that most of them seem to be from a print source that hits the internet and starts moshing around.
For a guy who basically wrote everything down, you think there’d be no reason for for such sketchy citation. After all, most of Jefferson’s writings not only remain intact, but have been preserved and cataloged.
Estimates vary as to how many letters he actually wrote, but the figure is probably around 19,000, so he was very prolific in his output. Documentary editors at Princeton University have been plugging away at transcribing all these letters and publishing them so that people can access them since the 1940s, and they still aren’t done.
That’s a lot of ground to cover when trying to identify the original source of a quote. Do you think the internet has made it easier to correct spurious quotes?
We have had some success putting the correct version out there on the internet. If take the time to debunk a quote on our website, eventually Google will pick it up. Luckily Google will rank our page higher than other websites, so it actually has had a positive effect. If we do a page on a particular quote, our page debunking that quote comes up towards the top. So that has had an effect tamping this whole phenomenon down. But we can’t be everywhere — things like Twitter are sort of different animals — I’m not really sure if there is a way to even approach or fight back against rampant Jefferson misquotation.
Are there any sort of “tells” that help you recognize potentially problematic quotes?
Jefferson was a very eloquent writer, but maybe not quite as snappy as some people think. There are a lot of quotes attributed to Jefferson that seem like they were written by a 20th century speech writer. They sound really good, whereas Jefferson was a writer; he didn’t really write things to be spoken aloud. If they sound too good, like they were meant to be spoken to audience, they tend to ring false … spurious quotes are often identifiable because style-wise they are completely different ballgame in terms of his use of language.
Do you tend to notice spurious quotes being mostly political in nature?
A good proportion of them are political, but many of them aren’t. There are some that involve interior decoration. There’s one about a pickle. Most are political, but they are all over the board.
Is one of the reasons Jefferson is so often misquoted politically because of how frequently his views changed? Over the course of his life it seems like his views on politics were flexible to the point of being hypocritical.
It’s important to understand that the world Jefferson lived in was very different than ours. The political landscape was very different. So when he was talking about things that seem like they were equivalent to situations that we have today, often times he’s really not. There is that factor that people are assuming he is talking about the exact same situation we would recognize now, but not only are the situations different, words meant different things. Often times the things he said can often be popped into current conversations without context and they seem like they apply, but I would suggest to people that upon closer examination, it’s safe to say it’s a lot more complicated than we like to believe.
Speaking of context, it seems like we pull a lot of Jefferson quotes from writings that weren’t necessarily meant to be read. A lot of personal correspondence that is almost today’s equivalent of listening in on a phone call or reading someone’s text messages.
Jefferson also had quite a talent for telling people things, seeming to say things when he wasn’t really saying anything at all. Someone would write to him with some terrible book they wanted him to endorse — and this happened a lot during his retirement period when he was very well known in the country after he was president — they would ask him for money, or buy this, or endorse that.
And he was very good at answering people and being very polite; telling them what they wanted to hear without actually saying anything really substantive. He would say things that were actually kind of a slam when you examine it, but would write it such a way where it ended up sounding very flattering to the people he was writing to. He was a master at that. So that may be part of the issue when modern people look back and think he was endorsing one view or another. So we have to be really careful in understanding the context of what Jefferson is writing.
Do the spurious quotes you track down tend to be completely made up or misattributed or sort of taken out of context like polite letters we read too much into?
They really run the gamut. I was just working on a quote today: ‘The Christian god is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious.’ What’s going on here is that this quote is paraphrasing. And it’s not just paraphrasing one quote, but quotes from at least three separate Jefferson letters. The more I look at it the more complicated it gets. We still aren’t sure who put these lines together, but it’s got layers like an onion.
Like a 200-year-long game of telephone?
That’s very often what’s going on. It’s sort of scary in a way how easily it happens. Most people are very well-intended, but it so easy to get the words garbled, and before you know it someone has attached a quote to Jefferson that never had anything to do with him. It’s quite amazing.
Is there any general advice you can give to people who are in the process of doing research, or just fans of accurate history in general who want to know how to avoid spurious Jefferson quotes?
If you see a Jefferson quote without any sort of citation, you should go fishing; double check it. Especially if you see it being passed around on social media, take a step back and ask if you think it’s an environment that seems likely to promote accurate Thomas Jefferson quotes. Always retain a healthy amount of skepticism. It’s a very specific skill; almost like a muscle that needs to be developed. If people had more of that in their toolbox, they’d be less likely to fall for spurious quotes.
It seems like picking out legitimate Jefferson quotes might be great way to help learn how to navigate information on the internet more broadly.
As a librarian, obviously it’s something I practice every day, but it pains me that it doesn’t seem to be emphasized in school. I’ll have students come do research at the library and tell me, “My teacher says I’m not allowed to quote anything on the internet,” and I understand. But at the same time, people need to learn how to grapple with all that is out there on the internet rather than cutting it out of the equation completely.
You don’t have to be a historian, you don’t have to devote hours and hours to learn, but it is a skill and an attitude that will serve people well in their travels on the internet in general. There is a lot out there that people should be skeptical of and it’s always good to refine your ability to judge what they are reading is something they should believe or not.
Photos via Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello , Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1856.