Another quotation debunked!

Posted in: Research, A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

Most quotations we're asked about sound nothing like Thomas Jefferson, but since I can't pin down their true source, they sort of hang frustratingly out there in Quotation Limbo.  So it gives me great satisfaction to be able to actually run one to ground once in a while.  I just laid this one to rest:

"My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government."

This displays a phenomenon which I've noticed before, in which somehow someone commenting on Jefferson is mistaken for Jefferson himself - this seems an eggregious bit of sloppiness to me, but I guess sometimes people can't be bothered to notice what they're actually reading, they just like the words and they like the name Jefferson.

Anyway, this was in fact Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi (1854-1932), in a speech given at Columbia University in 1912.  I have, of course, noted this in the TJ Encyclopedia. On a related note, I spotted someone fighting the injustice of spurious TJ quotations using the Encyclopedia...it almost brings a tear to my eye!

Comments

says

Yep, same sort of thing going on. I haven't had occasion to do much looking into the quotation (and/or misquotation) of other famous people, but it doesn't surprise me at all that Jefferson is not alone in being the posthumous victim of misattribution. The Internet of course is fertile ground for propagating this kind of thing, but in the case you relate (and in other sources I've seen) the culprit can often be a misplaced trust in printed sources. There's a book in our library (which shall remain nameless for the moment) which is a huge collection of quotations, all with footnotes. But when you read the footnotes, the sources cited are totally untrustworthy. This kind of thing is, in my opinion, worse than a questionable-looking website, because it probably seems more legitimate to people.

says

Monticello dot org is the first record in a Google search using a spurious TJ quote as the search string.

Other person's words being spuriously attributed is not just a phenomenon related to Jefferson. About a year ago, I chased down a quote attributed to JQ Adams that seemed very much unlike his style in a blog post:

"It is no slight testimonial, both to the merit and worth of Christianity, that in all ages since its promulgation the great mass of those who have risen to eminence by their profound wisdom and integrity have recognized and reverenced Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of the living God."

The earliest place I discovered this quote published in a Google Book search was in 1848, in a collection of letters wriiten by JQ Adams to one of hist sons. It was not in one of those letters but was instead found in the preface, that had been written by an anonymous person, and not attributed to Adams:

Adams, John Quincy. 1848. Letters of John Quincy Adams, to his son, on the Bible and its teachings. Auburn, N.Y.: Derby Miller. - Page 8

It showed up again in 1860 in a biography written about JQ Adams, as a long citation ti the same preface, and is noted as such, but did not clearly state that it was not JQ Adams' words:

Seward, William Henry. 1860. Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams, Sixth President of the United States. C.M. Saxton, Barker & Co. - Page 100

About six months after I'd commented to that blog post, it's author offered up an fatuous rebuttal, with a bibliographic attribution:

"quoted from Stephen Abbott Northrop, D.D. A Cloud of Witnesses (Portland, Oregon: American Heritage Ministries, 1987) p. introduction"

What strikes me as being odd about this reference is that Stephen Abbott Northrop was a Mid West America Baptist minister from the late 19th century to the early 30th century. "A Cloud of Witnesses" was first published I believe in 1894. The bibliographic format given in the reference above is exactly as it it found in books written by William J. Federer, who has published many books about America's religious foundations, using almost the same thick binder of quotations, often taken out of context, and mashed up together in an effort to prove it. Federer often self-promotes himself as an American Historian and prolific author, yet his college degree was a BA in Accounting/Business Administration, and immediately after graduating he begin a real estate career at a major St. Louis Reality, founded by his grandfather.

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