Eternal Vigilance

Posted in: A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

Much as I love debunking Jefferson quotations that were probably made up by college students last week on Facebook, it’s somewhat more intellectually stimulating to revisit some venerable old spurious quotes.  There’s a whole slew of these that are routinely attributed to Jefferson and various others, and you’ll see most of them dealt with in all the standard quotation references.  Whatever the apparent vintage of the spurious quote, however, I find that it behooves me to keep searching for them at regular intervals.  Those heroic scanners at Google Books are chewing relentlessly through the stacks of all sorts of huge academic libraries at a pretty steady pace.  The ultimate source of almost all these spurious quotations is in some book, somewhere.  It’s just a matter of time until Google scans that book!

The venerable old quotation that happened to present itself  for investigation most recently is the eternally beloved, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” which as of this last check was still not said by Jefferson.

The standard sourcing of this quotation is given in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, ed. Suzy Platt – a fantastic reference, by the way, not least because it is compiled by people at the Library of Congress – that pretty much guarantees awesomeness.  RQ traces the ultimate origins of this quote to a speech by John Philpot Curran, given in Dublin in 1790.  “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” said Curran.  It’s not quite “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” but he said “eternal vigilance,” “liberty,” and a word that means sort of the same thing as “price” all in the same sentence, and hey, what are the odds?  RQ also provides a cross reference to the first known appearance of the quote in its shorter form, in a speech by abolitionist Wendell Phillips in 1852.

Lovely as RQ is, it was also published in 1989 (2nd ed. in 1993).  Back in those days, what you did when you want to track down a quotation was, you went over to the reference shelf and checked the keyword indexes of Bartlett’s and whatever other quotation reference books happened to be there.  Indexes are created by people.  And people are, as we all know, people – by which I mean, those indexes are only as good and thorough as the people making them.  If it’s not in the index, oh well.  Game over.  You might get lucky and come across a quote purely by accident, but if you’re writing a reference book, relying on serendipity probably would slow down your publication schedule considerably.  Anyway, my point is that in tracing quotations, you try any way you can to get some kind of access to the publications of the past.  Back in 1989, your methods of access were pretty limited indeed, and probably resulted in a very limited glimpse.  Like looking through a keyhole.

Now we have all these fancy full-text databases, along with Google Books and the Internet Archive.  Although there’s still loads of material we can’t see yet, our glimpse into the printed past is now quite a bit bigger.  Which is why I thought it might be worth a try to see if I couldn’t find out some more about this quote.

Not to be mean to Mr. Wendell Phillips, but he’s about to get slightly less famous.

After two days of ridiculously feverish searching, I’ve traced the purported Phillips version of this quote all the way back to 1809.  (For the record, Mr. Phillips was -2 years old at that time.)  And it seems fairly clear to me that this source is repeating something that was already well-known by then, and therefore of even older vintage.  In fact, the 1809 source even puts the phrase in quotes.  The reference appears in The Life of Major General James Jackson (yes, my favorite book too!), in a passage where the author is talking about Jackson returning to his home turf to help repeal laws under which Georgia land had been speculated away:

The biographer approaches the subject with loathing, impelled to it by the obligations he has assumed. His painful duty will be comparatively light if he can convince himself that his succinct presentation of the speculation shall have the least effect in fastening upon the minds of the American people the belief that, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”…

I’ve looked through the aforementioned fancy databases with hundreds of thousands of newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets and books from the 17th through 19th centuries, plus Google Books, which contains another squillion or so items, and I can tell you with certainty that this phrase was incredibly big in the nineteenth century.  I found almost 700 usages of the phrases “eternal vigilance” and “price of liberty” together in various combinations just between 1800 and 1850 in books, newspapers and periodicals.  There was even supposedly a newspaper that ran the motto on its masthead, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, but the price of the Star is only one cent.”  Hyuck, hyuck!

Everybody was saying it, but nobody knows who first said it.  Occasionally someone would pin the saying on some unsuspecting departed famous person – Patrick Henry a few times, Jefferson somewhat more often, and a couple references to Junius, a pseudonymous letter-to-the-editor-writer of the eighteenth century.  (I assume that’s the Junius they mean, and not this Junius.)  That one got me all excited for a while, but so far has not panned out.

The earliest attribution to Jefferson that I’ve found so far is in 1838, in an article in the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier.  There are a few near misses that predate that, however, and what we may be seeing there is a 150-year-old slo-mo demonstration of how quotes come to be associated with specific people.  Observe:

The quotation is almost literally sidling up to Jefferson on the printed page.

Thomas Jefferson didn’t say this.  But strangely enough, I’ve discovered a whole string of quite famous people who did say this, which makes it seem even odder that the attribution got pinned on a relatively obscure figure like Phillips.  Andrew Jackson said this in his farewell speech in 1837.  James Buchanan said this in a speech on veto power in 1842.  Frederick Douglass apparently said this enough to warrant discussion in this book on Frederick Douglass’ proverbial rhetoric, which Google won’t let me see.

So while it’s still true that Wendell Phillips did say this, now the picture is a somewhat different.  He was only one of legions of people who used this phrase – most of them obscure or nameless, but some of them quite prominent.  You will all have noticed, however, that couldn’t find anything to predate the Curran attribution.  Oh well.  I’ll just wait another six months and try again…

P.S.  Newspaper images are from Gale’s 19th Century U.S. Newspapers.

Comments

says

Anna, I happened on your posting on the subject of Jefferson and the two professors. I am most admiringly grateful to you for your trouble in unearthing the background to the story, which I originally found in some of Isaac Asimov's writings years ago. Asimov did not doubt the source, but he also did not criticise Jefferson for his alleged attitude; in fact he said that Jefferson's attitude was thoroughly justified.
And I thoroughly agreed with him. I still would, had you instead demonstrated that Jefferson had said just what had been incorrectly attributed. As things stand of course, it is nice to know that he had done rather better than reported!

However, I often used the reference in various contexts, and I dislike discovering that trusted sources proved wrong, so I hope you understand how grateful I am for your correction. Also how I admire your cool, firm, logical remarks on the matter.

Much strength to your elbow in polishing up similar delusions in future.

Jon

says

Thanks so much, Jon. I personally think that Jefferson's remarks on the 1807 Weston, Connecticut meteorite fall are quite reasonable. If you haven't seen it already, you may be interested to know that this episode has now received a book-length treatment: http://www.housatonictimes.com/articles/2010/12/31/life/doc4d1e0a831b7ed.... I'm relieved to see, though, that the book does not perpetuate the spurious Jefferson quotation on the meteor!

says

Nice article, as always. I’m so amazed at how quickly a false quotation can be attributed to an individual. The near misses you provided are a mere 7-12 years after his death!

says

Thanks for continuing to comb the expanding cyber-universe for the sources of spurious quotations. I regularly receive chain emails featuring the misattributed TJ quotes that you’ve already debunked. I always take the time to respond with references to Monticello’s Jefferson Encyclopedia and your “Summary View” articles. It would be nice to know that the folks to whom I send this information are forwarding it just as dutifully as they forward the lists of spurious quotations, but I have little faith in that. I’m going to post this article on my Facebook page as well. There’s always the faint hope that a few more people will begin to realize that “brainyquote.com” is not an authoritative source.

-Steve Edenbo

says

Thanks, Steve, and please do pass it along! It actually does do some good – our reference questions on quotations have dropped dramatically in the last few years since the TJ Encyclopedia went up. There are still the problematic quotation-collection sites (Brainyquote, Quoteworld, Thinkexist) out there that are feeding the problem, but one of these days I am planning on doing a blitz on all those sites, give them a list of all the spurious TJ quotations on their site, and ask them to take them down. I’m getting tired just writing about doing it, but I think it will help in the long run!

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