Quotation Frustration

Posted in: Research, A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

I know: again with the quotations!  We are experiencing a strange swell in quotation questions, however, so it's pretty much all I have to talk about these days.  There's one in particular that is bugging me, so I thought I'd throw it out to our 6 loyal readers in case there's a chance others can help crack this one.

"Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic. But will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the path of destruction.” (Some sites have the last part as "the surest way to destruction.")

What is so aggravating about this quotation?   It looked so innocuous, but my investigation of this quotation has become a Moby-Dick-esque chase around the Internet.  This quote just might do me in, too.

Very often, we can tell immediately whether a quotation is a real Jefferson original or not, simply by the style of writing.  Thomas Jefferson's actual writing style is much more elegant and subtle than most pretender quotations out there. This one, unfortunately, doesn't display a crudeness of style that would help me to rule it out.  But neither this quotation, nor any parts thereof, appear in any of the Jefferson writings collections that we can search. (That includes the Ford edition (1892), Lipscomb-Bergh edition (1903-7), and the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, which draws largely on Ford and the mid-nineteenth-century H.A.Washington edition of Jefferson's writings.) Nearly all "famous" Jefferson quotations come from these sources, because they are the ones that people can most easily access.

If we assume, based on the above, that Jefferson never wrote this, then someone else must have.  It's not impossible that another Founding Father-ey type wrote this, and it was somehow mistakenly attributed to Jefferson; it's happened before.  But I cannot find one single website that attributes this quotation to anyone other than Jefferson.  If it was really Benjamin Franklin, for example, somebody out on the Internet would surely have said so. If it's not Jefferson, and not another of his contemporaries, some modern source must have fabricated this quotation and attributed it to Jefferson.  But neither can I come up with a likely "ground zero" for such a thing.  There are books using this quotation and pinning it on Jefferson back to at least 1960, but none of these texts seem likely to be responsible for such a massive, widespread belief that Jefferson wrote this.  (I notice that Ron Paul and Chuck Norris like this quotation very much, however, which could certainly be responsible for a recent rise in popularity.)

And just to make things interesting, I discovered this yesterday:  Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire uses two of the significant phrases from this quote: "...it was artfully contrived by Augustus that, in the enjoyment of plenty, the Romans should lose the memory of freedom."  Jefferson did own this work, but that is hardly proof of anything.  It does seem likely, however, that whoever originated this quotation was familiar with this passage in Gibbon.

So we are left with a frustratingly inconclusive situation.  I judge it relatively unlikely that Jefferson actually wrote this passage, given its absence from major print sources of Jefferson's works, coupled with the complete lack of a citation on any of the hundreds of websites that use it.  But neither do I have any evidence of an alternate source for the quotation, or a plausible theory of how it came to be attached to Jefferson.  I've put my findings, such as they are, up in the TJ Encyclopedia. So for now, I suppose I will just have to wait for Google to digitize some more books, and try again in 6 months or so.  Go, Google, go!

Comments

says

Hello Anna,

It was a pleasant and unexpected surprise to run into this blog. I apologise for using this pseudonym, but it is one I have commonly used on the web for several years now, and the one that usually points to the listed website. I've been meaning to email you anyway, so hopefully it will be waiting your return from holiday. I've created a small JS form routine that returns a valid Google Books URL to the specific page for any Jefferson (ME) citation. I will also create one for the Jefferson (FE), style it up a bit for presentation, and attach it as one self-contained html page in the message. The Version 1 will probably be complete in a day or two.

My first shallow cursory search for this quote also returned nothing earlier than 1960. I assume the cite is the same as your record:

De Love, S. L. (1960). The quiet betrayal. Chicago: Normandie House. pg 3

Another very likely candidate as a primary source for this attribution is:

Stormer, J. A. (1964). None dare call it treason. Florissant, Mo: Liberty Bell Press.

That text is much better known in political circles.

I agree with you that it is wrong to assume that either side of the political bipolarity is more likely to misquote Jefferson. I have noticed over the years that there does seem to be a cyclical tendency towards one side or the other, which is directly related to the side which views itself as being in the minority party at the Federal level. From the 2006 mid-term election to the present, there has been an increase of misquotes from the right-side, but from 2000-2006, they predominated on the left.

Jefferson does not get misquoted or have his quotes contextually skewed as often as other early Presidents and Con.Founders by those who desire to prove that America was founded as "A Christian Nation", which helps keep the distortion frequencies balanced along a linear model of political viewpoints. Although, not a misquote, here's a fairly recent disingenuous use of a Jefferson citation by a House member that might amuse you.

On May 3, 2007, speaking for the House Republican Study Committee as its chairman, Mike Pence (R-IN), warmly embraced Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state" in his letter to the Danbury Baptists as being a part of original intent, in opposition to a pending Hate Crimes bill which expanded the definition of victims to include persons who had been targeted in a violent crime because of their sexual preference or gender identity. This was a remarkable reversal on the generally stated position of contemporary conservatives about a separation between the matters of the civil government and matters of personal conscience. Sadly, this opinion possessed no persistence within the Republican Study Group, and turned out to be only a bit of temporary situationist posturing.

says

Thanks for your comment, Resident Historian Taylor! Yes, I have checked JSTOR, and didn't find it - although with JSTOR's search interface, it's entirely possible that I didn't ask the machine the right way. Vis-a-vis your comment about right-wingers, I added a bit to my entry just now with some links to prominent public figures who have used this quote. They may be of a certain political persuasion. Although in all fairness I must say that, in my experience of hunting un-Jefferson quotes, they have an amazing ability to confirm the beliefs of people of any political persuasion.

says

It doesn't sound much like TJ, especially with the descriptive laziness of "near-perfect" and the Marxist distinction of "material" abundance from other sorts as being especially pernicious (Oddly, though, I bet the right-wingers eat it up). And the first part is, I think, too clear a reflection of Franklin's "a republic, if you can keep it" quip. As a practical matter, I can't imagine that some eager, enterprising historian of the Early Republic wouldn't have used it in a book or article by now (It's practically tailor-made for that last chapter of Wood's _Radicalism_). Just it show up on JSTOR?

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