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Spurious Quotations

A collection of quotations commonly misattributed to Thomas Jefferson.

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Teri Pettit's picture
I've seen this quotation going around, and can't find it on this site, either as real or spurious: "Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor."
Teri Pettit
aberkes's picture
Teri, it is a genuine Jefferson quote, from TJ to Edward Carrington, January 16, 1787. Here's the transcription from the Ford edition: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015005705820?urlappend=%3Bseq=384. And the letterpress copy, which is at the Library of Congress: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib002478.
Anna Berkes
590599323@facebook's picture
After visiting Popular Forest in the past few days, reading extensively about Jefferson on this site, I can only say I was quite disappointed that so many historians, and Americans insist on ignoring this man for what he was, a man. An intelligent, vain, flawed man. A man who saw the poor, who saw suffering, who saw slavery and knew it was wrong but his desires, overpowered what he knew was wrong. He was not strong enough to make the right decisions. We are all faced with that each day. He wanted a big house, he wanted fun sex with a concubine, he wanted free labor and the things he could buy for himself more than he wanted what he knew was right. Plain and simple, those moral battles had been argued for 4,000 years, and he knew the ramifications. They were not clouded by the times. He knew, and he chose the easy way because he was a weak man. A great man, would have chosen differently. Many did, during his time. He was an intelligent man, who contributed, who tried, in my opinion, to make up for by his public service for this conflict, but, he knew, he did not want to be remembered for, as his death bed wish confirmed for these contributions. He was flawed. He was a man. A great man, just a man.
590599323@facebook
Elizabeth's picture
Hi - I've been seeing this lately - can you tell me if it's real? It seems, like many of the other fake quotes, a little specific and prescient to be real, but then again... I'm not an expert. :) "If the people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny." -- Thomas Jefferson
Elizabeth
aberkes's picture
Hi Elizabeth - I've just put up a page on this one. It is genuine, sort of... http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/if-people-let-government-decide-what-foods-they-eat-and-what-medicines-they-takequota
Anna Berkes
Diane Ekern's picture
A new one has been going around the internet recently. Interestingly, this "quotation" cannot be found in a web post prior to October 1, 2011. I traced it to a column and asked the columnist for a citation. She said that she had found it in a book by Fawn Brodie. The quotation is: "My wish was, to see both Houses of Congress cleaned of all persons interested in the bank or public stocks - cleansed, that is - of all corruption." Spurious?
Diane Ekern
795133451@facebook's picture
So what are the two enemies of the people? I got a 404 error when I clicked to find out.
795133451@facebook
cwollerton's picture
Apologies, Joe. You can find the quote <a href="http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/two-enemies-people-are-criminals-and-governmentquotation">here</a>.
Chad
mbcraw2's picture
This quote is making the rounds and has been recently cited by several US Congressmen. It also appears on the Balanced Budget Amendment wiki page being attributed to a 1798 letter from TJ to John Taylor of Caroline. "I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government; I mean an additional article taking from the Federal Government the power of borrowing." This seems awfully convenient. Do you know if this is correctly attributed?
Brian in Georgia
aberkes's picture
Brian, this is actually a real Jefferson quotation - from TJ to John Taylor of Caroline, 26 November 1798. The Balanced Budget Wikipedia page cites the Lipscomb-Bergh edition of Jefferson's writings for the quotation, but I notice that they actually leave a phrase out. Here is the full passage, with the missing part in bold: "I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our constitution; I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government <b>to the genuine principles of it’s constitution</b>; I mean an additional article taking from the federal government the power of borrowing." I think that the Balanced Budget Amendment page on Wikipedia, and other sources that leave out that bolded phrase, are copying from Eyler Robert Coates' "Jefferson on Politics & Government" site: http://www.famguardian.org/Subjects/Politics/ThomasJefferson/jeff1340.htm. Coates' compilation is generally reliable but in this case it looks like there was a slight error. The letterpress copy of this letter (somewhat smudgy, I'm afraid) is available on the Library of Congress website: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib009149 - the relevant passage starts at the end of line 5.
Anna Berkes
D Ekern's picture
I believe I have another spurious quote for you. It's found on a number of webpages but not one with a citation. "The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations."
d ekern
aberkes's picture
This one was slippery, but I think I figured it out. It's Noam Chomsky (or perhaps David Barsamian) + Jefferson. I've created a new spurious quotation page for this one, and you can see all the details there: http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/end-democracyquotation
Anna Berkes
16118471@facebook's picture
Here's a curious one: "Some people will believe anything, so long as it eliminates the awful requirement of thought. Our electors are like a cork in a bathtub, they bound joyfully about the tub without direction of plan, until the master of the System gives them direction and instruction, which they gladly Follow. Thomas Jefferson, 1816" That's from Adrian Krieg. Our Political Systems. Oakland, OR: Elderberry Press, 2004. p.124. Among other red flags, Krieg's "Cultural Doctorate in Manufacturing Science" from World University reminds me of the first part of the "quote," that "Some people will believe anything"....
16118471@facebook
aberkes's picture
That <i>is</i> curious. The only source I can find, anywhere, that uses that quotation is Adrian Krieg's book. It also looks like something of a hybrid - the first sentence has a more modern ring than the rest of it. If you spot this quotation anywhere else, let me know.
Anna Berkes
16118471@facebook's picture
I suspect this isn't Jefferson, as many claim: "In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock." There are some close variations on it, some of which have a real Jefferson quote appended as part of it. Just trying to source it very quickly, the oldest occurrence I found was in More Borrowings. San Francisco: C.A. Murdock & Co., 1891, where it was unattributed. Oldest one attributing it to Jefferson was New Medical Schools at Home and Abroad: Report of a Macy Conference (1978).
16118471@facebook
aberkes's picture
Christopher, you are quite right - that is not a Jefferson quotation as far as we know. The variations of this quote that you found with real Jefferson quotes attached to them are interesting - I've seen that phenomenon before with other quotes, but not this one (until now). I had another question about the "swim with the current" quote not too long ago, so it's on my list to do an article on this one. Stay tuned!
Anna Berkes
16118471@facebook's picture
Thanks!
16118471@facebook
lgrim's picture
Undoubtedly sometime in our lives we hear someone begin a phrase, &quot;Well, as Thomas Jefferson once said...&quot; We typically go about our lives without wondering is that something that Thomas Jefferson actually said or wrote. Monticello&#039;s librarians, however, have taken on the task of verifying some popularly cited Jefferson &quot;quotations&quot; that they come across. Here&#039;s a collection of some of the bogus quotations containing interesting tidbits about the detective work the librarians undertook.
Linnea Grim
echew's picture
This is a fantastic example of our learned and witty librarians at work!
Elizabeth Chew
cwollerton's picture
It&#039;s not that quotes get mistakenly attributed to Jefferson that fascinates me so much as the types of quotes that do and how, in a couple of cases, the quotes already have great pedigrees. For instance, the &quot;That government is best which governs least&quot; is by Henry David Thoreau, not Jefferson. But you get the sense that many people would rather it were by Jefferson because of his key role in the nation&#039;s founding. What&#039;s also fairly amusing is that when I check to see what search phrases bring people to the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia site (and not just the Spurious Quotes page), two of the top ten are quotes frequently misattributed to Jefferson.
Chad
aberkes's picture
This is my pet collection of Thomas Jefferson quotations that aren&#039;t, and we&#039;ve worked long and hard to compile them. All the famous (or infamous) non-Jefferson quotations are listed here, but new ones are cropping up every day, so watch this space...
Anna Berkes

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