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February 20, 2007
Hunting the Wily Jefferson Quotation (Episode 1)
The Internet, it seems, is a breeding ground for spurious Jefferson quotations. I suppose I shouldn't complain about this, since I secretly (okay, it's not a secret now) enjoy hunting the wily Jefferson Quotation. Most of the time they turn out not to be Jefferson quotations at all. I will ruminate on that at some future point, but for now I want to highlight an interesting case in point. "All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent."Someone sent me this quotation yesterday, saying they had seen it attributed to Jefferson and asking me to confirm that. I thought I had this one all wrapped up before I even started, having seen this quotation (or one very much like it) at the end of the movie Tears of the Sun, attributed to Edmund Burke. The lesson here, of course, is that one should never look to movies for accurate citations, because on closer examination it seems that no one so far has managed to prove that Edmund Burke said this either. Respectfully Quoted at Bartleby.com has an interesting note on this quotation, suggesting that it is a paraphrase of Burke's comment, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle,” from Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, April 23, 1770. That is all very well and good, but to anyone interested in this quotation, I direct your attention to the following essay by one Martin Porter: "'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing' (or words to that effect): A Study of a Web Quotation" Mr. Porter has done an exhaustive survey of occurences of this quote, in all its glorious forms, on the Internet and has some fascinating things to say about its misattribution and quotation misattributions in general. His follow-up essay criticizes the suggestion that the snappy quotation being proliferated around the globe is a paraphrase of the somewhat-less-exciting sentiment from Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, arguing that the two quotations are really not analogous at all, and the latter is taken out of context to boot. I've got lots more Quotation Mysteries in Ye Olde Reference Question Queue, so stay tuned...