You are here

Quotation Frustration

Anna Berkes

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: " 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!

Legacy NID: 


Login or register to participate in our online community.