Sunday, May 19, 2013

In the Immortal Words of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson is ubiquitous on Facebook.  It's remarkable how germane his 18th and early 19th century ideas are to contemporary American politics.  For example, according to an acquaintance's Facebook page, Jefferson said, "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything you have."  It seems the implications are clear--Jefferson, our beloved sage, a god of political discourse, even two hundred plus years in the past, could foresee the dangers of allowing a more progressive view of government services to exist.

Except, unfortunately (or fortunately, if you disagree with both the quote and the intended application), Jefferson never said that.  Here are some clues: 1.  If a 200+ year old quote seems perfectly pertinent to a 21st century political debate, perhaps it was either taken out of context, or never actually said.  2.  18th century language is not renowned for its pithiness, and this quote is undeniably simple and pithy--frankly, the style of political discourse most similar to contemporary American politics.  Here's a real Jefferson quotation for comparison:

"Societies exist under three forms sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states in a great one. 3. Under governments of force: as is the case in all other monarchies and in most of the other republics. To have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep. It is a problem, not clear in my mind, that the 1st. condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population. The second state has a great deal of good in it. The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has it's evils too: the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem. Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." - Jefferson to James Madison, January 30, 1787

Not pithy; in fact, kind of long and by today's standards, full of subordinating clauses (and the odd Latin phrase) that a modern reader might find cumbersome.  In other words, difficult to use to grab attention in a world of twitter-length attention spans .  

And yet falsely attributed Jefferson quotations persist.  They seem to pop up every month or so, and I constantly have to restrain myself from being the obnoxious know-it-all who points it out (although I am always gratified when another know-it-all does it for me).  The problem is so large that the Monticello website maintains a page dedicated to spurious quotations.  You can see a Monticello librarian discussing it here.

But why should it matter so much who said it anyway?  Why does proving it's not actually Jefferson make me feel smug when a more conservative friend is trying to make a point counter to my more progressive views?  Perhaps because the falsely attributed quote above really says nothing remarkable.  It doesn't make any new or original points or support itself with any kind of compelling evidence.  Its value seems to lie solely in having been said by Thomas Jefferson, and so proving he never said any such thing deflates the entire argument.  Jefferson was an admirable, brilliant man, whose legacy endures to this day.  But why is a 200+ year old quote from him so powerful?  Why does Thomas Jefferson having said it make it any more valid?  What does this say about our need to submit our opinions to an authority figure?  Isn't that somewhat anti-Jeffersonian? Shouldn't we be willing to create our own arguments to fit the times and circumstances, perhaps in staunch opposition to much older notions of what political directions we should be headed?  As the man himself said,

"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

Except, of course, he didn't.


robin marie said...

I am moderate and I hate all the politcal rants and especially non-referenced quotes on Facebook! I love that you found that quote site on Monticello.

Czechdeb said...

I totally agree. I really dislike when people post things they saw somewhere and didn't bother researching. It feels very passive aggressive to me, like "I'm throwing my opinion in your face, but it's not MY opinion--Jefferson said it!"