False Quotes Department: Jefferson, Kerry, Tim and Josh


Catching false quotes is a key goal of this enterprise.

Back in April, Josh at The Everyday Economist linked to Tim Blair with an almost snarky catch of John Kerry citing a line from Jefferson that, alas, Jefferson didn’t write or say. Tim links to The Jefferson Library. It’s short; here’s the entirety of Tim’s post:

John Kerry:

No wonder Thomas Jefferson himself said: “Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism.”

The Jefferson Library:

There are a number of quotes that we do not find in Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence or other writings; in such cases, Jefferson should not be cited as the source. Among the most common of these spurious Jefferson quotes [is]:

* “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

Jefferson could have said something like that (and did — posts for another time, perhaps). I don’t find this common error nearly so irritating as those where a founder is quoted saying quite the opposite of what he or she would have said, or did say. In some quarters it is considered sport to poke fun at John Kerry, but those are usually quarters where no Vietnam veteran will go uninsulted, and I prefer not to keep such company. But Kerry may fairly be called to task for not checking his quotes enough. The fact is, Jefferson didn’t say that thought in that collection of words, and people with paid speechwriters should get such attributions right.

I participated in a discussion of this quote back in May, over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

I bring this up here, again, to show how bad things get rolling. Look above, again, at the post from Tim Blair. As I read it the first time, the Jefferson Library was saying that this one quote was among the most common misattributions. More ways to poke fun at John Kerry, since nearly everyone else on Earth knows the error, right? No, look again: Tim has honestly put in brackets the word “is.” In the original, at the Jefferson Library, there is a series of misquotes, and the word is “are.”

So let us be grateful that we know better, and let us not deride Kerry for making a grand error, when he only made a common one. Here is the entire list, from the Jefferson Library:

Unconfirmed and Incorrectly Attributed Quotes

There are a number of quotes that we do not find in Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence or other writings; in such cases, Jefferson should not be cited as the source. Among the most common of these spurious Jefferson quotes are:

  • “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
  • “We should build an aristocracy of achievement based on a democracy of opportunity.”
  • “An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy.”
  • “Information is the currency of democracy.”
  • “A nation is as good as its values.”
  • There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.”
  • “When the government fears the people, there is liberty; When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”
  • “I have nothing but contempt for anyone who can spell a word only one way.”
  • “I am a big believer in luck. The harder I work, the more I have.”

In other cases, quotes are often attributed to Jefferson but were actually said by others:

  • “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” (John Philpot Curran)
  • “Those who sacrifice freedom for safety deserve neither.” (Benjamin Franklin)
  • “That government is best which governs least.” (Henry David Thoreau)
  • “I am a revolutionary so my son can be a farmer so his son can be a poet.” (John Adams)

Just to cap off the tale, I would like to note that someone did come very close to saying dissent is patriotism. It was a Republican of the 20th century, however: Theodore Roosevelt.

According to the Theodore Roosevelt Association:

Recently several people have written to ask us about a viewpoint TR had on criticism of the presidency. This quote was part of an editorial he wrote for the “Kansas City Star” during World War I.

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.” [emphasis added by this blog]

“Roosevelt in the Kansas City Star”, 149
May 7, 1918

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4 Responses to False Quotes Department: Jefferson, Kerry, Tim and Josh

  1. [...] There are a number of quotes that we do not find in Thomas Jefferson?s correspondence or other writings; in such cases, Jefferson should not be cited as … I think it’s good article.Link to original article [...]

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  2. edarrell says:

    This site credits the quote to historian Howard Zinn:
    http://en.thinkexist.com/quotation/dissent_is_the_highest_form_of/289567.html

    It’s attributed to Zinn in an interview with TomPaine.com:
    http://www.why-war.com/news/2002/07/03/howardzi.html

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  3. edarrell says:

    Someone commented at Dispatches from the culture wars that a good saying is a good saying by itself — it doesn’t need the weight of authority behind it. Think about it: The best quotes don’t need attribution; it rather spoils the effect to have to say who said it first, after saying, “Go ahead: Make my day.”

    Did anyone really say it in any significant context before it became a bumper-sticker slogan? Great question. Alas, William Safire has retired.

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  4. Chris says:

    Ahhhh, but I like that quote…

    And it is on a bumper-sticker on a car in my household. How do we use the quote, then, if we don’t know who to attribute it to? I guess we could leave it un-attributed, but adding great names from history does add weight…

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