Misquoting Jefferson?


Statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial - Visiting DC image

Statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial - Visiting DC image

A commentary from Cal Thomas caught my eye – little more than a few quotes from Thomas Jefferson strung together.  Jefferson seems oddly prescient in these quotes, and, also oddly, rather endorsing the views of the right wing.

From the way the text is laid out, and the brevity of the piece, I’m guessing it’s a radio commentary.

I read Jefferson often.  I’ve read Jefferson a lot.  I don’t recognize any of the quotes.

So I plugged them into the Jefferson collection at Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty, which has a lot of Jefferson ready for full-text searching.

Oops.  None of the quotes scored a hit.

Couldn’t find them in the Library of Congress’s on-line list of quotes, either.

It looks as though Jefferson didn’t say these things that are being attributed to him.

Cal, is that you?

Cal, can you give us citations on these quotes?

How about you, Dear Reader?  Can you save Cal Thomas’s bacon by providing a citation for any of the quotes below, alleged to be from Thomas Jefferson?

AS WE LISTEN TO TALK OF BAILOUTS AND ENDLESS DEBT, THINK ON THESE THOUGHTS FROM THOMAS JEFFERSON:

“THE DEMOCRACY WILL CEASE TO EXIST WHEN YOU TAKE AWAY FROM THOSE WHO ARE WILLING TO WORK AND GIVE TO THOSE WHO WOULD NOT.”

HERE’S ANOTHER: “IT IS INCUMBENT ON EVERY GENERATION TO PAY ITS OWN DEBTS AS IT GOES. A PRINCIPLE WHICH IF ACTED ON WOULD SAVE ONE-HALF THE WARS OF THE WORLD.”

AND ANOTHER: “I PREDICT FUTURE HAPPINESS FOR AMERICANS IF THEY CAN PREVENT THE GOVERNMENT FROM WASTING THE LABORS OF THE PEOPLE UNDER THE PRETENSE OF TAKING CARE OF THEM.”

AND ONE MORE:  “MY READING OF HISTORY CONVINCES ME THAT MOST BAD GOVERNMENT RESULTS FROM TOO MUCH GOVERNMENT.”

There you have ‘em, Dear Readers.  Did somebody hoodwink Cal Thomas into thinking these are Jefferson’s bon mots, when they are not?

Shake of the wet scrub brush to Truthseeker.

Below the fold, the complete Cal Thomas commentary.

CAL THOMAS COMMENTARY JANUARY 16, 2009

ANCIENT WISDOM IS ALMOST ALWAYS BETTER THAN WHAT PEOPLE COME UP WITH TODAY. CONSIDER THAT IT BECAME ANCIENT BECAUSE IT WAS WISE.

AS WE LISTEN TO TALK OF BAILOUTS AND ENDLESS DEBT, THINK ON THESE THOUGHTS FROM THOMAS JEFFERSON:

“THE DEMOCRACY WILL CEASE TO EXIST WHEN YOU TAKE AWAY FROM THOSE WHO ARE WILLING TO WORK AND GIVE TO THOSE WHO WOULD NOT.”

HERE’S ANOTHER: “IT IS INCUMBENT ON EVERY GENERATION TO PAY ITS OWN DEBTS AS IT GOES. A PRINCIPLE WHICH IF ACTED ON WOULD SAVE ONE-HALF THE WARS OF THE WORLD.”

AND ANOTHER: “I PREDICT FUTURE HAPPINESS FOR AMERICANS IF THEY CAN PREVENT THE GOVERNMENT FROM WASTING THE LABORS OF THE PEOPLE UNDER THE PRETENSE OF TAKING CARE OF THEM.”

AND ONE MORE: “MY READING OF HISTORY CONVINCES ME THAT MOST BAD GOVERNMENT RESULTS FROM TOO MUCH GOVERNMENT.”

JEFFERSON IS CONSIDERED BY THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY TO HAVE BEEN THE FIRST DEMOCRAT. TODAY’S DEMOCRATS (AND REPUBLICANS) WOULD DO WELL TO ATTEND TO HIS ANCIENT WISDOM.

WANT THESE QUOTES? VISIT CALTHOMAS.COM AND CLOCK ON “TRANSCRIPTS.” I’M CAL THOMAS IN WASHINGTON.

Here is an image of Jefferson’s letter to Thomas Cooper of November 29, 1802 — from which comes the quote upon which is based the third quote attributed by Thomas; see comments for corrected wording.

2nd page, letter of Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, November 29, 1802 (often misquoted) - Library of Congress

2nd page, letter of Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, November 29, 1802 (often misquoted) - Library of Congress

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27 Responses to Misquoting Jefferson?

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Mr. Apple — see the authoritative source who wrote in earlier, Anna:

    I did my best to run down the whole list and include each quote in our TJ Encyclopedia (which I’ve very happy to see you’ve discovered) but just for easy access here’s a blog entry I did that goes down this list one by one: http://jeffersonlibrary.wordpress.com/2008/12/10/epic-10-part-reference-question/. – Anna Berkes, Research Librarian, Jefferson Library

    Like

  2. Mr. Apple. says:

    Correcton to my previous post. In the first paragraph,the sentence should have read:
    Apparently this is in FACT correct, according to the “Jeffersonian Cyclopedia”

    My apologies.

    Like

  3. Mr. Apple. says:

    In reference to “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.”- Please see http://www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/j/jefferson-quotes.htm
    Apparently this is in correct, according to the “Jeffersonian Cyclopedia” published in 1900 by Funk and Wagnalls and edited by John P. Foley page 227. This was mentioned earlier by Phillipswcs

    Further:I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”-Truth! Found on Page 271

    In addition: I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”-Truth! Found on Page 271

    the others quotes listed at the top of the string do not appear in the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia.

    Like

  4. But I find it hilarious that teabaggers think we should follow their interpretation of what Jefferson said on that letter….but they, or rather the religious nutjobs among them, want to wholesale ignore what Jefferson said about the separation of church and state in Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists.

    Hypocrisy much?

    Like

  5. Well this is what http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/wasting-labours-people-quotation has on it:

    Note: This passage has often been mis-quoted as, “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.” Ford and L&B have also slightly mis-transcribed the original text as, “If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.”

    And this would be from: http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=JefLett.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=147&division=div1

    DEAR SIR, — Your favor of Oct 25 was received in due time, and I thank you for the long extract you took the trouble of making from Mr. Stone’s letter. Certainly the information it communicates as to Alexander kindles a great deal of interest in his existence, and strong spasms of the heart in his favor. Tho his means of doing good are great, yet the materials on which he is to work are refractory. Whether he engages in private correspondences abroad, as the King of Prussia did much, his grandmother sometimes, I know not; but certainly such a correspondence would be very interesting to those who are sincerely anxious to see mankind raised from their present abject condition. It delights me to find that there are persons who still think that all is not lost in France: that their retrogradation from a limited to an unlimited despotism, is but to give themselves a new impulse. But I see not how or when. The press, the only tocsin of a nation, is compleatly silenced there, and all means of a general effort taken away. However, am willing to hope, as long as anybody will hope with me; and am entirely persuaded that the agitations of the public mind advance its powers, and that at every vibration between the points of liberty and despotism, something will be gained for the former. As men become better informed, their rulers must respect them the more. I think you will be sensible that our citizens are fast returning, from the panic into which they were artfully thrown to the dictates of their own reason; and I believe the delusions they have seen themselves hurried into will be useful as a lesson under similar attempts on them in future. The good effects of our late fiscal arrangements will certainly tend to unite them in opinion, and in a confidence as to the views of their public functionaries, legislative & executive. The path we have to pursue is so quiet that we have nothing scarcely to propose to our Legislature. A noiseless course, not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy. Their finances are now under such a course of application as nothing could derange but war or federalism. The gripe of the latter has shown itself as deadly as the jaws of the former. Our adversaries say we are indebted to their providence for the means of paying the public debt. We never charged them with the want of foresight in providing money, but with the misapplication of it after they have levied it. We say they raised not only enough, but too much; and that after giving back the surplus we do more with a part than they did with the whole.

    Like

  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Got a link? I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

    Like

  7. Joe says:

    If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.

    Here it is from the site you provided

    Like

  8. Ed Darrell says:

    Compilations of quotes that don’t offer detailed citations shouldn’t be trusted. They may be correct on occasion, but I wouldn’t use them for a politician’s speech, let alone an academic paper or a legal cite.

    Several of these quotes have at least vestiges of fact in them. Stick with the University of Virginia and the people there who knock themselves out to get Jefferson stuff correct and accurate.

    Like

  9. phillipswcs says:

    About half of these quotes are found in the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia” published in 1900 by Funk and Wagnalls and edited by John P. Foley. The other half are not and as yet, don’t seem to have validation.

    Like

  10. Drew Vitale says:

    The “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.” quote is in the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia on page 227, where it says the number 2002, followed by the quote.

    Like

  11. Devona Wyant says:

    In poetry, when you take lines from various sources and put them in a different order it’s called a Found Poem.
    Cal Thomas has created a Found Commentary and I wish he’d get lost.

    Like

  12. Mike says:

    This exact quotation has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. It bears a very vague resemblance to Jefferson’s comment in a prospectus for his translation of Destutt de Tracy’s Treatise on Political Economy: “To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, ‘the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, & the fruits acquired by it.”

    Like

  13. Anna says:

    That would be pretty cool if either the Madison Papers or Montpelier could provide a spurious Madison quotations resource. We basically did ours to preserve our own sanity – we are asked about TJ quotations so often, we thought perhaps it might cut down on our crushing reference question load if we put the information out there for people. I’m sure other famous figures could do with their own spurious quotes debunking resource as well. I think most places take the tack though of just providing legitimate sources for the Writings of Whomever, and not directly addressing all the material floating around that’s wrong (or possibly/probably wrong). I’ll ask them, though.

    Like

  14. Ed Darrell says:

    Oooh, thanks for the link, Anna.

    Hey, do you have any influence at the Madison Papers group at the University of Virginia? Could they do the same thing for Madison quotes?

    It would be a full-time job for anybody working in Lincoln quotes . . .

    Like

  15. Anna says:

    This list has accounted for an inordinate amount of reference traffic for us lately, so your blog entry here made me very happy. I’m so glad to see I’m not the only one who reads that list and says, “Hey, wait a minute…!” I did my best to run down the whole list and include each quote in our TJ Encyclopedia (which I’ve very happy to see you’ve discovered) but just for easy access here’s a blog entry I did that goes down this list one by one: http://jeffersonlibrary.wordpress.com/2008/12/10/epic-10-part-reference-question/. – Anna Berkes, Research Librarian, Jefferson Library

    Like

  16. toby says:

    “IT IS INCUMBENT ON EVERY GENERATION TO PAY ITS OWN DEBTS AS IT GOES. A PRINCIPLE WHICH IF ACTED ON WOULD SAVE ONE-HALF THE WARS OF THE WORLD.”

    Well, Christ Almighty! It’s a pity George Bush or Dick Cheney never heard that one!

    Like

  17. Ed Darrell says:

    Who in the world is John Sharp Williams — and what are the odds that we can properly cite the quote to him?

    Thanks for the news, Karl.

    Like

  18. karl says:

    Oh, but one of them is also attributed to John Sharp Williams:

    http://thinkexist.com/quotation/my_reading_of_history_convinces_me_that_most_bad/195448.html

    An interesting excercise in accuracy…

    Like

  19. karl says:

    One site confirms the first quote as from Jefferson without specific attribution as to when and where he said it.

    http://www.famous-quote.net/thomas-jefferson-quotes.shtml

    The second and fourth quotes are at:

    http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/thomasjeff136389.html

    http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/thomasjeff157220.html

    karl

    Like

  20. Ed Darrell says:

    It’s interesting to me that Jefferson seems not to have used the word “incumbent” much; plus, Jefferson, who was broke much of his life, rarely handed out financial advice, even to government.

    I’d much more easily believe Ron Paul invented it, than Thomas Jefferson. What do you think? I am leery of quotes that go for so long without being tied down to a real writing of a person.

    Like

  21. mpb says:

    “IT IS INCUMBENT ON EVERY GENERATION…”

    http://tinyurl.com/ctbwwg for the google search. only 31 cites without repeats and seems to result recently from Ron Paul.

    However, here is a 2007 source, from UVA. However, there is no specific cite [e.g., volume id, page, etc.]
    [PPT]
    SASFAA-Nashville February 12, 2007 An Academic Approach to …
    File Format: Microsoft Powerpoint – View as HTML
    “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which, if acted on, would save one-half the wars of the world.” …
    http://www.sasfaa.org/docs/conferences/2007/presentations/AcademicApproachtoFinancialLiteracy.ppt -

    Like

  22. Ed Darrell says:

    From the Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress:

    The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes. Federal Edition. Collected and Edited by Paul Leicester Ford.
    Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, November 29, 1802

    Washington, Nov. 29, 1802.

    Dear Sir,–Your favor of Oct 25 was received in due time, and I thank you for the long extract you took the trouble of making from Mr. Stone’s letter. Certainly the information it communicates as to Alexander kindles a great deal of interest in his existence, and strong spasms of the heart in his favor. Tho his means of doing good are great, yet the materials on which he is to work are refractory. Whether he engages in private correspondences abroad, as the King of Prussia did much, his grandmother sometimes, I know not; but certainly such a correspondence would be very interesting to those who are sincerely anxious to see mankind raised from their present abject condition. It delights me to find that there are persons who still think that all is not lost in France: that their retrogradation from a limited to an unlimited despotism, is but to give themselves a new impulse. But I see not how or when. The press, the only tocsin of a nation, is compleatly silenced there, and all means of a general effort taken away. However, I am willing to hope, as long as anybody will hope with me; and I am entirely persuaded that the agitations of the public mind advance its powers, and that at every vibration between the points of liberty and despotism, something will be gained for the former. As men become better informed, their rulers must respect them the more. I think you will be sensible that our citizens are fast returning, from the panic into which they were artfully thrown to the dictates of their own reason; and I believe the delusions they have seen themselves hurried into will be useful as a lesson under similar attempts on them in future. The good effects of our late fiscal arrangements will certainly tend to unite them in opinion, and in a confidence as to the views of their public functionaries, legislative & executive. The path we have to pursue is so quiet that we have nothing scarcely to propose to our Legislature. A noiseless course, not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy. Their finances are now under such a course of application as nothing could derange but war or federalism. The gripe of the latter has shown itself as deadly as the jaws of the former. Our adversaries say we are indebted to their providence for the means of paying the public debt. We never charged them with the want of foresight in providing money, but with the misapplication of it after they had levied it. We say they raised not only enough, but too much; and that after giving back the surplus we do more with a part than they did with the whole.

    Your letter of Nov 18 is also received. The places of midshipman are so much sought that (being limited) there is never a vacancy. Your son shall be set down for the 2d, which shall happen; the 1st being anticipated. We are not long generally without vacancies happening. As soon as he can be appointed you shall know it. I pray you to accept assurances of my great attachment and respect.

    Like

  23. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for the link, J. A. Higginbotham!

    Like

  24. Ed Darrell says:

    Over at Truthseeker, the Reasonable Citizen has commented:

    I plug the whole quote into Google and find it at Think Exist.com. however, a peek at The Jefferson Encyclopedia says no evidence has been found that it was ever written by Jefferson.

    The second quote cannot be found at all.

    The third is a misquote of a letter to Thomas Cooper in 1802 per The Jefferson Encyclopedia.

    The last quote cannot be found.

    http://wiki.monticello.org/mediawiki/index.php/Thomas_Jefferson_Encyclopedia

    Like

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