Sourcing Thomas Jefferson quotes: “A country with no border . . .” Jefferson didn’t say it


Way back in 2012 I wrote this:

A group calling itself “Patriotic Moms” claims to quote Thomas Jefferson:

Thomas Jefferson 3x4

Thomas Jefferson said a lot, and kept careful records of about 15,000 letters — but did he ever say a country without a border is not a country? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“A country with no Border is not a country.”

I can’t find that in Jefferson’s writings.  Anybody know if Jefferson said or wrote anything like that?  Got a citation?

Is this another fake Jefferson quote?

More, reference:

Here we are, over a year later, and this does not appear in any form that I think we can say Jefferson said it, or wrote it.  It’s not in any Jefferson collection I can find.

Perhaps even more telling, our old friend Higginbotham finds a solid attribution to former Congressman Mike Pence (now Governor of Indiana), introducing a bill in Congress in 2005.

The judges rule Jefferson did not say “A country with no border is not a country.”  Neither did he say “A nation with no border is not a nation.”  In his bogus quote, neither did he add “secure” before the last “country” or “nation.”

It’s a misattributed quote, a bogus quote, a distortion of history, whatever epithet you wish to impale it on.  But it’s not from the canon of Thomas Jefferson wisdom.  It’s been flying around the internet this past week, and my earlier post has increased activity. Perhaps immigration is about to heat up as an issue?   Time to put this canard down.

Here’s one thing that should make you very wary of any quote in any similar circumstance:  No one seems to know what the occasion was that Jefferson made the remark, nor the date, nor the format.  Jefferson’s writings are extensively indexed, and he kept copies himself of about 15,000 letters, for the sake of history.  If you can’ t find it quickly, he probably didn’t say it.

More, in 2013:

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7 Responses to Sourcing Thomas Jefferson quotes: “A country with no border . . .” Jefferson didn’t say it

  1. […] Commenter SBH put me on to this interesting set of principles from a mathematician, on bogus quotes, and how to determine that they are bogus, and most important, how to avoid creating a bogus quote by stripping context or altering the text. […]

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  2. mt says:

    It’s not the most obvious anachronism I’ve seen in fake quotes but it just doesn’t have an 18th century America feel to it. For one thing, population centers were isolated and borders were undefended; indeed the maps themselves were quite approximate.

    I think the version with “secure” in it is clearly anachronistic. Jefferson does use the word “secure”, mostly as a verb, but occasionally as an adjective. However, its adjectival use does not appear to line up with the modern military usage:

    “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis”

    ” Having found, from experience, that impeachment is an impracticable thing, a mere scare-crow, they consider themselves secure for life”

    https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    I’ve seen it attributed to Reagan, too — but can’t find it in anything published prior to Pence’s speech. Every Reagan listing I find leaves out any date or publication or other data.

    Listen to SBH . . .

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  4. JamesK says:

    I have it as Reagan saying it. But haven’t been able to source it for sure yet.

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  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Martin Porter’s rule is a good one.

    [scrambling to figure out who Martin Porter is/was]

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  6. sbh says:

    Why would Jefferson have said this? On what occasion? The only context in which this saying makes sense is that of illegal immigration, and that really wasn’t an issue (as far as I recall) in the founding era. And the United States didn’t exactly have fixed borders in Jefferson’s time. The westward border (at any rate) was constantly changing, and Jefferson played a significant role in that; it makes it hard to fit that saying into any likely context.

    Personally, I feel that Martin Porter’s first rule of quotations applies here: “Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.”

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