Misquoting the founders, still: Jefferson didn’t say banking is the end of America

May 20, 2015

He may have believed something similar, but Jefferson did not say this:

Quote, maybe edited, falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson; gathered from Twitter, 2015

Quote, maybe edited, falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson; gathered from Twitter, 2015

I’m not sure who originated the poster.  They probably had good intentions.

But turn to the Monticello website, the scholars who track Jefferson’s words most closely, in February 2012.

Quotation: “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”

Sources consulted:

  1. Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Digital Edition
  2. Thomas Jefferson: Papers collection in Hathi Trust Digital Library
  3. Retirement Papers

Earliest known appearance in print: 19941

Earliest known appearance in print, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: see above

Status:  This exact quotation has not been found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson.  It may be a mistaken amalgamation of the author’s comments in the above 1994 reference with a real Jefferson quotation.  Jefferson wrote in 1825 to William Branch Giles of “vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of ’76 now look to a single and splendid government of an Aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and monied in corporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.”2  Chomsky’s 1994 book quotes Jefferson’s 1825 letter to Giles and then comments that “[Jefferson] warned that that would be the end of democracy and the defeat of the American revolution.”

Jefferson didn’t like the idea of the marriage of banks, rich people and control of government policy.  Jefferson scholar Anna Berkes commented at the Monticello site:

Yes, I’ve quoted this letter myself above – I’m seeing that quote a lot lately. The full sentence as it appeared in Jefferson’s letter is, “I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in it’s birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and to bid defiance to the laws of their country.” The letter was first published in Ford’s Writings of Thomas Jefferson in 1892 (see http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t3pv6bn68?urlappend=%3Bseq=93 – the edition you link to is a 1904 commemorative edition of Ford), and the polygraph copy is also online: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib022651.

Anna Berkes
February 29, 2012 – 4:24pm

In any case, it’s not the end of our democratic republic yet! Get out there and organize, and vote.

Jefferson always offered good advice.

Jefferson's advice on quotes found on the internet

Jefferson’s advice on quotes found on the internet


Smoking out the bogus: Martin Porter’s “Four Principles of a Quotation”

March 25, 2014

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.

‘After all, a study I once read said something like 86% of all statistics cited in speeches are made up on the spot.’*

I looked up Martin Porter.  What are his principles of quotations?  Who is he, and why should we listen to him?

Mathematician Martin Porter, in the 21st century.

Mathematician Martin Porter, in the 21st century. Self portrait.

Turns out he’s a mathematician who works in algorithms to study language, and a founder of Grapeshot.  Along the way, he grew intrigued with trying to source a very famous quotation attributed to Edmund Burke (confess, you don’t really know enough about Burke to describe who he was, or why that quote might not be his, right? See Porter’s last principle).

Porter wrote an interesting essay about the experience, and about the wide abuse of the real Burke quote and what he’d learned.

At the end of the essay, he posed principles for quotations, two involving how we might hold the necessary skepticism that helps smoke out quotes that are bogus for one reason or another.

The other two, I confess, sometimes are difficult to follow.  One of my favorite statements from George Santayana, in the upper right corner of this blog, stands out of context (he wasn’t writing about history, really), nor have I read the entire book.  Porter proposes very high standards indeed: It’s not enough that the quote be accurately phrased and attributed appropriately to its creator; Porter wants the quote to be used in a similar context.  In his essay on the Burke quote, he notes Burke was talking of factions, but when Ronald Reagan used it, even getting the phrasing right, Reagan used it to talk about arming nations.  Porter suggests such a usage can lead us awry.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. No, not the same Whig Party that produced Millard Fillmore in America.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. No, not the same Whig Party that produced Millard Fillmore in America.

Porter is right, of course.

2014 is a federal election year.  Here in Texas we also have municipal elections in May — a lot of opportunities, to vote, a lot of campaigning, and a in that campaigning a stunning wealth of opportunities for people to misattribute quotes, or to invent whole new inappropriate contexts, twists, and diversions to accurate understanding.

We should heed Martin Porter better, perhaps.

Martin Porter’s four Principles for Quotations:

I therefore formulate and offer to the world the following Principles for Quotations, two for quoters and two for readers, which, if universally followed, would make an immense improvement to the reliability of the information available on the world wide web.

Principle 1 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.
Principle 2 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with a full source assume that it is probably being misused, unless you find good evidence that the quoter has read it in the source.
Principle 3 (for quoters)
Whenever you make a quotation, give the exact source.
Principle 4 (for quoters)
Only quote from works that you have read.

* You knew that one was bogus. Right?

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December 20, 1620: Mayflower passengers finally disembark at Plymouth, after agreeing to the Mayflower Compact

December 21, 2013

Item from The Associated Press‘s “Today in History” feature, for December 21:  “1620 – Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower went ashore for the first time at present-day Plymouth, Mass.”  Why in December?  The arrived at the place almost a month earlier, but because of delays in getting out of England due to the leaky second boat (which didn’t make the trip), and difficulties encountered en route, when the group anchored, they first had to come to an agreement how to govern the colony, so far out of the territory of the charter they had been granted, as explained below.  Originally, a version of this desultory ran here, on July 26, 2006.

Credit: Sarony & Major.

From the Library of Congress, one of the few illustrations of the event that makes it clear it was near winter: The Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, December 1620 Credit: Sarony & Major. “The landing of the Pilgrims, on Plymouth Rock, Dec. 11th 1620.” c1846. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Dispatches from the Culture Wars features a set of comments on an interview right-right-wing pundit John Lofton did with Roy Moore, the former chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court who lost his job when he illegally tried to force his religion on the court and on Alabama. In 2006 Moore ran for governor of Alabama, losing in the primary election.

One of the grandest canards in current thought about U.S. history is that the Mayflower Compact set up a theocracy in Massachusetts. Lofton and Moore banter about it as if it were well-established fact — or as if, as I suspect, neither of them has looked at the thing in a long time, and that neither of them has ever diagrammed the operative sentence in the thing.

The Mayflower Compact was an agreement between the people in two religiously disparate groups, that among them they would fairly establish a governing body to fairly make laws, and that they would abide by those laws. Quite the opposite of a theocracy, this was the first time Europeans set up in the New World a government by consent of the governed.

That is something quite different from a theocracy.

I think people get confused by the run-on sentences, and the flattering, intended-to-be-flowery language in the clauses prefacing the meat of the document.

First, a very brief history: There were two groups aboard the ship in 1620, about 70 artisans and craftsman along to provide the real work to make sure the colony made money, and about 30 religious refugees. The London Company (accurately) thought the religious refugees lacking in key skills, like trapping, hunting and hide tanning, and barrel-making (barrels were needed to ship goods to England). So the London Company had insisted the craftsman go along, to make sure somebody knew how to harvest stuff and ship it back.

The London Company had a charter to establish a colony in Virginia. Because of delays with leaky ships and uncooperative winds, the Mayflower got to America late, and much farther north. The Mayflower landed well outside the territory the company was chartered to colonize, and the 70 craftsmen announced they were striking out on their own. Bradford realized his group would freeze, or starve, or both, and at gunpoint he kept both groups aboard ship to work out a compromise.

Here is the full text, from the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law site:

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&.

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.

See what I mean? It’s loaded with clauses that tend to obscure what is going on. Starting out with the standard contract language of the day, “In the name of God, Amen,” it loses modern readers. We tend to think that with so many mentions of God without a “damn” following, it must be a religious document. But it’s not.

Here’s the meat the the document, the money quote:

We, whose names are underwritten . . . do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

Got that? They promised to form a government, enact fair laws, and obey those laws — government by consent of the governed, by mutual compact, not by divine right.

Just because God is mentioned in the document doesn’t change its nature. It’s a secular compact, an agreement between men, outside the stricture of any church, outside any particular belief.

As we noted over at Ed Brayton’s site, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, many New England settlements and towns became little theocracies. But it wasn’t the Mayflower Compact which set that up, or encouraged it.

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Millard Fillmore: Still dead, still misquoted, 139 years later

March 8, 2013

Millard Fillmore wax head

A wax likeness of Millard Fillmore’s head, appearing to be for sale for $950.00 back in 2007. Did anyone ever buy it? Yes, it does bear an unusual resemblance to Tom Peters.

March 8, 2013, is the 139th anniversary of Millard Fillmore’s death.  Famous lore claims Fillmore’s last words were, “The nourishment is palatable.”

What a crock!

Manus reprints the text from the New York Times obituary that appeared on March 9:

Buffalo, N.Y., March 8 — 12 o’clock, midnight. — Ex-President Millard Fillmore died at his residence in this city at 11:10 to-night. He was conscious up to the time. At 8 o’clock, in reply to a question by his physician, he said the nourishment was palatable; these were his last words. His death was painless.

First, I wonder how the devil the writer could possibly know whether Fillmore’s death was painless?

And second, accuracy obsessed as I am, I wonder whether this is the source of the often-attributed to Fillmore quote, “The nourishment is palatable.” Several sources that one might hope would be more careful attribute the quote to Fillmore as accurate — none with any citation that I can find. Thinkexist charges ahead full speed; Brainyquote removed the quote after I complained in 2007. Wikipedia lists it. Snopes.com says the quote is “alleged,” in a discussion thread.

I’ll wager no one can offer a citation for the quote. I’ll wager Fillmore didn’t say it.

Let’s be more stolid:  The quote alleged to be Fillmore’s last words, isn’t.  No one says “palatable” when they’re dying, not even the man about whom it is claimed that Queen Victoria pronounced him the hansomest man she ever met (just try tracking that one down), and whose strongest legacy is a hoax about a bathtub, started 43 years after he died.  No one calls soup “sustenance.”

The alleged quote, the misquote, the distortion of history, was stolen from the obituary in the New York Times.  Millard Fillmore did not say, “The sustenance is palatable.”

What were Millard Fillmore’s last words?  They may be buried in the notebook of one of his doctors.  They may be recorded in some odd notebook held in the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, or in the Library of SUNY Buffalo, or in the New York State Library‘s dusty archives.

But the dying President Fillmore did not say, “The sustenance is palatable.”

Millard Fillmore: We’d protect his legacy, if only anyone could figure out what it is.

This is partly an encore post, based on a post from 2007.

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One more time: Recognizing bogus history

May 14, 2012

2012 is an election year, a time when we make history together as a nation.  Potential turning points in history often get tarred with false interpretations of history to sway an election, or worse, a completely false recounting of history.  Especially in campaigns, we need to beware false claims of history, lest we be like the ignorants George Santayana warned about, doomed to repeat errors of history they do not know or understand.  How to tell that a purported piece of history is bogus?  This is mostly a repeat of a post that first appeared at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub six years ago.

Recognizing bogus history, 1

Robert Park provides a short e-mail newsletter every Friday, covering news in the world of physics. It’s called “What’s New.” Park makes an art of smoking out bogus science and frauds people try to perpetrate in the name of science, or for money. He wrote an opinion column for the Chronicle of Higher Education [now from Quack Watch; CHE put it behind a paywall] published January 31, 2003, in which he listed the “7 warning signs of bogus science.”

Please go read Park’s entire essay, it’s good.

And it got me thinking about whether there are similar warning signs for bogus history? Are there clues that a biography of Howard Hughes is false that should pop out at any disinterested observer? Are there clues that the claimed quote from James Madison saying the U.S. government is founded on the Ten Commandments is pure buncombe? Should Oliver Stone have been able to to more readily separate fact from fantasy about the Kennedy assassination (assuming he wasn’t just going for the dramatic elements)? Can we generalize for such hoaxes, to inoculate ourselves and our history texts against error?

Bogus science section of Thinkquest logo

Perhaps some of the detection methods Park suggests would work for history. He wrote his opinion piece after the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in which the Court laid out some rules lower courts should use to smoke out and eliminate false science. As Park described it, “The case involved Bendectin, the only morning-sickness medication ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It had been used by millions of women, and more than 30 published studies had found no evidence that it caused birth defects. Yet eight so-called experts were willing to testify, in exchange for a fee from the Daubert family, that Bendectin might indeed cause birth defects.” The Court said lower courts must act as gatekeepers against science buncombe — a difficult task for some judges who, in their training as attorneys, often spent little time studying science.

Some of the Daubert reasoning surfaced in another case recently, the opinion in Pennsylvania district federal court in which Federal District Judge John Jones struck down a school board’s order that intelligent design be introduced to high school biology students, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.

Can we generalize to history, too? I’m going to try, below the fold.

Here are Park’s seven warning signs, boiled down:

Park wrote:

Justice Stephen G. Breyer encouraged trial judges to appoint independent experts to help them. He noted that courts can turn to scientific organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to identify neutral experts who could preview questionable scientific testimony and advise a judge on whether a jury should be exposed to it. Judges are still concerned about meeting their responsibilities under the Daubert decision, and a group of them asked me how to recognize questionable scientific claims. What are the warning signs?

I have identified seven indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. Of course, they are only warning signs — even a claim with several of the signs could be legitimate. [I have cut out the explanations. — E.D.]

  1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
  2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
  3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
  5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
  6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
  7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

Voodoo history

Here, with thanks to Robert Park, is what I propose for the warning signs for bogus history, for voodoo history:

  1. The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, sometimes for pay.
  2. The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.  Bogus history relies more on invective than investigation; anyone with an opposing view is an “idiot,” or evil.
  3. The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure, or unavailable; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
  4. Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
  5. The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
  6. The author has worked in isolation, and fails to incorporate or explain other, mainstream versions of the history of the incident, and especially the author fails to explain why they are in error.
  7. The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation.

Any history account that shows one or more of those warning signs should be viewed skeptically.

In another post, I’ll flesh out the reasoning behind why they are warning signs.

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If Stalin said America is “a healthy body,” why can’t anyone find the source?

March 14, 2012

Joseph Stalin, via Chicago Boyz

Joseph Stalin would have to have been drunk to call the U.S. “healthy,” and to have complimented America’s patriotism, morality and spiritual life. Even then, it would be unlikely. Why does this quote keep circulating?

This has been floating around Tea Party and other shallow venues for a while, but I’ll wager Stalin did not say it:

“America is like a healthy body and its resistance is threefold:  Its patriotism, its morality, and its spiritual life.  If we can undermine these three areas, America will collapse from within.”

I can’t find any source for it; it’s mostly quoted on right-wing sites where people marvel over what a prophet Stalin was.  All requests for a citation in five or six different forums I’ve checked, are unanswered.  Nothing like it appears at the often-checked Wikiquote.  The Stalin Archive holds nothing close to the claimed quote.

Perhaps more telling:  Is it likely that Joe Stalin ever would have called the U.S. “a healthy body?”  Stalin was of a school that claimed capitalism was diseased, and America was infested with a soon-to-be terminal case.  If he called America “diseased” by patriotism and religion, it would be consistent with other statements, but his calling America healthy for patriotism and spiritual life, it’s inconsistent with other claims he made, about America and about capitalism (see Stalin’s 1929 remonstrance to the U.S. Communist Party, for example).

So, Dear Readers, my request to you:  Can you offer the source of this quote, Joseph Stalin or not?

Why would a false claim from Stalin get such a life on the internet?

Update, March 15, 2012:  I’m calling this one:  It’s a bogus quote.  Joseph Stalin didn’t say it.  Not as many comments here as e-mails and comments on other discussion boards and Facebook — no one has come even close to anything like the line above from Stalin.  No source quoting the line even bothers to give a decade, let alone a year, a location, and a citation that would pass muster in a sophomore high school English class.  Tea Partiers, you’ve tried to twist history again — stop it.

Update March 1, 2013: If you’re checking in here studying for a DBQ for an AP class, please tell us in comments, which AP class, and what city you’re in.  Thanks.


Utah report: More false “founders’ quotes” plague American discourse

April 25, 2010

Utah has a movement out to slander education and the Constitution, with a pointless claim that the Constitution cannot be called a “democracy,” damn Lincoln, Hamilton, Madison, Washington, both Roosevelts, and Reagan.

Sadly, it started in my old school district, the one where I got the last nine years of public school education, Alpine District, in the north end of Utah County.

They even have a website, Utah’s Republic. (No, Utah was never an independent republic before it was a state — it’s not like the Texas Republic wackoes, except in their wacko interpretations of law and history, where they are indistinguishable.)

At the blog from that site, there is a silly discussion on how a republic is a much superior form of government to a democracy.  Never mind that sheer numbers in our nation have always made democracy impossible (can’t get 150 million voters in one hall), or that distance makes it impossible to work (vote tomorrow in Washington, D.C.?  Everybody call the airlines, see if you can make it.)

So, I pointed out how a republic can also suggest tyranny.  And the response?  A flurry of “quotes from the founders.”

Can you vouch for any of these “quotes?”  Is any one of them accurate?

The Jefferson “mob rule” quote isn’t in any Jefferson data base that I can find. I find it also attributed to George Washington — but almost always without any citation, so you can’t check.

That maneuver is one of the key indicators of Bogus Quotes, the lack of any citation to make it difficult to track down.  All of these quotes come without citation:

As for a moral people, Washington said there could be no morality without religion and called it the “indispensable support,” not education. Obviously Jefferson and the Founders wanted education of the constitution to take place but we are very far removed from it in our education system.

Democracy… while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide. – John Adams

A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine. – 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. – Thomas Jefferson

Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote. – Benjamin Franklin

Democracy is the most vile form of government… democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property: and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. – James Madison

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. – Abraham Lincoln

The last one is probably accurate, but irrelevant to this discussion (nice red herring, there, Oak).  Can you offer links to verify any of them?

Is this what I suspect?  The “Utah Republic” drive is not only a tempest in a teapot (though perhaps caused by other more serious maladies), but also a tempest based on false readings of history?

The website for “Utah Republic” is maintained by a guy named Oak Norton, who is obviously in thrall to the voodoo histories of David Barton and Cleon Skousen (I think Barton stole a lot of his voodoo history from Skousen, but that’s another topic for another day).

Funny:  Nowhere do these guys discuss one of the greatest drivers of the republic, over more egalitarian and more democratic forms of government.  Remember, Hamilton preferred to have an aristocracy, an elite-by-birth group, who would rule over the peasants.  He didn’t trust the peasants, the people who he saw as largely uneducated, to make critical decisions like, who should be president.  Norton doesn’t trust the peasants to get it right, and so he wants to dictate to them what they are supposed to know, in Nortonland.

Just because Oak Norton slept through high school history and government is no reason to shut down Utah’s Alpine School District or any other school; he’s not offered much evidence that everyone else missed that day in class, nor evidence that it has any significant effect.

Jefferson's advice on quotes found on the internet

Jefferson’s advice on quotes found on the internet, backdropped by his books now held by the Library of Congress.


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