I hate getting Thomas Jefferson wrong.
I don’t like slighting anybody from our past, given how hard they struggled and strained to bring us to the present. But, considering how much he contributed to this country’s founding ideas, I especially hate getting Jefferson wrong.
Alas, I did, though.
While writing a column about the evils of socialism, I searched for a pithy quote about freedom. Nothing shores up a lofty commentary like a pithy quote from our intellectual betters.
What I found was:
“That government is best which governs the least.” — Thomas Jefferson.
Not so fast, wrote an alert reader. It was actually Thoreau, in his essay on “Civil Disobedience,” who said that (and he was referencing an existing, nearly identical phrase, at that). What Jefferson said was: “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”
Rats. I hate getting Jefferson wrong, especially when it involves getting Henry David Thoreau wrong in the process. A terrible twofer.
Poor Jefferson. Just hanging out with the other dead presidents, trying to make the best of eternity and striving mightily not to roll over in his grave, when along comes a glib, shallow columnist, pulling words out of his mouth that he never actually uttered.
A glib, shallow columnist, it should however be stressed, who has paid scrupulous attention to quote accuracy.
Even in the pre-Google days, I prided myself of being able to spot a phony quote.
And not just the easy ones, such as the fact that George Washington never said, “I cannot tell a lie.” He was a politician, for goodness sake. He was the father of his country and the patron saint of lying presidents who paved the way for “Read my lips — no new taxes” and “I did not have sex with that woman.”
I even knew the obscure misattributions, such as the fact that Horace Greeley never said, “Go West, young man.” Greeley and lots of other people — including Hoosier newspaper editor J.B.L. Soule — expressed variations of that Manifest Destiny sentiment, but researchers have never found those exact words ever said by anyone.
In the digital age, of course, faux quote finger-waggers abound, much to the delight of history purists and the chagrin of pithy-searching, commentary-shoring-up columnists. You could fill entire volumes with the things never really said by Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Mark Twain, not to mention (please don’t) Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau.
Quote mining is, in fact, so easy these days that you’d think we’d be cured of playing fast and loose with them. But we can’t seem to help ourselves. The current version, though, involves mangling rather than misattribution.
I remember a party amusement (I’ve heard it called the Telephone Game) involving a whispered sentence. Participants stand in a line (or sometimes in a circle). The first person whispers the simple sentence into the ear of the closest person, who repeats what was heard into the next person’s ear and so on down the line, until the end when the first and last persons reveal their sentences and it is discovered that they bear absolutely no resemblance to each other. Something like, “The lazy dog walked around the wooden fence” can become something like, “Only Baptist vegetarians wear yellow suspenders.”
The real-life, everything-is-politics version of the game is that someone in the public eye says something entirely sensible and reasonable, which then gets filtered through the press and social media to the point where it is butchered beyond recognition, usually to make the person seem ridiculous and intemperate.
All Al Gore said was, “I took the initiative in creating the Internet,” simply meaning that he was instrumental in the legislating facilitating it.
But he has been forever branded as the braggart who claimed, “I created the Internet.”
Sarah Palin never said, “I can see Russia from my house.” It was Tina Fey, impersonating her in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. But the line served the “conservatives are either dumb or evil” crowd, so it stuck.
Oh, well. If we can’t get the tame, static past right, little wonder that we can’t help screwing up the furiously dynamic present.
As Jefferson once never said, “Things are where they are, not where you think you put them.”
But there I go again. I hate getting Thomas Jefferson wrong. Please note, I did not — not, not, not — say I hate Thomas Jefferson Although I’m sure I will, any day now.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at