Price of Internet freedom? Eternal misquotes.

June 6, 2011

On election night, a jubilant Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) laid out the modern-day tea party’s philosophy — in the words of a man who was alive for the Boston Tea Party.

“Thomas Jefferson,” the newly elected Paul said, “wrote that government is best that governs least.”

No, he didn’t.

Last year on the House floor, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), angry about the federal overhaul of health care, read a quote he said was from George Washington.

“Government is not reason. It is not eloquence,” Gohmert read. “It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

Except, historians say, Washington never said those words.

This week, Sarah Palin (R), former Alaska governor and a possible 2012 presidential candidate, has been ridiculed for her telling of a story about America’s founding. By her account, Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn the Redcoats about the colonists.

But in Washington, nobody should feel too smug, as Palin is hardly the only politician with a habit of helpfully twisting the historical record, accidentally or not, and sometimes with politically handy consequences.

Senators, congressmen and even President Obama have misquoted the Founding Fathers in recent years — reverently repeating words that are either altered or entirely false.

The problem results, in part, from an unfortunate marriage of two 21st-century trends. One is the new obsession with the heroes of the American Revolution as guides in a fearful era defined by political division and deepening debt. The other is America’s continued willingness to believe things it reads on the Internet.

“As Jefferson said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said during a speech last summer.

That quote is cited as being from Jefferson online, but — alas — Jefferson never uttered it. The research staff at Monticello, Jefferson’s estate, says it was incorrectly attributed to Jefferson beginning in 1838, after he had died.

Word of this debunking, however, doesn’t seem to have reached Capitol Hill.

“Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, said this,” said Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.), speaking on the House floor last month. “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”

A search of the Congressional Record and C-SPAN archives, covering the past two years, turned up at least 30 instances of politicians mangling the words or deeds of the country’s founders.

Some errors were odd enough to be funny. In March, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) told a crowd in New Hampshire that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place there. But those fights actually took place in Massachusetts.

Other misquotes seem to carry political suggestion. Obama has been criticized for making the same mistake at least twice in his speeches. When he recites a passage from the Declaration of Independence, he leaves out three key words.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that each of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the president said in a speech at a Democratic fundraiser, according to a transcript on the White House Web site.

What the document actually says is “that they are endowed by their Creator.” Conservatives accused Obama of omitting the Declaration’s grounding in religious faith.

A White House spokesman said that Obama had gotten the passage right on “countless occasions.”

Republicans have used incorrect quotes to portray the founders as sympathetic to modern conservatism. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) offered this 2009 argument in favor of gun rights. “President George Washington said that the right to keep and bear arms is ‘the most effectual means of preserving peace,’ ” Hatch said on the Senate floor.

But Washington actually wrote something different: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”

A Hatch spokeswoman said Monday that he wasn’t sure how the error occurred but that Hatch “continues to believe that the right to keep and bear arms is fundamental and essential for liberty.”

In 2009, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) read a quote from Jefferson, which seemed like a warning about the welfare state.

“The democracy will cease to exist,” Coburn said, putting up a placard with the quote printed on it, “when you take away from those who are willing to work to give to those who would not.”

But the researchers at Monticello say those aren’t Jefferson’s words. Their research says this quote first surfaced in 1986, 160 years after Jefferson’s death.

Asked about the error Monday, Coburn’s staff did not say how it was made. A spokesman said that misquoting founders is far from the capital’s biggest problem.

“Of course we want to be accurate,” spokesman John Hart wrote in an e-mail. “However, we have a $14 trillion debt because politicians have misapplied the founders’ words — particularly those in the Constitution — not because they have misquoted the founders.”

But voters might just as easily ask themselves: Even if the founders didn’t say those things, would they have agreed with them?

Yes, no and maybe, historians say. Jefferson was an advocate of a smaller central government — although in an era when the government was far different than it is today.

“I think that the Postal Service was, like, six people” in Jefferson’s time, said Jill Lepore, a historian at Harvard University. “And he thought that was too many.”

Washington, on the other hand, advocated for a stronger central authority. Edward Lengel, who has edited Washington’s papers, said he was frustrated that modern politicians ignore historical facts.

“It’s a betrayal of Washington’s legacy. It’s a betrayal of who he was,” said Lengel, a University of Virginia professor. “He would have been outraged to find people manipulating his words, or making things up, to indicate that he supposedly believed this or that thing.”

But, Lengel said, misquoting the founders is a tradition that started even before the founders were dead. During Washington’s second term as president, he said, political enemies circulated fake letters in which Washington allegedly expressed admiration for an enemy, Britain’s King George III.

He said that at first, Washington said nothing. He thought people knew him well enough to know the quotes were fake.

They didn’t.

“People really believed it,” Lengel said.

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