Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Conservative Arguments Based on Faked Quotes

If you are going to lie to buttress a conservative cause, why not attribute the falsehood to a Founding Father like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry?  In a pinch, try Abraham Lincoln.

The names will resound with readers, even if the quotes are all spurious.

That approach has been the widely practiced rhetorical technique by lots of conservatives, from commentators like Rush Limbaugh to political candidates.  They are repeated so often that, like all propaganda, become accepted parts of conversations.

Take this popular Washington quote, which appears regularly on pro-gun talk shows and in print: "Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty, teeth and keystone under independence."

However, according to the library at Mt. Vernon, Washington’s estate, “This quotation does not show up in any of Washington's writings, nor does any closely related quote.”

That’s no surprise.  Gun advocates love to manufacture quotes.

Folks with a religious bent and hell-bent to impose their beliefs also enjoy a few made-up quotes.  This is one supposedly came from Washington: "It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible."

The Mt. Vernon Library, repository of all information about Washington, reported: “The library has yet to find an explanation for this misquote, locate another individual who said this statement, or uncover a similar quote of Washington's that was similar to this statement.”

Washington also supposedly said:  "The great thing about the American Christian is he would rather die on his feet than live on his knees."  No, he didn’t.  That quote also does not show up in anything the first president said or wrote.

Nor did famed Revolutionary War orator Patrick Henry say, “The Constitution is not a tool for government to restrain the people. It’s a tool for people to restrain the government.”  That “quote” actually appeared on the internet in 2003 with the fake attribution.

The religious right really loves to misquote Thomas Jefferson, who never said nor believed:  “I have always said and always will say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens.” 

Equally, Patrick Henry did not say, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

In fact, none of the Founding Fathers believed that.  That’s why the Constitution has no mention of God, and the Bill of Rights is headed by freedom of religion.

Jefferson gets words put into his mouth on a regular basis.  He supposedly said, “No man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”  No, he didn’t.  That quote has a home in the Spurious Quotations list on the Monticello website.

The third president and noted scholar also never said, “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not” or “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”

He didn’t agree with those sentiments anyway.  Henry David Thoreau, a mid-1800s philosopher, actually published that last line, but then he hated government and went to jail to avoid paying taxes.  He also rejected religion, but that aspects of his views are never cited by conservative commentators.

Jefferson did not write, “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.”  That comes from a 1914 book by an otherwise unknown writer named John Basil Barnhill, although it’s been attributed to famed Revolutionary War-era patriots like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams as well as Jefferson.

Even actual quotes get twisted.  Washington didn’t say, "What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ."

Instead, in a May 12, 1779 speech to Delaware Indian tribal leaders, he said, "My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do everything they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to lose it."

Washington, like his counterparts, was actually trying to get Indians to assimilate culturally into the country.

Washington also didn’t say:   "A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government."

What Washington actually said in his first State of the Union address was: "A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite; and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies."

He was promoting was an industry that produced weapons, not the willy-nilly ownership of the weapons.  

Abraham Lincoln is also popular with folks who use imaginary quotes.  He didn’t say, “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help little men by tearing down big men. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.”

That was actually written by William J.H. Boetcker, a conservative minister who wrote a 1916 pamphlet with fake quotes right along with a few real ones.

Of course, most people don’t check out the sources or even verify the comments.  Anna Berkes, the research library at Jefferson’s old estate, Monticello, understands why: "People will see a quote, and it appeals to an opinion that they have.  Jefferson's name attached to it gives it more weight," she said. "He's constantly being invoked by people when they are making arguments about politics and actually all sorts of topics."

Ironically, Jefferson was a strong proponent of education who insisted that his tombstone list only his role as founder of the University of Virginia.  He probably would be more appalled by the ignorance of people who hear and believe the manufactured quotes than by the quotes themselves.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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