J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Another Mistaken Quotation

And speaking of ersatz Samuel Adams quotations, here’s another one that’s been spread around:

When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.
The Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had a bumper sticker with this statement in his possession when he was arrested. I can’t tell if that sticker attributed those words to any particular political thinker, but people writing about McVeigh said they came from Adams.

Other writers, however, give credit to Thomas Jefferson (shown here) and to Thomas Paine.

In fact, the quote appears to be a modern derivation of these words from Amos Pinchot, a Progressive who turned to the right in the late 1930s:
Today, the nations of the world may be divided into two classes—the nations in which the government fears the people, and the nations in which the people fear the government. It is the New Deal’s tragedy that it is moving this country into the second class.
H. L. Mencken picked that up in his 1942 New History of Quotations on Historical Principles. Prof. Gary Dean Best quoted Pinchot in Peddling Panaceas and The Retreat from Liberalism, two histories of twentieth-century U.S. economics.

Some webpages credit Pinchot but transform his name into Pinochet, who really knew how to make the people fear the government.

ADDENDUM: Monticello has found an earlier version of this quotation from 1914. The speaker was John Basil Barnhill, and the occasion was “a series of debates on socialism.” There are so many spurious Jefferson quotations floating around that Monticello has a whole category of its Wiki about them.

1 comment:

Rob Velella said...

I love these posts on misattribution!