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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Monday, May 25, 2009

Who Said, “Guard against Ignorance and Remain Free”?

Here’s another founding-era quotation that you can find all over the internet. For obvious reasons, it’s a particular favorite of librarians and conspiracy theorists.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. . . . If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.
These sentences are attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and some writers go so far as to cite his letter to Charles Yancey on 6 Jan 1816.

But, as one can see by reading the letter, only the first sentence appears in it. Where did the rest of the quotation come from?

Those words turn out to be from another President—Ronald Reagan. In a statement issued for National Library Week in 1981, and published in U.S. government reports that year, he said:
If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, as Jefferson cautioned, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.
So Reagan alluded to Jefferson’s comment, and even dropped his predecessor’s name in the middle of the sentence, before making his own point. But within four years, writers had removed Reagan’s citation, stuck the sentences together (usually with an ellipsis between), and attributed the whole combination to Jefferson. And a lot of those early distortions of the quotation appeared, alas, in library newsletters.

This is one of a whole slew of spurious quotations from Jefferson on Monticello’s Jefferson Encyclopedia, which is an interesting use of the wiki format by a historic institution.


Robert S. Paul said...

"Librarians" or "Libertarians"? They are two distinct groups, although I am sure there are a few individuals who are both.

J. L. Bell said...

“Librarians,” because the Jefferson quotation was about the value of information, and Reagan’s remarks were about supporting libraries.

Not that libertarians don’t appreciate knowledge as well, but I don’t see them as distinct on the political spectrum for that.