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.

Follow by Email


Saturday, June 01, 2019

How to Assess a Founder’s Quote

In the last two days I ran into two false Founder’s Quotes on Twitter:

  • a statement attributed to John Hancock at a council with Iroquois leaders that he never attended. (The statement could arguably have been attributed to Philip Schuyler, who led the Continental delegation there, but was presented as a joint statement.)
  • words from Alexander Hamilton about limited government, ironic since in his time he was a champion of an expansive federal government.

I therefore decided this was a good time to lay out my rules of dealing with Founder’s Quotes. You know, those statements attributed to someone involved in setting up the U.S. of A. which so often happen to accord with the political outlook of the person repeating the quotation.

First, what not to do.

Don’t trust memes, T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, or the like. The people who make those things want your money and/or your mind.

Don’t trust quotation websites. They’re crowdsourced but don’t seem to check sources, and they copy from one another. Put a fake quote onto one of those sites, and it can spread like measles through an unvaccinated daycare. The exception is Wikiquote, which asks people to provide sources for the quotations they upload and is formatted to allow other people to question and discuss those quotations. Still not authoritative, but better.

Don’t trust books published after quotation websites began to proliferate. Especially books about political topics. Authors are all too happy to go onto one of those quotation websites and grab a statement that appears to come from a Founder and fits their message.

Here are some easy places to check.

The Washington Library at Mount Vernon has a section of its website devoted to spurious Washington quotations.

Monticello has the same for ersatz Jefferson statements.

Some Wikiquote pages have an “Attributed” and/or “Disputed” section for questionable quotes and a “Misattributed” section for no-question falsehoods.

It’s always fun to check in with Garson O’Toole’s Quote Investigator, devoted to tracking down who said what when and first. Most of its targets seem to come from more recent centuries, but the Founders make a showing.

If the situation still warrants investigation, here are the steps I take.

Break the quote down into segments of five to seven words. Look for unusual words and words that don’t often appear in that exact sequence. Searching for long quotes can return false negatives because of (a) variable eighteenth-century spelling, (b) words dropped from the middle of a phrase to make it more pithy, and (c) O.C.R. difficulties in scanning.

Search for each segment at Founders Online. Put the segment in quotation marks. The results will still contain a lot of examples which are like the phrase, not exact matches, but those might be useful. For more hints, look at the site’s “Searching” functions.

Search for each segment on Google Books. Again, put the segment in quotation marks. The top results will be exact matches, followed by near matches. If you see a lot of books published in this century, click on “Tools” and then under “Any Time” ask for appearances only in the 20th century, then only in the 19th century.

The major Founders were so well documented that most of what they’ve written was collected and published by the end of the 1900s. Thus, if a quote shows up only in books printed in this century, that’s a good reason to doubt it can really be traced to the Founders’ time. It more likely came through one of those quotation websites.

Don’t be satisfied with a book presenting the quotation as a quotation: “As Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said,…” Or even, “As John Jay wrote,…” Look for citations to particular documents—a letter written on a specific date, an essay. Look for the quotation within a longer passage.

Be alert to words coined after the eighteenth century. Franklin never ate “lunch.” Samuel Adams didn’t know from “brush fires.” Dictionary sites like Merriam-Webster and Etymonline say when a word first appeared in print.

If you find a quotation in a passage reliably attributed to a Founder, take an extra second to assess the context. Eighteenth-century prose tended toward long sentences, full of cascading clauses and modifiers that build to their conclusions. In contrast, modern taste runs toward the pithy. Even authentic Founders’ Quotes are often extracts from much longer sentences, which can alter their meaning.

Knowing context might change how you choose to characterize or use the quotation. For example, a lot of the aphorisms in Poor Richard’s Almanack didn’t come from Franklin’s wit but from books of sayings he used to fill space. John Adams’s “Facts are stubborn things” was a common saying. Hamilton’s statement “Here sir, the people govern” wasn’t about the U.S. of A. but about the House of Representatives as a contrast to the Senate.

Finally, the burden of proof remains on the person quoting a Founder. If you’re skeptical, it’s not your job to prove a Founder didn’t say or write something. It’s the job of the quoter to show that the Founder did. {{Attribution always needed.}}


Anonymous said...

"Don't trust quotes from the internet."

- Cato the Younger

J. L. Bell said...

I believe that was actually said by Cato the Middle Child.

Mike said...

Whenever I say, "...like measles through an unvaccinated daycare," I'll attribute it to you and provide the link to this article.

Byron DeLear said...

Great study piece John!