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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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Another Fake Founders Quotation

This time it’s James Madison. Google counts over 200,000 webpages attributing the following sentence to him:

Americans have the right and advantage of being armed—unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.
Often that attribution comes with what looks like a citation: “The Federalist Papers #46 at 243-244.”

But here’s the full text of #46 of the Federalist Papers. It doesn’t contain those words. It contains some of them, in the following passage (emphases added):
Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it.
Madison was writing in favor of the new U.S. Constitution during the ratification debate of 1788. He dismissed the fear that the stronger national government’s standing army could become a tool of tyranny by pointing to the militias of the “subordinate governments”—i.e., the states.

Madison contrasted that early American system to European societies, supposedly more susceptible to oppression. He assured readers that those nations lacked two things: arms and “the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves.” Madison was “not certain” that arms alone could cast off national tyranny, but felt “the greatest assurance” that the combination of arms and local republics could.

Madison didn’t address the possibility that state governments could be tyrannical, aided by their militias/armed populace. Or what would happen if the militia system he knew went away and the national government and standing army grew, but governments at all levels also grew more democratic—the situation we have now.

Who cobbled together different phrases from Madison’s essay to produce the false quotation? I’m not sure. Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association included it in his 1994 book Guns, Crime, and Freedom, with brackets around the word “have,” suggesting that he knew something had changed from the original. Google Books suggests that the quote appeared before that in the American Legion Magazine around 1989. But there are no examples of this Madison “quotation” earlier than that.

Google Books offers an easy modern way to check whether a quotation actually comes from the Federalist Papers, or any other book published in quantity before 1923 (as most of the famous Founders’ papers were). Search for the quotation with the “Full view” toggle on. That knocks out all the books still under copyright, including recent books that could just be echoing the same myth back and forth.


RFuller said...

I have seen the cite that Wayne LaPierre used. It would seem others removed the qualifiers in the quotation that indicated there was more to it, and went off with the quote as they saw fit, or understood. (Not everybody understands the fine, correct points of quotation) Once it gets on the Internet, with no other backup source, or challenge, it becomes a meme or reflected like feedback in a noisy rock concert.

Similarly, for example, Sarah Palin didn't say, "I can see Russia from my house" (Tina Fey, impersonating her, did), but it doesn't stop commentators or comedians from attributing it to her, because, like amending or changing LaPierre's quote of Madison, it fits their purposes, or there's nobody to challenge it. (She doesn't need Tina Fey. Ms Palin has enough "quotable quotes" in her file already...)

Thanks also for enclosing the entire quote from Madison. It further amplifies what he intended in the 2nd Amendment, which, although reasonable people might disagree about its purpose and effects today, certainly meant that a well-armed populace was part of ensuring freedom.

Phid said...

It's a good point that Madison did not make such a statement as found in the popular quotation. I should point out that Google Books shows us that the quote goes back at least to 1987 when James Gazori used it in some form in "Firearms in America:
the costs and benefits associated with the private citizen ownership of firearms". While Google Books does not provide the exact way in which the quote was used, it is likely that the misquote happened after it was more correctly used in the way that Phyllis Schlafly used it in her "Schlafly Report" of 2000: "James Madison: Americans have 'the advantage of being armed' -- unlike the citizens of other countries where 'the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.'" You can see that quotations are around Madisons words, and not around the modern-day paraphrasing of the rest of what he said. Thus, it seems that the misquote began after people started omitting the necessary quotation marks.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for those references. Google Books search is sometimes quirky, especially around punctuation and line breaks, so the Gazori book didn’t pop up for me.

The 2000 Schlafly Report does indeed appear to use the quotation marks correctly, and leaves out the word “right,” which Madison didn’t use in that paragraph.

The LaPierre book from six years earlier doesn’t have correct quote marks, though it has brackets to indicate the writer knew he was changing something.

So the story’s more complex than the correct quote marks being dropped, and everyone after that getting it wrong. Folks at the Schlafly Report did go back to the Federalist Papers to check.

J. L. Bell said...

Roger, I agree that “I can see Russia from my house!” has joined “Judy, Judy, Judy” and “Play it again, Sam” as quotations we associate with celebrities which were actually created by celebrity impersonators.

Of course, “I can see Russia from my house!” is a lot easier to remember and comprehend than what then-Governor Palin told CBS News about Russia:
“We have trade missions back and forth, we do. It's very important when you consider even national-security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right next to, they are right next to our state.”

John L. Smith said...

RFuller - your Sarah Palin example is irrefrutable.
Thank you, J.L. for using a common Madison misquotation in your example of how how society mixes reality and uh...ir-reality, and to check using the so-valuable Google Books (full text) resource!

RFuller said...

John L. Smith, it may be "irrefrutable", but it cannot be "refudiated".

(And, yes, I was careful to put these terms in quotation marks :) )

EarRe Feeling said...

Madison seems not to have considered that our thinking about firearms has made the nation less secure in our homes, as the USA is the murder capital of the Western world. How could he have missed that? Was there no NRA in 1789?

Anonymous said...

This sort of thing plagues Second Amendment scholarship (and, no, not just that of Michael Bellesiles). Consider the Jefferson quotation that ". . . one loves to possess arms." It appears on the NRA website (without the elipses), and in recent scholarship, like Don B. Kates' 2009 article, "A Modern Historiography of the Second Amendment," in the UCLA Law Review (a forum on the Heller decision).

The problem is Jefferson was not talking about guns at all. He was looking for some political ammo against Hamilton and Knox as relations soured with France. Here is what he wrote to Washington in 1796:

"While on the subject of papers, permit me to ask one from you. You remember the difference of opinion between Hamilton & Knox on the one part, & myself on the other, on the subject of firing on the little Sarah, and that we had exchanged opinions & reasons in writing. On your arrival in Philadelphia I delivered you a copy of my reasons, in the presence of Colo. Hamilton. On our withdrawing he told me he had been so much engaged that he had not been able to prepare a copy of his & General Knox's for you, and that if I would send you the one he had given me, he would replace it in a few days. I immediately sent it to you, wishing you should see both sides of the subject together. I often after applied to both the gentlemen but could never obtain another copy. I have often thought of asking this one, or a copy of it, back from you, but have not before written on subjects of this kind to you. Tho I do not know that it will ever be of the least importance to me, yet one loves to possess arms, tho they hope never to have occasion for them. They possess my paper in my own handwriting. It is just I should possess theirs. The only thing amiss is, that they should have left me to seek a return of the paper, or a copy of it, from you."

Check it out yourself at the Library of Congress.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that example. That surely is a metaphorical use of “arms,” and looks quite different without the context of Jefferson’s letter.