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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Saturday, August 09, 2014

Founders’ Favorite Quotations, part 3

Here’s the final run of “quotations” from America’s founders as chosen by some current tech company founders earlier this year. I put “quotations” in quotation marks because not all of them are, in fact, quotations from the people said to have said them.

I’m not holding these sayings to the original standards of punctuation, capitalization, or spelling, but I do want to see all the same words in the same order for them to qualify as quotations.

“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” –Thomas Paine
From Paine’s The American Crisis.

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.” –Patrick Henry
From Henry’s 23 Mar 1775 speech to the Virginia Convention, the same that includes the phrase “Give me liberty or give me death”—at least as reconstructed by Henry’s biographer William Wirt in 1817. But a lot of Henry’s contemporaries thought Wirt’s work was bogus.

“Fear is the passion of slaves.” –Patrick Henry
Henry said this in a speech to Virginia’s ratifying convention in 1788. At the time he was arguing against the new U.S Constitution.

“The circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money.” –James Madison
Madison said this in a speech to Virginia’s ratifying convention in 1788. At the time he was arguing for the new U.S. Constitution.

“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” –Abraham Lincoln
This use of the word “hustle” would have been anachronistic for Lincoln, and he was, again, not a Founder.

“Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, we pursued a new and more noble course: We accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society.” –James Madison
Madison wrote something like this in The Federalist, Number 14, in 1787. However, this misquotation says “we pursued” and “We accomplished” when Madison wrote “they,” referring to “the leaders of the revolution.” Madison was only twenty-four when the Revolutionary War began and didn’t claim to be a leader of that movement.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin
Oh, please—that’s not eighteenth-century style. This appears to be a modern translation of a Chinese proverb, but that could be a myth as well.

“Lost time is never found again.” –Benjamin Franklin
Poor Richard’s Almanac for 1748. Franklin later elaborated on this sentence in “The Way to Wealth,” so I’m willing to give him credit even if he had a habit of quoting old sayings.

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” –James Madison
Someone took a longer sentence that Madison wrote to a friend in 1825 and stitched together this short sentence; at the very least there should be an ellipsis mark after “knowledge.”

“Diligence is the mother of good luck.” –Benjamin Franklin
Poor Richard’s Almanac for 1736. But the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations dates it to the late 1500s.

Out of these ten statements, five are correctly attributed to prominent American Founders, though one of those attributions has been debated since it appeared. Two more are significantly changed from what a man wrote, one is a much older saying, and two are falsehoods.

So what have we learned? First, for generations Americans have been attributing pithy things to Benjamin Franklin that he didn’t write or didn’t originate. More recently, we’ve been doing the same with Thomas Jefferson—not just on political matters but also lifestyle wisdom.

Finally, as the dueling speeches from Henry and Madison about the Constitution show, we can’t expect to treat the Founders as a single bloc of wise folk when they had hearty disagreements and temperamental differences among them.


Pacificus said...

So if Paine didn't originate "These are the times that try men's souls...," then from whom does it originate?

On a side note, I'm an ESL teacher by profession, and I found Paine's Crisis quote from #1 to be helpful and entertaining mid semester in helping the students get back some of their motivation. I changed it, of course to fit their situation(s):

"THESE are the weeks of the semester that try student's souls. The summer English learner and the sunshine student will, in this English learning crisis, shrink from the task of achieving their goals; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of his/her family, friends, classmates, and teachers. English, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the language (assignment/test, grammar principle, pronunciation, spelling, etc.) the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value."

~Tomás Paiñe, former English Language Center student (adapted in reality from Thomas Paine's "American Crisis #1.")

Everyone got a kick out of it.

J. L. Bell said...

Both of the quotations attributed to Thomas Paine in the article I was vetting were actually published by Paine, as was “These are the times that try men’s souls.” And I thought he did originate that line.

Thanks for the paraphrase. There’s a lot of power in Paine's acknowledgment of a tough time but promise of coming out better in the end.