Abraham Lincoln despised class warfare, Thomas Jefferson detested bailouts and the founders of the nation were all Bible-believing Christians. These are among the historical “facts” you’ll learn as a regular consumer of talk radio, Fox News and other conservative sources.
While non-conservatives have been known to misquote historical figures to add credibility to their own views, the right seems to have a special enthusiasm for putting words in dead people’s mouths.
Take what has become known as the “The Ten Cannots,” a list repeatedly misattributed to Abraham Lincoln. It begins:
You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help little men by tearing down big men. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
And so on. These words were actually written by William J.H. Boetcker, a conservative minister who published them in a 1916 pamphlet along with some actual Lincoln quotes (Snopes.com, 8/19/09). Almost a century and many well-documented debunkings later (e.g., the 1989 Oxford Press book They Never Said It), some conservatives still insist on assigning them to Lincoln.
The canard is a staple of rabidly anti-Obama right-wing media such as Newsmax, where it has been repeated by columnist Geoff Metcalf (1/20/09) and radio talkshow host Al Rantel (3/1/04). This past summer, a flurry of letters to the editor citing Lincoln’s supposed remarks coincided with right-wing Tea Party demonstrations across the country (e.g., Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier, 8/8/09; South Florida Sun Sentinel, 9/18/09).
Rush Limbaugh (Rush Limbaugh TV show, 2/19/96) acknowledged falsely assigning the remarks to Lincoln in a 1986 speech he gave honoring the 16th president’s birthday. This admission came four years after former President Ronald Reagan misattributed the quote in his speech at the 1992 GOP convention and the New York Times (8/19/92), CNN (8/19/92) and NPR (8/20/92) ran stories disproving the Lincoln connection.
Current Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele used to include “Lincoln’s” advice in his boilerplate speech. It was in the pre-published text of his 2004 GOP convention speech, but not in the version Steele delivered; perhaps someone remembered Reagan’s RNC woes 12 years earlier (PR Newswire, 8/31/04). (Steele continues to use the quotes from the “Ten Cannots,” now saying that he learned them from his mother—e.g., Your World, 1/5/10.)
Putting the Founders to Work
When widely syndicated columnist Cal Thomas posted a commentary on his website (1/15/09) opposing federal bailouts, he cited quotes from Thomas Jefferson to bolster his argument, including:
The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.
My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.
Thomas described these quotes as “ancient wisdom,” which, he said, “is almost always better than what people come up with today. Consider that it became ancient because it was wise.”
But consulting The Works of Thomas Jefferson available in full at the Online Liberty Library, as well as the Library of Congress’ online Jefferson site, Ed Darrel of Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub (2/1/09) could find no evidence authenticating these quotes. As Darrel, whose website targets historical falsehood, observed, “Jefferson seem[ed] oddly prescient in these quotes, and, also oddly, rather endorsing the views of the right wing.”
Neither of these quotes could be authenticated on the Jefferson Library website (www.monticello.org) either, which includes them in its list of frequently cited “Spurious Quotations.”
In a syndicated column (Washington Times, 1/25/01), right-wing economics professor and Limbaugh stand-in Walter Williams used purported remarks by Jefferson and George Washington to argue against gun control. Gun control proponents were constitutionally ignorant, Williams wrote, because they didn’t understand the intentions of framers like Jefferson, who Williams claimed once wrote: “No man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” That quote can be found in the Spurious Quotations list on the Monticello website.
Williams also quoted Washington: “Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and keystone under independence.” Five years earlier, after Playboy magazine (12/95) ran a longer version of that same quote, the magazine had to run a lengthy retraction (3/96) that cited George Warren, editor of the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia, who called it “either a complete fabrication or a case of misattribution.” Williams and the Washington Times apparently found the quote too useful to fact check—or to retract.
Founders as ‘Bible-Believing Christians’
Over the last two decades conservatives have waged a war on the “wall of separation between church and state,” arguing that the United States was founded on Christian principles by deeply religious men who intended to enshrine their beliefs in its founding documents. As Rush Limbaugh (or ghostwriter Joseph Farah) wrote of the founders in his 1994 book See, I Told You So, “Don’t believe the conventional wisdom of our day that says these men were anything but orthodox, Bible-believing Christians.” The book cited constitutional architect James Madison as saying: “We have staked the future upon our capacity to sustain ourselves according the Ten Commandments of God.”
In reality, several founders (including Madison) were not Christians, and Limbaugh’s Madison quote is a fraud, as revealed in FAIR’s 1995 book, The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error. Furthermore, independent of his religious views, Madison was a staunch proponent of separation, arguing in his 1785 essay “A Memorial and Remonstrance”: “During almost 15 centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
But despite conclusive debunkings, the bogus Madison passage lives on, cited alongside other fraudulent founders’ quotes by conservatives who care less about history than ideological expediency. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby has cited a version of the bogus Madison quote on several occasions, including a column (6/5/00) chiding the ACLU for constitutional ignorance. A version of the “Madison” quote also appeared recently in an op-ed (Tulsa World, 6/30/09) written by U.S. Rep. Sally Kern (R-Okla.).
One of the most prolific purveyors of bogus founder quotes is Christian theocrat David Barton. Though not a household name, Barton’s tireless efforts to construct a Christian origin story for the United States have been praised by the likes of Pat Robertson and Newt Gingrich (Church & State, 7-8/96). His 1989 book The Myth of Separation attributed bogus quotes to Washington (“It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible’’), Jefferson (“I have always said and always will say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens”) and Patrick Henry (“It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ”). Barton has also misattributed the “Ten Commandments” quote to Madison.
In 1996 Barton admitted that these and nine other quotes he’d been circulating in his writings, videotapes and live appearances were either false or unverifiable (Church & State, 7-8/96). But Barton’s reputation suffered little from the fraud, according to Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church & State. “He’s doing better than ever,” Boston told Extra!, noting that since 1996 Barton has served as vice-chair of the Texas GOP, and now sits on the Texas state committee advising the state’s board of education on history and social studies curriculum, “despite no history credentials.”
Meanwhile, the bogus quotes Barton helped to popularize continue to make the rounds. In a 2007 column in the far-right World Net Daily (1/29/07), conservative activist and actor Chuck Norris used “Washington’s” passage about the impossibility of governing without “God and the Bible” to argue for teaching the Bible in schools. A Human Events profile (7/1/02) singing the praises of president of the Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools used the “Jefferson” quote about the need to study the sacred volume. The “Patrick Henry” quote on the U.S. being founded “on the gospel of Jesus Christ” has been repeated in numerous newspaper op-eds (e.g., Fond du Lac, Wisc., Reporter, 5/1/09; Wichita Eagle, 5/27/06; Columbia, S.C., State, 9/21/04).
Making fake history every day
You can’t expect a culture that conveniently fabricates history to restrict that practice to the distant past. So it’s not surprising to see conservative opinion leaders arguing, contra history, that Nazism is a liberal ideology (Extra!, 3/10) or that government spending made the Great Depression worse.
Nor is it surprising to see such commentators ignoring facts to distort current events. Witness the trend among conservatives who dismiss global warming science, fantasize imaginary “death panels” in healthcare legislation, or declare Barack Obama to be a Kenyan, a Muslim or maybe even the Antichrist (CNN, 8/15/08).
Indeed, the ascendance of a black, Democratic president seems to have sent irrational conservative tendencies into overdrive. Commentators Rush Limbaugh (10/23/09) and Michael Ledeen (Pajamas Media, 10/21/09) heatedly pointed to a socialist thesis they said was written by Barack Obama while a student at Columbia University. Like one of the the fake Lincoln or Jefferson quotes, the thesis was a hoax (St. Petersburg Times, 10/26/09), but it met the contemporary conservative standard: If it makes your point, run with it.
Appropriately, upon learning later in the show that the thesis might be a hoax, Limbaugh responded, “I don’t care if these quotes are made up. I know Obama thinks it.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this article cited two quotations attributed by Cal Thomas to Jefferson as dubious: “It is incumbent on every generation to pay off its own debts as it goes. A principle, which, if acted on would save us one-half of the wars of the world” and “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.” In the Jefferson Cyclopedia database at the University of Virginia, the first quote appears with slight wording variations, and the second quote is a close paraphrase of an actual Jefferson quote.