Are you sure that’s what our forefathers said?

By Billy Dennis

One of the most damaging side effects of social media is the proliferation of misinformation. Spreading like a virus, it has begun to infect our society as a whole.
One recent phenomenon caught my eye: misquoting our founding fathers. I’m sure both factions of our political ideologies participate in some degree, but the lion’s share of these erroneous quotes comes from the conservative and Tea Party crowd.
Here, I have decided to tackle a few of their favorites.
“The Bible is the source of liberty.”
I find this one to be particularly puzzling since Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, and as such, did not exactly revere the Bible. Since Jefferson didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, he created the Jefferson Bible, which took out all mentions of miracles attributed to Jesus as well as any references to him being the Son of God.
The earliest source I could find that attributed this quote to Jefferson was from the 1952 book, Our Public Schools – Christian or Secular, by Renwick Harper Martin. Basically, we can blame this quote on America’s new religiosity in the face of Soviet atheism.
At the time this quote became famous, we were even amending our Pledge of Allegiance to include the words, “Under God.”
“Never trust a government that doesn’t trust its own citizens with guns.”
I’ve seen this quote numerous times as a result of the recent mass shootings and calls for stronger gun regulations. The only problem, Benjamin Franklin never said it. I have scoured Franklin’s writings looking for this quote, and it has proven to be quite elusive.
It’s not found is any of his Poor Richard’s Maxims and cannot be found in the digital archive of The Franklin Papers, a website sponsored by Yale University. The genesis of this quote appears to be a meme circulated on social media.
“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”
Sorry Libertarians, but Jefferson didn’t say this one either. It is one of those quotes we can all imagine him saying, which is exactly why it’s so pervasive today.
The earliest known appearance of this quote in print was in 1914. However, this quote was not attributed to Jefferson until 1994. Like the other quotes, this one can be directly tied into the politics of the time.
In 1994, two years into the Bill Clinton presidency, many Conservatives and Libertarians believed the government was becoming too intrusive and overreaching. This quote was used to bolster their point of view.
While we all enjoy reading and hearing our favorite quotes from the founding fathers, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to take quotes from the 18th and 19th century and superimpose them onto our politics today.
For example, one actual quote of Franklin’s that I hear all the time is, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
This quote made a lot of sense when the chief threats of the day were cannons and muskets, but something tells me Franklin would amend this quote if he lived with the threat of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states and stateless terrorist groups coupled with our own jingoistic nature.