What do the atheist group Backyard Skeptics and the religious right group ForAmerica have in common? Both like Thomas Jefferson and both misquote him.
In October of 2011, the Backyard Skeptics cited Thomas Jefferson with a proclamation that Christianity was “fables and mythology” and put the quote on a billboard advertising their group. However, the quote was spurious and when confronted with the evidence, the group's leader, Bruce Gleason, acknowledged the mistake.
Last Friday, the religious right group ForAmerica posted on Facebook an image of Thomas Jefferson with the quote, "Most bad government has grown out of too much government." ForAmerica, founded by Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell, boasts over 2.2 million followers. At this writing, over 88,000 people have liked the quote and over 34,000 have reposted it. However, the quote, like the one posted by the atheists, is falsely attributed to Jefferson by ForAmerica.
The Monticello research library keeps a list of spurious sayings attributed to Jefferson and the ForAmerica quote already had an entry. According to the researchers at Monticello, this quote comes from a 1913 lecture on Jefferson by Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams. Williams was speaking about Jefferson when he included his own views on government. He told the Columbia University crowd, “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government has grown out of too much government.” A great quote for those favoring limited government but not one which came from our third president.
Indeed, Jefferson was wary of the power of government. However, he also believed central government had a role to play in promoting the common good. For instance, when the Virginia legislature failed to allocate what he considered to be appropriate funding for public education, he berated them. Comparing Virginia to New York, Jefferson criticized the Virginia lawmakers in a 1820 letter to legislator Joseph Cabell: “Surely Governor Clinton's display of the gigantic efforts of New York towards the education of their citizens will stimulate the pride as well as the patriotism of our Legislature to look to the reputation and safety of their own country to rescue it from the degradation of becoming the Barbary of the Union and of falling into the ranks of our own negroes. To that condition it is fast sinking.” That quote wouldn’t make a rousing billboard or Facebook posting, but it is authentic.
When the atheist group was called out on their false quotation, they promptly acknowledged the mistake. ForAmerica is a much larger group and it is not clear that the leaders of the organization know the image is there or that it is incorrect. Those managing the Facebook page have not answered a message sent to the group, nor have they responded to the numerous comments on the page pointing out that the quote is falsely attributed to Jefferson.
One thing is clear: everybody wants the founders on their side and misusing them is done by people on the right and the left. Also, quotes used by advocacy groups should be checked out thoroughly. Quotes, even accurate ones, taken out of context often mask the complexity of the founders' views.
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