Possibly spurious Samuel Adams quotation [RBBernstein]

Mon Oct 7 16:25:08 UTC 2013

Wikiquote has already looked at this, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Samuel_Adams, and concluded that it is misattributed:

"It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds.
Will Bunch, In The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, Hi-Def Hucksters, And Paranoid Politics In The Age Of Obama (2010), p. 49, declares that this has also been attributed to John Adams, and states that it seems to have originated as a paraphrase of something by that Adams from a 1987 article in Parade magazine. The earliest publication of this quote yet found in internet searches is in Third World International, edited by Syed Jawaid Iqbal, Vol. 14 (1990), p. 17 and The Journal of Historical Review, Vol. 19 (March-April 2000) by Institute for Historical Review, p. 68"

I don't have a problem with 18th century "keen," but I think that an 18th century "brush fire" is an anachronism.  The OED has the phrase, in its literal use, only back to 1850.  I can antedate the literal use to 1827, but Adams died in 1803, so that's still a gap of nearly a quarter century, and that's for the literal use; figurative uses don't seem to have emerged for some time later.

Here's my antedating.  It's from a description of slaves' murder of their owner in Petersburg, Virginia.  Horrid Murder, Gettysburg (Pa.) Adams Sentinel, Apr. 11, 1827, at 3, col. 2 (via Access Newspaper Archive):

"Availing themselves of the absence of the Overseer, the  negroes carried into effect their horrid design--first by choaking him to death, and then in a brush fire, prepared for burning tobacco plant patches, they consumed his body, and to avoid detection, literally pulverised his bones, strewed them in the field, and turned them in with the plough."

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Joel S. Berson
Sent: Monday, October 07, 2013 11:37 AM
Subject: Fwd: Possibly spurious Samuel Adams quotation [RBBernstein]

I pass this on to the quote experts from the list named below.  I
trust R. B. Bernstein will not object, and he has included his email
addresses in his message.  (I can forward any responses to the
H-OIEAHC list for their general information.)


>Date:         Mon, 7 Oct 2013 09:06:09 -0400
>Reply-To:     H-NET/OIEAHC Electronic Association in Early American Studies
>               <H-OIEAHC at H-NET.MSU.EDU>
>Sender:       H-NET/OIEAHC Electronic Association in Early American
>Studies <H-OIEAHC at H-NET.MSU.EDU>
>Subject: Possibly spurious Samuel Adams quotation [RBBernstein]
>To:           H-OIEAHC at H-NET.MSU.EDU
>A quotation is making its way through the Internet and through right-wing
>and conservative blogging.  It purports to be from Samuel Adams, but
>without any date or source affixed.  Here it is:
>"It does not take a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless
>minority, keen on setting brush fires of freedom in the minds of men."
>For some reason, this quotation feels phony to me.  I think it might be the
>combination of an adjectival phrase like "keen on" and the phrase "brush
>fires of freedom."  Those sound 20th-century or even 21st-century to me.
>Does anyone with expert knowledge of Samuel Adams have any light to shed on
>this matter?
>Respectfully submitted,
>R. B. Bernstein
>-- R. B. Bernstein * Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law, New
>York Law School * Adjunct Professor of Political Science and
>History, Skadden, Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies, City College
>of New York, CUNY * Moderator and Member of Editorial Board, H-LAW *
>Member, Board of Directors, American Society for Legal History
>(2011-2014) * Author, THOMAS JEFFERSON (Oxford, 2003; paperback,
>paperback, 2011) * rbbernstein at gmail.com, rbernstein at nyls.edu,
>rbernstein at ccny.cuny.edu

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