Fake quotations in support of historical revisionism [WAS: Possibly spurious Samuel Adams quotation [RBBernstein]]

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Oct 8 08:39:34 UTC 2013

There seems to be a cottage industry busy manufacturing "Founding
Fathers" quotations that contradict the established views on their
positions on the role of government, use of firearms, separation of
Church and State, slavery, etc. Most of these (but not all) are used to
bolster radical right wing political positions. The most frequent
targets appear to be Jefferson and Madison, but I've seen fake
utterances supposedly from Tom Paine, Patrick Henry, Ben Franklin, all
of the major Adamses and a few others. The goal seems to be to ascribe
to them political views supportive of those of Tea Party activists,
although many of these fake quotations are much older.

In fact, just this week, Americans United dressed down Family Research
Council for using a fake Madison quotation that originated with
pseudo-historian David Barton in 1988 and was debunked repeatedly for
the past 20+ years.

> To get attendees pumped up about the event (and to spur donations),
> FRC President Tony Perkins has been sending out letters thanking
> people for signing up. Unfortunately for Perkins, much of the
> three-paragraph letter consists of a quote by James Madison lauding
> the Ten Commandments as the foundation of an orderly society --
> something Madison never said.
> This phony quote has been knocking around on the web for years.
> Although it still appears on some far-right websites, it was
> definitively debunked a long time ago. David Barton, the Religious
> Right’s much-loved pseudo-historian, featured it in one of his early
> books but later conceded that the quote was false -- in 1996.

Here's the original Barton quote:
> "We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the
> power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our
> political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for
> self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern
> ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the
> Ten Commandments."

Both AU (http://goo.gl/Jp00iy) and Snopes (http://goo.gl/Jf4jd)
discussed the quotation in great detail, although the argument boiled
down to "The Madison Library said they have no evidence for any such
quotation and the connection it makes is antithetical to Madison's
views." Barton himself admitted in 1996 that he could not find the
primary source where he supposedly found it (not quite an admission of
fabrication, but pretty close, as he initially insisted that he hot the
text from two post-WWII publications).

It's easy to see, however, that the first part of the quote is hacked
from Federalist 39, then appended with the nonsensical Ten Commandments
bit. The first mangled part--substituting "base" for "rest" appeared in
Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech on the Goldwater campaign trail. But the use
of this particular bit to bolster conservative arguments has a very long
history (http://books.google.com/books?id=csozBiK0EfAC -- critiqued here

Here's the full original text:

> The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and
> aspect of the government be strictly republican? It is evident that no
> other form would be reconcileable with the genius of the people of
> America; with the fundamental principles of the revolution; or with
> that honorable determination, which animates every votary of freedom,
> to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for
> self-government. If the plan of the Convention therefore be found to
> depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as
> no longer defensible.

And here's Reagan's abbreviated piece:


> It's time we asked ourselves if we still know the freedoms intended
> for us by the Founding Fathers. James Madison said, "We base all our
> experiments on the capacity of mankind for self government."

Barton not only replaced "rest" with "have staked" (changing tense in
the process), but he included the last clause as coming from Madison,
although I have a strong suspicion that he simply conflated Madison's
words with those of his source. Given that he pointed to materials from
1949 and 1955, I was not surprised to find a cluster of about a dozen
hits in GB between 1948 and 1954 that tie the Federalist text to the Ten
Commandments, but clearly do not attribute the religious language to
Madison. I'll venture to guess that Barton simply copied the text from a
period source, failing to delineate the separation between Madison's
words and additional text.

Joseph Federer copied Barton's version into America's God and Country:
Encyclopedia of Quotations which he edited in 1994. He used the quote
again in his 2002 book The Ten Commandments & Their Influence on
American Law: A Study in History, but added weasel language to distance
it from Madison (citing it alongside the real Federalist 39 text):

> "A similar language that has sometimes been attributed to James
> Madison, but nevertheless reflects the views of founders..."

The same language was read into the Congressional Record several times
(e.g., http://goo.gl/GurS0B). And the fictitious quote is everpresent in
viral emails, of course, just like so many other spurious quotations.


On 10/7/2013 5:57 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole wrote:
> Wariness and disbelief are appropriate responses to this quotation
> attributed to Samuel Adams.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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