Journalists, politicians, and activists alike have attempted to quote America’s Founding Fathers in recent years to justify their actions. Some have failed to use legitimate quotes, furthering the spread of the inaccurate sayings. People often misattribute quotes or completely ignore the meaning. Here are 10 examples of oft-cited fake quotes and ten authentic quotes that should be promoted in their place.
1. ‘All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.’
The news outlet Chatham News + Record used this quote, which is rumored to have been said by Thomas Jefferson, earlier this month to invoke a sense of patriotism and duty with the ultimate aim of rallying voters for Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden. According to Monticello.org, however, this quote has never been found in Jefferson’s writings. It has also been commonly attributed to Edmund Burke, but there’s actually no evidence that Burke ever said the words either.
Real Quote: “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
2. ‘If a law is unjust, a man not only has a right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.’
This quote is so widely misattributed to Thomas Jefferson that it landed on Monticello.org’s list of “spurious quotes.” There is no record of Jefferson ever saying this, but the website offers possible explanations as to why it was originally misused. One likely reason is that the quote is similar to a line in the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson had a large part in drafting: “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
Real Quote: “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
3. ‘Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force…’
“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”
This thought to be George Washington quote cannot be found in any of Washington’s writings. It is likely inauthentic despite being widely used, according to Fred Shapiro, editor of the excellent Yale Book of Quotations. Many quotes that are commonly attributed to both Lincoln and Washington, he said, are inaccurate. Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert used the false quote when speaking on the House floor in 2010 to discuss the federal control of health care. Shapiro said he plans to include it in a list of pseudo-Washingtonism in the next edition of the Yale Book of Quotations.
Real Quote: “It is important … that the habits of thinking in a free Country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective Constitutional Spheres.”
4. ‘…Ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’
“It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif) and Jerry Nadler (D-NY) both used the Alexander Hamilton quote during the trial to impeach President Donald Trump, implying as well as explicitly saying Hamilton created the constitutional power of impeachment specifically for this political situation. According to a Washington Post analysis article, they’re both misinformed regarding the quote’s context. Hamilton included the quote in a note he wrote to Washington about tax policy, written five years after the drafting of the Constitution.
Real Quote: “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.”
5. ‘When governments fear the people…’
“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. 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.”
Like many of the other quotes commonly attributed to Jefferson, there is no evidence that he said these words. Many have been used in recent years to cite protection of the Second Amendment, but this quote isn’t the most genuine protection. Monticello.org offers suggestions as to how it originated, revealing it was likely another situation in which one person misinterpreted a genuine quote and others followed. Jefferson began the Virginia Constitution with “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” It is further mangled with first part of the quote, however, which can be traced back to a series of debates on socialism published in 1914.
Real Quote: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
6. ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance’
Another quote often misused by politicians and speechwriters, Monticello.org included this among their website’s long list of “spurious quotes,” with no evidence that Jefferson ever said these words. The website states that it began its misattribution in 1838 after he had died, and it still remains in American political discourse. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) used it in a 2010 speech, and Rep. Marlin A. Stutzmann (R-IN) used it when speaking on the House floor.
Real Quote: “However it is a part of the price we pay for our liberty, which cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
7. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident…’
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that each of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This quote is clearly inaccurate, taken from the Declaration of Independence. It is missing the key phrase, “by their Creator,” which some speculate to be intentionally omitted to promote separation of church and state. Former President Barack Obama made the notable mistake at least twice in his speeches, according to the Washington Post. When he recites a passage from the Declaration of Independence, he leaves out three key words. Conservatives accused Obama of leaving out the phrase to demean the religious nature of the nation’s Founding.
Real Quote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
8. ‘Let the people know the truth, and the country will be safe.’
On the Fourth of July in 2017, CNN altered a historical quote by Abraham Lincoln. CNN’s mistake was interpreted by “The Independent” to be for the purpose of a political attack on the President.
The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway wrote that their actions in modifying Lincoln’s words has the possibility for broad implications: “The conflation of ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ is perfect. Facts can be manipulated. Truth is much more difficult to attain. It might be factual that intelligence chiefs briefed President-elect Trump about a Russian dossier, for instance. But whether that fact is used to spin a Russian conspiracy hoax is where truthfulness is important.” Futhermore, CNN’s same Twitter thread also misattributed a quote to Benjamin Franklin that came from the British authors of “Cato’s Letters.”
Real Quote: “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.”
9. ‘Democracy is nothing more than mob rule.’
This fake Jefferson quote has been tossed around recently on Twitter as a defense for the recent protests and upheaval over issues of race, as well as for an argument against it. Not only is it absent from any of Jefferson’s writings, but its use can’t be traced back until even before the twenty-first century with its earliest known appearance in 2004.
Real Quote: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
10. ‘This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it.’
This quote is a twisted and overly simplified version of what John Adams actually wrote in his letter to Jefferson. Although this quote has been used to blast the influence of religion in American politics, its intended meaning was the opposite.
In context of the full letter, Adams says a world without religion is Hell.
Real Quote: “’This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it’…Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell.”