The Wall Street Journal has an article about those seemingly ubiquitous fake quotes from the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson. I bet you’ve seen this one: “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” Nope, he never said that.
To counter what she calls rampant misattribution, Ms. Berkes is fighting the Internet with the Internet. She has set up a “Spurious Quotations” page on the Monticello website listing bogus quotes attributed to the founding father, a prolific writer and rhetorician who was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
The fake quotes posted and dissected on Monticello.org include “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government has grown out of too much government.” In detailed footnotes, Ms. Berkes says it resembles a line Jefferson wrote in an 1807 letter: “History, in general, only informs us what bad government is.” But she can’t find that exact quotation in any of his writings…
Jefferson is a “flypaper figure,” like Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and baseball player and manager Yogi Berra—larger-than-life figures who have fake or misattributed quotes stick to them all the time, says Ralph Keyes, an author of books about quotes wrongly credited to famous or historical figures.
Churchill is probably the one to whom quotes are most often misattributed. It seems that whenever someone comes across an aphorism they like and don’t know who it’s from, they just assign it to Churchill. Like Chris Matthews, who clearly doesn’t understand how intellectual honesty works:
Mr. Langworth says Chris Matthews, a fellow Churchill Centre board member and host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” has misquoted Churchill. Last year Mr. Matthews made a promotional ad for MSNBC in which he recounted Churchill being told during World War II that he should cut government funding for the arts.
“Then what are we fighting for?” Churchill replied, according to Mr. Matthews.
Mr. Langworth says Churchill never said it, though many over the years have used what Mr. Langworth calls “this famous ‘red herring’ nonquote.”
Mr. Matthews, a self-described “Churchill nut,” insists he hasn’t misquoted his hero, but adds, “How can you prove someone never said something?”
That is not, of course, how it works. It isn’t incumbent upon someone else to prove that he didn’t say it, it’s incumbent upon you to show where and when he said it with an original citation.