I wrote the other day about Worldnetdaily owner Joseph Farah using a fictitious quote from James Madison in a column about how America has split with God. It’s a quote that you see all over Christian right websites, but even David Barton admits it has never been found anywhere in Madison’s speeches or writings and that it was never “quoted” until 1939. Here’s the quote as he originally used it:
A quote from James Madison is very relevant here: “We have staked the whole future of the American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future … upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”
He chose his words carefully, and they were accurate and to the point.
I left a comment documenting that it was a fake quote and they deleted it. I left a second comment, which they allowed out of moderation. But after more than a day, they hadn’t even acknowledged the problem. I sent an email directly to Farah, which finally seems to have prompted at least a lame attempt at what, for him, resembles honesty and integrity. He changed the text to say:
A quote that has been attributed to James Madison but not confirmed as such is relevant nevertheless: “We have staked the whole future of the American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future … upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”
He simply cannot admit that the quote is fictitious despite all the evidence clearly pointing to that conclusion. Here is what Robert Alley, a distinguished historian whose work has largely focused on Madison, said about this quote in the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Summer 1995, in which he attempted to track the source of the misquote:
In July, 1994, the organization Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) pointed out that Rush Limbaugh had incorrectly attributed to James Madison a quotation concerning the centrality of the Ten Commandments to “American civilization.” Quickly rising to Limbaugh’s defense were several California residents who wrote letters to the Los Angeles Times. One writer prefaced the alleged quotation with the following: “Here (as quoted in The Myth of Separation by David Barton) is precisely what Madison said.” The bogus quote followed: “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 of 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 of God.” What the writer, Rick Crowell, did not tell us was that Barton cited as his only sources for those words two twentieth century writers, Harold K. Lane in Liberty! Cry Liberty!, and Frederick Nyneyer in First Principles in Morality and Economics: Neighborly Love and Ricardo’s Law of Association.
Responding to the public hubbub, editors of The Papers of James Madison, John Stagg and David Mattern, referred all inquirers to a letter dated November 23, 1993, in which Mr. Mattern wrote concerning the alleged quotation: “We did not find anything in our files remotely like the sentiment expressed in the extract you sent us. In addition, the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison’s views on religion and government, views which he expressed time and time again in public and in private.”(250) This expert response has not dampened the ardor of those who privately would have Madison affirm their own distorted version of American history. Crowell accused Mr. Mattem of “revisionism at its worst.” I offer here a reconstruction of the convoluted trek of the words in question.
In citing David Barton’s The Myth of Separation as the source, Mr. Crowell apparently missed the fact that Barton did not include the words, “of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government.” In a video tape Barton inserts “of all our political institutions” but still omits the “capacity of mankind.” This video version was read into the Congressional Record by Representative Dannemeyer on October 7, 1992.
Barton’s sources are two, or three, depending upon how you sort out his confusion. Apart from citing the Lane volume of 1939, he offers as his other source Frederick Nyneyer’s First Principles in Morality and Economics; Neighborly Love and Ricardo’s Law of Association. In fact, his source appears to be an article entitled “Neighborly Love and Ricardo ‘s Law of Association”. Far from appearing in a source by Nyneyer, the alleged quote is found in the latter article and drawn “[f]rom the 1958 calendar of Spiritual Mobilization.” Barton’s attempted documentation becomes exponentially more curious. He seems to have no clue as to his sources. When approached about his mythical additions to Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, he deleted the references in a later edition of his tape…
Proving that a quotation does not exist is a daunting task. If you cannot find it in any extant manuscripts or collections of Madison’s works, just how does one prove it will not turn up in someone’s attic tomorrow? Of course you cannot. That is why the Madison editors were careful in how they phrased their response. But, after all, it is incumbent solely upon the perpetrators of this myth to prove it by at least one citation. This they cannot do. Their style is not revisionism, it is anti-historical.
We likely have not heard the last of this nonsense, but it is important to press the new media frauds to document what they claim. Because they cannot do so in most instances, time may ultimately discredit the lot of them.
That was 20 years ago and Alley was right, we obviously have not heard the last of this nonsense. Despite Barton himself pulling the quotation from his update to The Myth of Separation and publishing on his website an admission that it has never been found anywhere in Madison’s writings and speeches, people like Farah continue to quote it over and over and over again. And even when called out for it, they still will not admit that it is fake. Why? Because it fits their narrative. It says what they wish Madison had said, therefore he must have said it.
But as Alley points out, the burden of proof is entirely on them here. They can prove me and all the Madison scholars wrong by merely finding the quote in original sources. We have volumes of Madison’s writings, speeches and letters and they are even available in a searchable format. If they can’t find it, the only intellectually honest thing to do is not to use the quote. But intellectual honesty is a foreign concept to them.