I’m sure you’ve probably already heard the story: The North Iowa Tea Party put up a billboard comparing Obama to Hitler and Lenin (it’s a mystery wherever they could’ve gotten such an idea), and received a bit of blowback for... umm, we’ll call it “poor judgment.” I’m sure they were as surprised as the rest of the country when their own state and national leadership admonished them for the billboard. Well, to make a long story short, the North Iowa Tea Party caved to the pressure and agreed to replace the sign with a new, simpler design displaying a Thomas Jefferson “quote:”
“My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”
Alright, I already know that these Tea Party types aren’t much for accuracy or consistency (they pretty much accept without question whatever Fox News and right wing radio hosts tell them). And I suppose maybe I should just be happy that they took down an incredibly offensive billboard. But it seems to me that if you plan on putting something on a billboard to represent your movement, it would make sense to first do a little research to make sure you have your facts straight.
Well, as it turns out, with less than an hour’s worth of research you can find definitive evidence that Thomas Jefferson never spoke or wrote these words. The sentence was first penned by John Sharp Williams. Who, you say? Well, if you're interested, the Mississippi Historical Society has a nice little article about Mr. Williams, who was a career politician from the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s. But more importantly, he wrote a book on Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson – His Permanent Influence on American Institutions (1913). Though it does contain many excerpts from Jefferson’s own writings, much of the book is written in Williams’ own voice, providing the author’s own analysis and opinions. A careful reading of the text (oh hell, even a quick skim) reveals that The North Iowa Tea Party’s favorite “Jefferson quote” is actually Williams’ own opinion and was never intended by the author to be understood as the words of Jefferson. (But you don’t have to take my word for it. Click the link and read the original source for yourself... on the Internet... for free!)
( NOT Thomas Jefferson)
And while we’re on the subject, there is a very similar quote the Tea Party types also love to toss around and attribute to Jefferson: “That government is best which governs least.” I won’t go into much detail on this one, other than to point out that Jefferson never spoke or wrote this statement either. This one does come from a well-known figure though. The quote actually comes from Henry David Thoreau, and first appeared in his essay, Civil Disobedience, which was published in 1849.
(Also NOT Thomas Jefferson)
You could say I’m splitting hairs here. I mean, what difference does it make if they got a quote or two wrong? And in truth, I’m not even saying that I disagree with the meaning of these quotes.
But accuracy DOES matter, especially if, say, you’re "quoting" the author of the Declaration of Independence and your movement is based on the assertion that you are the only ones who understand the foundations of our system of government. I know, I know -- conducting research is hard, and besides, Glenn Beck already does all the research we’ll ever need. So it appears the Tea Partiers have just grabbed this quote because it's been floating around the Internet. In the end though, it seems quite appropriate, because like everything else about their movement, it's solely based on rumor and repetition.
(*Thanks to the folks at Monticello for providing the online Jefferson Library, which made it easy to locate the original source for these quotes: “My reading of history...” and “That government is best...”)