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Originally published June 7, 2011 at 9:21 PM | Page modified June 8, 2011 at 11:31 AM

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Founding Fathers misquoted: Politicians could use refresher classes

This week, Sarah Palin, a possible 2012 presidential candidate, has been ridiculed for her account of a story about America's founding. As the former Alaska Republican governor tells it, Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn the Redcoats about the colonists.

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quotes The joke about quoting any one of the founding fathers to prove a point is that another... Read more
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WASHINGTON — On Election Night, a jubilant Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., laid out the modern-day tea party's philosophy — in the words of a man who was alive for the Boston Tea Party.

"Thomas Jefferson," the newly elected Paul said, "wrote that government is best that governs least."

No, he didn't.

Last year on the House floor, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, angry about the federal overhaul of health care, read a quote he said was from George Washington.

"Government is not reason. It is not eloquence," Gohmert read. "It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."

Washington never said those words, historians say.

This week, Sarah Palin, a possible 2012 presidential candidate, has been ridiculed for her account of a story about America's founding. As the former Alaska Republican governor tells it, Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn the Redcoats about the colonists.

Yet, nobody in Washington, D.C., should feel too smug, as Palin is hardly the only politician with a habit of helpfully twisting the historical record, accidentally or not, and sometimes with politically handy consequences.

Senators, congressmen and even President Obama have misquoted the Founding Fathers in recent years — reverently repeating words that are either altered or entirely false.

The problem results, in part, from an unfortunate marriage of two 21st-century trends. One is the new obsession with heroes of the American Revolution as guides in a fearful era defined by political division and deepening debt. The other is America's continued willingness to believe things it reads on the Internet.

"As Jefferson said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance," Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said during a speech last summer.

That quote is cited as being from Jefferson online, but — alas — he never uttered it. Researchers at Monticello, Jefferson's estate, say the words incorrectly were attributed to him beginning in 1838, after he had died.

Word of this debunking, however, doesn't seem to have reached Capitol Hill.

"Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, said this," said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., speaking on the House floor last month. "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom."

A search of the Congressional Record and C-SPAN archives, covering the past two years, turned up at least 30 instances of politicians mangling the words or deeds of the country's founders.

Some errors were odd enough to be funny. In March, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told a crowd in New Hampshire that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place there. But those fights took place in Massachusetts.

Other misquotes seem to carry political suggestion. Obama has been criticized for making the same mistake at least twice in speeches. When he recites a passage from the Declaration of Independence, he leaves out three key words.

"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," the president said in a speech at a Democratic fundraiser, according to a transcript on the White House website.

What the document says is "that they are endowed by their Creator." Conservatives accused Obama of omitting the document's grounding in religious faith.

A White House spokesman said Obama had gotten the passage right on "countless occasions."

Republicans have used incorrect quotes to portray the founders as sympathetic to modern conservatism. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch offered this 2009 argument for gun rights. "President George Washington said that the right to keep and bear arms is 'the most effectual means of preserving peace,' " Hatch said on the Senate floor.

But Washington wrote something different: "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."

A Hatch spokeswoman said this week that he wasn't sure how the error occurred but that Hatch "continues to believe that the right to keep and bear arms is fundamental and essential for liberty."

In 2009, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., read a quote from Jefferson, seemingly a warning about the welfare state.

"The democracy will cease to exist," Coburn said, putting up a placard with the quote printed on it, "when you take away from those who are willing to work to give to those who would not."

But the Monticello researchers say those aren't Jefferson's words. Their research says this quote first surfaced in 1986, 160 years after his death.

Asked about the error this week, Coburn's staff did not say how it was made. A spokesman said misquoting founders is far from the capital's biggest problem.

"Of course, we want to be accurate," spokesman John Hart wrote in an email. "However, we have a $14 trillion debt because politicians have misapplied the founders' words — particularly those in the Constitution — not because they have misquoted the founders."

But voters might just as easily ask themselves: Even if the founders didn't say those things, would they have agreed with them?

Yes, no and maybe, historians say. Jefferson advocated a smaller central government — although in an era when the government was far different from it is today.

"I think that the Postal Service was, like, six people" in Jefferson's time, said Jill Lepore, a historian at Harvard University. "And he thought that was too many."

Washington, on the other hand, advocated for a stronger central authority. Edward Lengel, who has edited Washington's papers, said he was frustrated that modern politicians ignore historical facts.

"It's a betrayal of Washington's legacy. It's a betrayal of who he was," said Lengel, a University of Virginia professor. "He would have been outraged to find people manipulating his words, or making things up, to indicate that he supposedly believed this or that thing."

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