Wednesday, July 2, 2014

That Quote is Totally Legit

WARNING: NERD ALERT - All Others Kindly Skip

It is no newsflash that the Internet is awash with bogus quotes. People especially enjoy putting words in the founding fathers' mouths. The left is nowhere near as guilty of this postmortem oral surgery as the right is. (This is probably because most leftists like change and do not think we should live the same way we did two centuries ago.) But there is also no denying that they do it too from time to time.

Therefore, I have made a point to trace all quotes back to their primary sources whenever possible. For you non-history majors, "primary sources" means official published collections of the historic figure's papers. When I quote secondary sources, i.e. the words of historians rather than historic figures, it is because the historian's opinion or presentation is my focus. But then I cite the historic figure's quote elsewhere.

For example, in the introduction to my book, I quoted social historian Stephanie Coontz quoting James Madison. In that instance, I cited to her book. But I when I later explore that Madison quote even further, I cite to Madison's papers. In the first instance, my point was to show that academics are already familiar with this material even if popular culture is not. In the second instance, my focus is on Madison's thought.

Quote sourcing can be fascinating detective work. Scott Campbell's attempt to track down an elusive Justice Louis D. Brandeis quote that Ralph Nader was fond of shows how ambiguous things can be. So this post is sort of the historical equivalent of a "behind the scenes peek" DVD extra.

You saw the nerd alert at the top, right?

In the course of writing my book, I ran across many quotes that I could not verify and therefore could not use. They might be consistent with other things that the figure has said elsewhere, but as the saying goes, "Close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades."

This Thomas Jefferson quote in particular eluded verification for quite some time. I am happy to report that it is quite legitimate:

I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in it’s [sic.] birth the aristocracy of our monied [sic.] corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

- Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899), 10:69.

Rather than toil for no profit, I will be lazy and just cut and paste my end note:

I was initially skeptical about this quote when I ran across it because corporations had not yet gained the great power that they wield today. Banks were the exception, so Jefferson was probably talking about banks (and he blasted banks a lot). But he usually just said “banks” rather than “corporations” so the quote seemed fairly fishy. Moreover, I had already seen several uncited variants that frustrated my every effort to verify them. One person, thinking he or she could improve on Jefferson’s prose, had apparently replaced the word “birth” with “infancy,” further complicating my search. Often such tweaks made the language seem dubiously modern. Jefferson was famously fond of rambling at length and the variants I had seen were suspiciously pithy. If a quote is short and to the point, it is probably not one of Mr. Jefferson’s. I had also seen numerous Frankenstein variants – quotes stitched together with parts of other quotes. Some elusive variants turn out to be legitimate because a historical figure had a favorite phrase that frequently reappears in their works. Today, we call them “buzz words.” Although a variant may be consistent with other verified quotes, consistency is insufficient by itself. Each quote must be individually verified in a published collection of historical papers and this quote finally fits the bill. For example, except for the use of the word “corporations,” this quote is quite similar to the quote I used immediately previous to it: Both speak of a moneyed aristocracy trying to subvert the government. But until I found a source, I could not use this quote no matter how similar it sounded to the previous one. This is an anal-retentive business.

So, if you are going to use this quote, please provide the full citation and do not correct the grammar or tweak the text in any way.

And send people here. I would appreciate the traffic.

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