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Bogus Quotes Attributed to the Founders


Quotes that were never made by the Founders, but refuse to die, especially on the Internet, are discussed.

The "Liberty Teeth" Speech by George Washington

Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people's liberty teeth and keystone under independence. The church, the plow, the prairie wagon, and citizen's firearms are indelibly related. From the hour the Pilgrims landed, to the present day, events, occurrences, and tendencies prove that to insure peace, security and happiness, the rifle and the pistol are equally indispensable. Every corner of this land knows firearms, and more than 99 99/100 percent of them by their silence indicate they are in safe and sane hands. The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference; they deserve a place with all that's good. When firearms, go all goes; we need them every hour.
        --- Falsely attributed to George Washington, address to the second session of the first U.S. Congress.
This quotation, sometimes called the "liberty teeth" quote, appears nowhere in Washington's papers or speeches, and contains several historical anachronisms: the reference to "prairie wagon" in an America which had yet to even begin settling the Great Plains (which were owned by France at the time), the reference to "the Pilgrims" which implies a modern historical perspective, and particularly the attempt by "Washington" to defend the utility of firearms (by use of statistics!) to an audience which would have used firearms in their daily lives to obtain food, defend against hostile Indians, and which had only recently won a war for independence.

The "99 99/100 percent" is also an odd phrase for 18th century America, which tended not to use fractional percentages. It's clear that "Washington" is addressing "gun control" arguments which wouldn't exist for another couple of centuries, not to mention doing so in a style that is uncharacteristic of the period, and uncharacteristic of Washington's addresses to Congress, both of which exhibited a high degree of formality.

This is a false quote, but bits and pieces of it still continue to crop up from time to time. Even national publications, such as Playboy magazine, have been snared by it. (Playboy published the "quote" in December 1995 as part of an article entitled "Once and for All: What the Founding Fathers Said About Guns". After consulting with an assistant editor of the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, Playboy published a lengthy correction in March 1996.)

The above analysis (by Clayon Cramer) was taken in part from a "talk.politics.guns" usenet FAQ. (Original source: Cramer, Clayton, Firing Back, 1995. Used by permission of the author.)

The Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) also comments (excerpted with permission) on the liberty teeth speech as follows: "This has several variations including 'hour' for 'moment' and sometimes added as part of an actual Washington quote 'A free people ought not only to be armed...' The various citations are even more numerous than different wordings: Address to the Second Session of the First U.S. Congress; Speech to Congress of January 7, 1790, printed in the Boston Independent Chronicle, January 14, 1790; the Federalist No. 53; Debates and Proceedings in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1785."

SAF mentions another fabricated George Washington quote:

Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.
SAF's analysis from the same page follows:

While this quote is often attributed to George Washington in his Farewell Address, this quote cannot be found there. Many people have tried to verify its origin, but cannot confirm its authenticity.

Dan Gifford tried to track this quote down but was unsuccessful for his article. See: "The Conceptual Foundations of Anglo-American Jurisprudence in Religion and Reason", The Tennessee Law Review: A Second Amendment Symposium Issue, Page 801, footnote 201. This issue of the Tennessee Law Review is part of the SAF bookshelf.

Perhaps the American Freedom Library available from Laissez Faire Books features the best history of this alleged quote on their Version 3.1 CD-ROM. The searchable CD-ROM notes that the above statement is:

"Attributed to George Washington.--Frank J. Wilstach, A Dictionary of Similes, 2d ed., p. 526 (1924). This can be found with minor variations in wording and in punctuation, and with 'fearful' for 'troublesome,' in George Seldes, The Great Quotations, p. 727 (1966). Unverified. In his most recent book of quotations, The Great Thoughts (1985), Seldes Says, p. 441, col. 2, footnote, this paragraph 'although credited to the 'Farewell' [address] cannot be found in it. Lawson Hamblin, who owns a facsimile, and Horace Peck, America's foremost authority on quotations, informed me this paragraph is apocryphal [fake].'"

And yet another bogus Washington quote:

A free people ought not only to be armed and disciplined but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government

The actual quote:

A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.
         ---George Washington's First Annual Message to Congress (January 8, 1790)

More Bogus Quotes

The following quotes from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are likewise fictional. The quotes are not to be found in their speeches, personal correspondence, or diaries. Nor have the quotes ever been cited in law journals by Second Amendment legal scholars.

The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.
         --- Falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
Occasionally the Jefferson quote is given with the following citation: Thomas Jefferson Papers, 334 (C.J.Boyd, Ed., 1950). The publication exists, but the quote does not. The editor's correct name is Julian P. Boyd, not C.J. Boyd.

Sometimes the quote appears with Jefferson's, "No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms", which is taken from his proposal for Virginia's constitution of 1776. The bogus quote has appeared both before the "No freeman..." sentence and after it. However in reality, the "tyranny" portion of the quote is absent from Jefferson's draft.

The beauty of the second amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.
         --- More bogus Thomas Jefferson.
The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state shall not be questioned.
         --- Falsely attributed to James Madison.
The false Madison quote, less frequently seen, does crop-up, so far never with a reference. The exact words appear in Pennsylvania's Constitution of 1790 and is probably the source (or inspiration) of this erroneous attribution.

Although not directly related to the Second Amendment or gun control issues these two quotes are fake as well:

The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first..
         --- Falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.
         --- Falsely attributed to James Madison.

Jumbling John Adams

Arms in the hands of citizens may be used at individual private self-defense.
The quote above was even mistakenly cited by the NRA-ILA in 1996, and was on the NRA's Web site until at least early 1998 (and has spread to many personal Web pages). (Original NRA page preserved here. The erroneous Adams quote appears near the bottom of the page.)

Less common, and worse:

Arms in the hands of the citizens may be used at individual discretion for the defense of the country, the overthrow of tyranny or private self defense.
The correct quote:
To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws.
         ---John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States 475 (1787-1788)
As David Hardy explains, "Adams was thus mindful of the uses of arms (i.e., legitimate self-defense and militia duty) and concerned about misuse for mob action or anarchy." (The Second Amendment and the Historiography of the Bill of Rights, 1987)

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