by Hunter Simonson
I love history. It’s my minor, so I can say with a dose of self-importance that I am a “student of history.” Whenever existence feels mundane or uninspired, looking back on the events, figures and trends of the past can help me feel as if I’m part of something significant. In many ways, history is all that matters, since it’s all that has ever been. To forget this is to be stranded in time.
The United States has unique and fascinating origins, which are drawn upon relentlessly by our political figures and embedded into our national consciousness. Figures like Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, George Washington and others have become mythic heroes to many Americans — who often use their writings and letters as proof that the Founders had this or that specific intent for the U.S.
It’s a great thing to draw from history when shaping modern politics, and the Founders were immensely intelligent and perceptive people, but often those who are most likely to quote or reference them utterly butcher the context and intention of their words. Presidential candidates Dr. Ben Carson and Senator Rand Paul are frequent offenders, but the problem of misquoting the Founders transcends party and political office.
Dr. Carson recently claimed that Jefferson said, “gun control works great for the people who are law abiding citizens and it does nothing for the criminals and all it does is put the people at risk.”
Back it up, Doctor. You just said some words and threw Jefferson’s name on it. President Ronald Reagan, similarly, delivered a politically expedient fake quote at his 1984 presidential inauguration, claiming Abraham Lincoln to have chastised the poor for their greediness. That example is perhaps the most alarming since Reagan misquoted a beloved historical figure at an important, historic moment.
Yikes, that’s awkward.
Senator Paul has been called out multiple times for misquoting a number of figures in his two books. Now, this would be funny if it weren’t so insidious. Many of Sen. Paul’s misquotations intend to paint a picture of the Founders as far more religiously dogmatic or inspired than they were. To my eye, this is a blatant attempt to legitimize the idea of the U.S. as a “Christian nation” — a notion that is (provably) dismissed by Jefferson, Madison and the U.S. Constitution itself. The Founders would roll in their graves to hear potential presidents use their names to push religious exclusion.
With the Internet, fake quotes spread rapidly from one political circle to another. We all have that aunt, grandfather, etc. whose sole use for social media is to spread “the truth” about our government. These are the patient zeros for a misquotation. It starts with Auntie Sue’s silly little meme and finds its way to Carson’s inbox. A fake quote is born. Social media’s ability to transmit information is matched only by its ability to transmit misinformation. A huge part of the issue is not necessarily the deliberate use of fake quotes, but the unwillingness to verify them when they serve the agenda well.
The Founders were a deeply complex and ideologically diverse group of people. If Sen. Paul wants to claim that the U.S. was born a Christian nation, he need only quote from the dozens of Founders who were pastors and preachers. If Dr. Carson wants to make a case for less gun control there are a handful of actual quotes by Jefferson supporting him. But for the love of God and country, stop putting words in the mouths of historical figures to dupe people into supporting you. It’s nefarious. It’s Orwellian. And in the words of George Washington, “It’s annoying and lazy.”