Charles Petzold

Hideous Jefferson Quotes, Real and Bogus

January 9, 2011
New York, NY

If you frequent certain web sites, you've undoubtedly seen this quotation from the third President of the United States:

Isn't that a great quotation? It's so short and pithy, and unlike many other "abstract" or "philosophical" quotations, this one actually has an applicability in common life.

I particularly like the use of the word "they" because we all know who "they" are. For example, suppose "they" get wind of the armaments you've been stockpiling in your basement, and "they" approach your home wearing ATF vests and flashing badges. Fortunately the Second Amendment has allowed you to protect yourself against this intrusion, and no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson has given you permission to do so.

Or suppose you receive an alarming email about a United Nations treaty that's going to ban private gun ownership. This is yet another example of how "they" are trying to take away your Second Amendment rights. You really have no choice but to get your militia together and take a bus to Washington D.C. to storm the State Department. After all, Jefferson says its OK!

Or perhaps one of your favorite politicians has recommended "Second Amendment remedies" to deal with political disputes, or another one has published maps with certain Congressional districts in the crosshairs of a rifle. What is this? A rare use of metaphor from otherwise simple-minded folk? Or a very literal call to action? It's really the beauty of the Second Amendment that you don't have to bother yourself figuring it out: The Second Amendment is useless if it can't actually be exercised for political purposes much like free speech and free assembly.

Or maybe one of your favorite Fox News bozos has suggested that the real agenda of the current President is to confiscate all guns in private ownership, sell them to his Muslim coreligionists, and use the proceeds for slave reparations. Sounds plausible, right? Well, you simply can't let that happen. And you know what you must do.

It really is the beauty of the Second Amendment that it automatically protects against its own encroachment, and if you don't believe that was the intent of the Founding Fathers, you are an idiot, because you can't read the simple words of Thomas Jefferson.

OK — back to reality: As you've undoubtedly guessed by now, that "quotation" from Thomas Jefferson is entirely bogus. Despite its appearance all over the web, it really doesn't seem to have existed prior to this century. Of course, that hasn't prevented people from quoting it and perpetuating it as if it were real. In fact, I suspect that some people even spread this quotation around knowing full well that it's bogus, because it's simply too good. ("If Thomas Jefferson didn't say it, then he should have!")

What's most peculiar is that you really don't have to fabricate hideous Thomas Jefferson quotations. There are enough real ones around. Here's a famous one that's very well documented:

You might think this quote would have been retired after it appeared on a tee-shirt worn by Timothy McVeigh when he set off a bomb that killed 168 people in a federal building in Oklahoma City. (It's still not clear if the 19 children killed in the day-care center were classified as "patriots" or "tyrants." Jefferson doesn't seem to have mentioned anything about "collateral damage.")

Despite McVeigh (or perhaps because of him) the quotation is still recited or alluded to quite frequently — perhaps most famously by the moron who showed up outside one of President Obama's town hall meetings in New Hampshire in August 2009 carrying a loaded handgun.

The vast majority of people who bandy this quotation about have no idea of the very specific context in which it was written, but that's really beside the point. We know from history that this sentiment is just plain wrong. Violence is not the handmaiden of liberty. Violence is very clearly the enemy of liberty.

Jefferson wrote those words less than two years prior to the French Revolution — an upheaval that destroyed a repressive and violent ancien régime, and greatly lessened the power of an equally awful Church, but which was forever contaminated by the extreme violence of the Reign of Terror. The reaction to that violence was yet another dictatorship, that of Napoleon, and a series of terribly bloody wars, the reaction to which continued to be felt in the world wars of the 20th century. (Of course, the French Revolution would not have occurred had not the French government gone broke funding the American Revolution!)

Violence perpetuates more violence, and nothing destroys freedom and liberty faster than violence. Jefferson was wrong. What makes the tree of liberty grow straight and strong is education, humanist values, and civil discourse.

It's time to retire the gun metaphors, the crosshairs, the allusions to Second Amendment remedies, and hideous Jefferson quotes — even the real ones. Some nut-job just might take it seriously.