Bad quotes = suspect scholarship (Ann Coulter . . .)

July 8, 2006

Partly because I spent so many years debating competitively in high school and college, I cringe when someone misattributes a quote (it’s rather a sin to do that in debate). Worse are those “quotes” that get passed around, often attributed to some famous person, which are complete fabrications.

Then there are quotes that are partly fabrication, and partly accurate. Most often, in my experience, this is done by people on the right of any issue, but it is occasionally a sin of someone on the left as well. The Right Honorable Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars shows wisdom in calling to task someone with whose point he agrees, but who quoted Thomas Jefferson incorrectly. Go see Brayton’s post here, “False Founding Father Quotes From Our Side.”

Jefferson from

Thomas Jefferson wrote a lot, but recorded almost all of it. Easy to check whether Jefferson actually said what is attributed to him — but too often, not even a rudimentary check is done.  Jefferson didn’t say this, by the way.  Image from

Thomas Jefferson is one of a handful of people to whom made up quotes are regularly attributed. Abraham Lincoln is a popular misattributee, too, as are Mark Twain and Albert Einstein (no, Einstein never said anything about ‘compound interest being the best invention of the 20th century’). One would be wise to refrain from repeating anything any speaker attributes to these people, at least until one checks it out to be sure it is accurately attributed.

Two circumstances make for “honest” misattributions. I confuse Dorothy Parker and Gertrude Stein comments, inexplicably, so often that I have learned to consult the books before saying who said it, if either one springs to my mind. I am sure that more than once in speaking I have misattributed something to one of these ladies, and I know other speakers do it, too. The second circumstance is when someone hears that misattribution and repeats it — the old line about some one “who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad” is often still attributed to W. C. Fields, though it was originally said by Leo Rosten, in an introduction for W. C. Fields, according to Rosten. Generally people will cheerfully correct such misattributions.

Lincoln's name gets attached to a lot of stuff he didn't say. He didn't say this, for example.

Lincoln’s name gets attached to a lot of stuff he didn’t say. He didn’t say this, for example.

Other misattributions have more larceny at heart. Novice speakers will put a quote to a name, more out of fear that their audience will believe them more if they cite an authority or celebrity than anything else.

Cottage industries built up around inventing misquotes plague two areas of public discourse. Ed Brayton is sensitive to them both, as am I. For some reason, advocates of government displays of religion (which are prohibited by 50 state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution) feel that “quotes” from “the Founders” should carry special legal and persuasive weight, if the quotes indicate that the people who established the United States thumped Bibles as hard or harder than Jerry Falwell at a rhythm-and-blues-themed revival.

For example, few weeks go by that I do not get by e-mail a diatribe against “secularism” that claims falsely that our nation’s founders were overweening Christian fundamentalists, as evidenced by the Christian images splattered all over Washington, D.C., and the Bible verses carved in all the public buildings. That is patently false, however. Christian imagery does not predominate in the public art displays in the nation’s capital, but is instead difficult to find unless one is really looking for it. Nor are Bible verses carved in many public buildings — there are perhaps a dozen verses sprinkled throughout the displays honoring knowledge at the Library of Congress, but none I know of anywhere else. These e-mails are not really new. I had heard these claims in speeches, especially at the Fourth of July and at American Legion speech contests, and when I staffed for U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, my office was bombarded with such offerings — often with an invective-filled letter asking why public officials refuse to speak the truth. I often took those documents out on lunch-hour excursions to try to match the claims with the monuments: The claims are false.

Nope, Albert Einstein didn't say that, either.

Nope, Albert Einstein didn’t say that, either.

Claims continue to be made, and they grow in number and earnestness whenever there is a controversy surrounding an issue of separation of church and state. No, James Madison never said the U.S. government was based on the Ten Commandments. These quotes have great vitality — that false quote from Madison has been uttered by more than one lawyer in the heat of an argument (and no doubt, at least one judge has been unduly swayed by it). Were the quotes accurate, even, they would not change the laws that the founders wrote.

Diatribes against Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution also appear to be fertile soil to grow false quotes. One hoax claims Darwin repented of his theory on his deathbed, the “Lady Hope” hoax. Despite Darwin’s children having refuted that story more than 80 years ago, it continues to circulate. Darwin wrote a lot on a variety of different topics, but almost never about religion. The one or two lines he did write about religion are repeated, and bent, numerous ways. Darwin’s assigned task on his round-the-world voyage, was to assemble the scientific data to back as accurate one of the accounts of creation in Genesis. The evidence Darwin gathered told a different story — but Darwin himself did not think that a good reason to leave the church where he had hoped to be ordained. Especially because his wife, Emma, was so devout, he was careful to avoid any confrontation with the church, and on the rolls he remained a faithful Anglican to his death. His funeral was a state occasion, and he is interred in Westminster Abbey. (We can debate whether Darwin was a “good Christian” some other time, with real evidence.) Building on his earlier belief that observing nature is one way to learn the ways of God, Darwin continued to spend his time in careful, astute and well-recorded observation. His work on the creation of coral atolls is still fundamental; his monographs on barnacles are still wonderful reads. Darwin was fascinated with insectivorous plants, and his monograph on those plants is among the first, if not the first. Darwin was patient enough to sit in his laboratory for weeks to see just how it is that vine twines its way around a pole. Darwin was the model of a truly patient scientist.

However, when any board of education starts to look at new biology books, you may expect to hear Darwin described as something of an anti-Christian monster and a terrible, sloppy, often-wrong scientist. Then to top it off, people will make rather fantastic claims that his own writings deny his case. Other testimony will make hash of the work of other scientists.

Ann Coulter manages to marry both of these worst kind of quote fabrications in her latest book (no, I won’t link to it — you shouldn’t be reading that stuff; go read Stephen Ambrose’s books on D-Day, or Lewis and Clark, instead, and get real mental nutrition.) For those of us who have been watching such things for decades, it is astounding that such slipshod work can get through an editing process and into print. It is interesting to see someone finally merge both schools of scandalous quoting, but disgusting at the same time.

As a speech writer, I felt it was important that my clients have accurate material. A politician using a bad quote can find himself quite embarrassed. As a journalist, I worked hard to assure accuracy, and we had regular processes for correcting errors we did not catch earlier. As a teacher, I think it important that we get accurate facts to determine what happened in history.

Quotations from famous people make the study of history possible, and fun. Winston Churchill said, “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more” (in his 1930 book, Roving Commission: My Early Life).

Be sure you get accurate quotes when you read them.

%d bloggers like this: