But Don’t Quote Me On That

One of the most common questions I get from students when I teach the Early Republic course is about quotations.  Is it true that Thomas Jefferson wrote that the “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants,” or that Jackson said “Justice Marshall has made his decision and now let him enforce it”?*  Sometimes I know the answer off the top of my head; other times I don’t. More often than not, I point out, the important question is whether that historical figure would likely have said it.  So the background  of the individual and the context of the quote are likely to be just as significant as the bons mots themselves, if we consider the quote’s significance to our understanding of the Early Republic.

But, alas, in our electronic age there is a tendency to use historical quotes as shorthand and use its utterer or origin as a legitimizing factor for the tone we’d like to set. So if you want to establish a satirical mood, use a Mark Twain quote.  Gravitas?  Lincoln or Martin Luther King.  Gadflyish intellectualism? Definitely Thomas Jefferson.   Boozy cynicism? W.C. Fields. The list goes on an on.  But if you’re using a quote as shorthand for a broader theme, don’t you then have an obligation to get it right?

Unfortunately, we often remember a great turn of phrase and put our own twist on it. Then, when we write in a medium that is unlikely to employ a separate fact-checker, like, say, a blog, the altered quote lives on forever.  Someone else picks up your alteration and adds some of their own style to the quote and, like the classic game of “telephone,” the quote becomes an entirely different animal.

Maria Konnikova’s piece in The Atlantic offers a nice and brief meditation on this problem and the American Historical Association’s Executive Director, James Grossman adds his own experience with this phenomenon in this AHA blog entry.

Is it the text or the spirit of the quotation that really matters?  It depends on the context.  In Jefferson’s 1787 letter to William Smith, in which he makes his  dramatic statement about the “blood of patriots & tyrants,” the next line is “It is it’s natural manure.”  Take that latter quote out of context and see how many times it is repeated!

*The answer here is “yes” to Jefferson’s quote and “maybe” to Jackson’s.  Robert Remini has argued that Jackson didn’t need to actually say this about Marshall and his Worcester v. Georgia decision, but he probably would have.

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About Sean Adams

I'm the Chair of the history department at the University of Florida. At UF, I teach courses on the Early American Republic and the History of American Capitalism. I've published books and articles on the history of the coal trade, and recently completed a book that examines the origins of America's fossil fuel dependency in the 19th century.
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