Facts are stubborn things, as President John Adams once said. Well, to be completely accurate, Adams actually said: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
When he made that statement during his successful defense of the British soldiers who fired upon the crowd during the Boston Massacre, he was likely quoting a proverb previously quoted by at least two French writers, Tobias Smollett and Alain-René Lesage.
We must be precise about these things because our Founding Fathers are frequently misquoted. So on this, the 238th birthday of these United States, and in the interest of truth, justice, and the American way, we debunk some egregious and well-known misquotations of our Founders.
False Quote:"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism," attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
What He Actually Said: According to the website maintained by the Monticello historical site, there is no evidence Jefferson ever said or wrote these words.
False Quote: "A free people ought not only 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," attributed to George Washington.
What He Actually Said: According to the Mount Vernon historical site, Washington's literal words and intended meaning were very different from this oft-repeated misquote.
"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 of others for essential, particularly military, supplies.
"The proper establishment of the troops which may be deemed indispensable will be entitled to mature consideration. In the arrangements which may be made respecting it it will be of importance to conciliate the comfortable support of the officers and soldiers with a due regard to economy," is what Washington actually said in a State of the Union address.
False Quote: "The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself," attributed to Benjamin Franklin.
What He Actually Said: Historian and pundit Thomas Frank points out that it's unlikely one of the few men to have a direct hand in crafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would confuse a phrase from the Declaration as having come from the Constitution. Frank could find no evidence that Franklin said or wrote this.
"It does not appear in Bartlett's itself. A search of the authoritative database of Franklin's writings yields no matches," the historian wrote. "Google Books assures us it does not come up in any of the major Franklin biographies. I contacted six different Franklin authorities; none had ever heard of it. A search of scholarly journals turned up exactly one instance of the saying, in a 1960 issue of a magazine for high school English teachers—again, without the benefit of mooring to any primary works by or about Franklin."
False Quote: "This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it," attributed to John Adams.
What He Actually Said: Literally the opposite of what the quote implies. Writing to Jefferson, Adams wrote: "Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it"!!! But in this exclamati[on] I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell."
False Quote: "The Bible is the source of liberty. I have always said, and I always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make better citizens," attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
What He Actually Said: According to the Monticello historical site, there is no evidence Jefferson ever wrote or said the first part--"The Bible is the source of liberty." The remainder of the quote can only be traced to Jefferson by a second-hand source. Daniel Webster claimed, in private letter written by Webster years after Jefferson's death, that Jefferson said those words to him nearly 30 years earlier.
False Quote: "Continued deficit spending must ultimately endanger all governments," attributed to George Washington.
What He Actually Said: According to the Mount Vernon historical site, this quote appears to have been wholly fabricated. "The library has yet to find an explanation for this misquote or a similar quote of Washington's that was confused for this statement," they concluded.
False Quote: "I warn you, gentlemen, if you do not exclude the Jews forever, your children and your children’s children will curse you in their graves. Their ideas are not those of Americans, even when they lived among us for 10 generations. The leopard cannot change his spots. The Jews are a danger to this land, and if they are allowed to enter, they will imperil our institutions. They should be excluded by the Constitution," attributed to Ben Franklin
What He Actually Said: The above statement appears to be a fraud perpetrated by 1930s anti-Semites like William Dudley Pelley and Gerald L.K. Smith. According to the Anti-Defamation League, numerous credible historians have repeatedly debunked this libel of both Judaism and Franklin: "The late Charles A. Beard reported, 'I cannot find a single original source that gives the slightest justification for believing that the Prophecy is anything more than a barefaced forgery. Not a word have I discovered in Franklin’s letters and papers expressing any such sentiments against the Jews as are ascribed to him by the Nazis — American and German. His well-known liberality in matters of religious opinion would, in fact, have precluded the kind of utterances put in his mouth by this palpable forgery.'"
False Quote: "The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it." attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
What He Really Said: According to the Monticello historical site, there is no evidence he ever said of wrote those words or anything similar.
False Quote: "We had quitters during the Revolution too. We called them 'Kentuckians,'" attributed to George Washington.
What He Really Said: Never that. According to the Mount Vernon historical site, this statement came for "George Washington's ghost" on an episode of "The Simpsons."