Price of Internet freedom? Eternal misquotes.


Thomas Jefferson (1856)

By David A. Fahrenthold

On election night, a jubilant Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) laid out the modern-day tea party’s philosophy — in the words of a man who was alive for the Boston Tea Party.“Thomas Jefferson,” the newly elected Paul said, “wrote that government is best that governs least.”

No, he didn’t.

Last year on the House floor, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), angry about the federal overhaul of health care, read a quote he said was from George Washington.

“Government is not reason. It is not eloquence,” Gohmert read. “It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

Except, historians say, Washington never said those words.

This week, Sarah Palin (R), former Alaska governor and a possible 2012 presidential candidate, has been ridiculed for her telling of a story about America’s founding. By her account, Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn the Redcoats about the colonists.

But in Washington, nobody should feel too smug, as Palin is hardly the only politician with a habit of helpfully twisting the historical record, accidentally or not, and sometimes with politically handy consequences.

Senators, congressmen and even President Obama have misquoted the Founding Fathers in recent years — reverently repeating words that are either altered or entirely false.

The problem results, in part, from an unfortunate marriage of two 21st-century trends. One is the new obsession with the heroes of the American Revolution as guides in a fearful era defined by political division and deepening debt. The other is America’s continued willingness to believe things it reads on the Internet.

“As Jefferson said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said during a speech last summer.

That quote is cited as being from Jefferson online, but — alas — Jefferson never uttered it. The research staff at Monticello, Jefferson’s estate, says it was incorrectly attributed to Jefferson beginning in 1838,after he had died.

Word of this debunking, however, doesn’t seem to have reached Capitol Hill.

“Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, said this,” said Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.),speaking on the House floor last month. “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”

A search of the Congressional Record and C-SPAN archives, covering the past two years, turned up at least 30 instances of politicians mangling the words or deeds of the country’s founders.

Some errors were odd enough to be funny. In March, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)told a crowd in New Hampshire that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place there. But those fights actually took place in Massachusetts.

Other misquotes seem to carry political suggestion. Obama has been criticized for making the same mistake at least twice in his speeches. When he recites a passage from the Declaration of Independence, he leaves out three key words.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that each of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the president said in a speech at a Democratic fundraiser, according to a transcript on the White House Web site.


Paul Revere, Sarah Palin and Wikipedia

35 x 28 1/2" (88.9 x 72.3 cm)

Paul Revere


The argument over whether Sarah Palin was misinformed about the historical facts of Paul Revere’s ride has moved to where bar bets go to be settled:Wikipedia.

Since Ms. Palin described the ride last week while she was visiting Boston, Wikipedia’s Paul Revere article page has been the site of a mini “edit war.” And the page has gone from a little-visited one — 2,000 or so page views a day — to a more heavily trafficked one, with54,000 on Saturday when Ms. Palin’s comments were gaining the most news attention.

Over the course of the weekend, people added sentences to the Revere article that repeated Ms. Palin’s claims. It can be hard to discern motives for changes on Wikipedia, and in some cases people appeared to be attributing the claims to Ms. Palin in order to mock her.

One editor, Tomwsulcer, added the following sentence:  “Accounts differ regarding the method of alerting the colonists; the generally accepted position is that the warnings were verbal in nature, although one disputed account suggested that Revere rang bells during his ride.”

When the discussion board for the Revere article was ringing with complaints that this was a lie, Tomwsulcer replied that it should be included as a theory because a prominent American politician, that is, Sarah Palin, had said it. “If you follow Wikipedia’s rules,” he wrote, “we must maintain a neutral position, representing the mainstream position as well as disputed versions.”

He lost the argument, but others have been searching history books to find evidence to support Ms. Palin’s claims.

One editor added the fact that the colonists on the eve of revolution were themselves British. That argument was included at the end of a passage stating that “Revere did not shout the phrase later attributed to him (‘The British are coming!’), largely because the mission depended on secrecy and the countryside was filled with British army patrols.”

By that logic, Revere did, as Ms. Palin put it,  “warn the British” –  namely, the rebel colonists who were still technically British subjects.

But the battles continue, and recent changes to the Revere article have used more facts to undercut the additions that seem to support Ms. Palin. For example, on Monday, one editor added, “Everything Revere told his British captors had a single goal, to move the soldiers away from Lexington, where he had left Hancock and Adams.”

As a result, the Revere article has become much longer, and much better sourced -– a version of what Wikipedia users call the “Streisand Effect,” which is described as when “an attempt to hide or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.”

Ms. Palin’s supporters have made their mark on the Paul Revere article atConservapedia, a right-leaning version of a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia.

The piece has been edited to read as follows: “He is famous for riding from Boston to Lexington, Massachusetts with William Dawes on the night of April 18, 1775 ringing bells to warn the British that colonists would exercise their natural rights to both bear arms and use them in an effort secede from the United Kingdom in response to Big Government bullying and interfering with Colony’s Rights.”

[Source NYT >>]

Sarah Palin is standing by her statement about a key moment in American history. CNN’s Anderson Cooper reports.