Misquoting Patrick Henry: The Internet and Bogus Sayings of the Founders

Misquotations of famous people have always been with us, but social media websites have created a vast twilight zone of historical misinformation.
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Misquotations of famous people have always been with us, but social media websites have created a vast twilight zone of historical misinformation. Take patriot leader Patrick Henry, for example. Of course, one can find legitimate Henry quotations on social media sites, such as "give me liberty or give me death," the Henry saying that most Americans know. People cite these kinds of quotations as sources of inspiration, or as commentaries on various political issues. But more fascinating are the misquotations of Founders such as Henry, which are utterly rampant, from Facebook to Twitter to the books of presidential candidates. Indeed, there are several bogus Henry quotations that are cited on the Web as much or more than "give me liberty or give me death." Where did these quotations come from?

I just searched for "Patrick Henry" on Twitter, and as usual, the most common recently tweeted "Henry" quotation is this: "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." Anyone marginally familiar with Henry would instantly realize that this is not a Henry quotation. It is actually from Thomas Jefferson, in an 1816 letter to John Adams. Starting in the mid-20th century, a number of books of "inspirational quotations" have misattributed this saying to Henry, presumably as a simple factual error. And for the time being, at least, it is the most commonly circulated "Henry" quotation on Twitter.

Another widely cited "Henry" quotation is: "The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government -- lest it come to dominate our lives and interests." This is a more complex misquotation, because it sounds like something Henry might have said -- maybe during the 1790s, after he opposed the Constitution's adoption, when he was hoping to restrict the new government's powers? The problem is that this quotation seems to have been entirely fabricated, and quite recently at that. The earliest reference I have found to this quotation is in two books published in 2003. But why create a bogus quotation when Henry actually said similar things about the need to restrain government? In any case, this is also frequently cited on social media sites and in political books. On Facebook the quotation has its own "common interest" page.

Finally, and perhaps most notoriously, is the spurious Henry quotation that "it cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!" Again, this is a perplexing case because Henry certainly was a devout Christian, but the quotation itself is of relatively recent origin. The quotation apparently came from a magazine commentary on Henry's faith in 1956, which later writers took as a quotation from Henry himself. Popular Christian historian David Barton once regularly used this statement in his writings and speeches, but he came under such fierce criticism that he retracted it (and others) as an "unconfirmed" source. The quotation still appears regularly in Facebook and Twitter posts, and, remarkably, in presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich's 2011 book A Nation Like No Other (p. 76). And this from the only candidate with a history Ph.D.!

Some might assume that by highlighting these incorrect quotations, I am trying to undermine the view of Patrick Henry as a Christian and a supporter of limited government. Nothing could be further from the truth, as any reader of my new biography of Henry will realize. But bogus quotations help no one's case for anything. The Internet has ushered in a strange new era of both exploding information and misinformation. A wealth of reliable books, articles, and archives is just a mouse click away, as are legions of errors, misleading arguments, and, yes, false quotations. Pause, then, before your next retweet. A Founder's saying may charm the ear, but is the quotation legitimate?

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