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What’s In A Quote?

January 14, 2010

Ever heard the quote “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”?  It is from a letter to Benjamin Rush written by Thomas Jefferson in 1800.  If you visit the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., you can see the words engraved in the rotunda’s frieze below the dome.  I remember when I was very young, my grandfather taking me there and pointing it out.  From that moment, I understood President Jefferson was dedicated to protecting our country’s freedom.

Later in life, after reading much of Jefferson’s writing, I came to understand his dedication was more complex than I thought and this quote is totally out of context.  As presented, it does lend itself to the greatness of the man but it misrepresents the nature of him.  President Jefferson was no ideologue to be pointed at a problem simply to charge in.  His opinions and actions were based on careful reflection.  Knowing this made me wonder about quotes in general and how they can mislead.

Take the Memorial example, at face value it says Jefferson was a God-fearing man who would protect our freedom regardless of personal cost.  While I agree that thought to be accurate of Jefferson, it removed the true target he aimed for.  It illustrates that quotes are often taken out of context and serve the person quoting rather than the originator, sometimes for good, sometimes not.

This quote is often used to link Jefferson to a Christian philosophy, which is ironic, because it is a slap at the Christian religious leaders around Philadelphia at the time.  While it is impractical to quote entire passages in support of any argument, deference must be given the original intent.  In this case, we need more of Jefferson’s words to understand that intent:  “The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes.  And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.  But this is all they have to fear from me: & enough too in their opinion, & this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me. . .”  Jefferson is saying he opposes the religious leaders Benjamin Rush had cautioned him about, no matter what.  He is saying that the religious leaders of his time (and not much has changed today) are tyrants.

When reading quotes from historical figures, we need to understand they may not be in context to their original intent.  It is easy to “cherry-pick” passages to support a particular theory or belief.  It establishes a justification of sorts for that belief.  Quotes, therefore, are often perverted from their original meaning.  It is up to us, the audience, to challenge that support and understand the true meaning of quotes used.  Personally, I am glad people quote Jefferson, just not  his intended meaning misrepresented.

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