The Trouble with Quotes on the Internet

by Kate van Liere.

A few weeks ago a bumper sticker caught my eye on a pickup truck in a Best Buy parking lot. It read, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have. –Thomas Jefferson.” I am no Jefferson scholar. I’m not even an American historian—my knowledge of Jefferson’s oeuvre barely extends past the prologue to the Declaration of Independence—but this “Jefferson quote” jumped at me, as I hope it would at any liberal arts major, as patently anachronistic. Of course Jefferson believed in limited government, but saw the greatest threat to liberty as monarchical tyranny, not the twentieth-century welfare state. And the sage of Monticello would never have used such condescending modern phrases as “giv[ing] you everything you want” and “tak[ing] away everything that you have.” Enlightened men of letters did not write like modern dads scolding acquisitive teenagers.

Coffee mug featuring the quote incorrectly attributed to Jefferson.A quick internet search revealed a much more plausible source for this aphorism: its author is unknown, but it seems to date to the early 1950s, when it became popular with Republican politicians. One can appreciate the appeal of this warning against the dangers of unbridled state power during the Cold War.  Gerald Ford used it as a Congressman in 1954, and again as president twenty years later. Its false attribution to Jefferson is much more recent, probably a Tea Party invention. But now that you can buy this spurious “Jefferson quotation” emblazoned on coffee mugs, T-shirts, buttons, sofa pillows, and baby onesies, the misconception may continue to multiply.

In trying to track down the source of this quotation, I discovered that research librarians at Monticello have compiled an impressive collection of spurious Jefferson quotations. Mount Vernon’s website has a similar resource for spurious Washington quotations, as does Winston Churchill’s fan website. Abraham Lincoln may be the biggest victim of false quotations; in fact both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have quoted the same pseudo-Lincoln passage in presidential speeches. It must have been exasperation over all these fabrications that led Abe to utter his well-known warning, “The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity.”

Portrait of Lincoln with the quote "The Problem with quotes on the internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity."It’s not hard to see the irony in the internet’s dual role in such stories of false attribution. As “Abe” so wisely warns in that brilliant meme, the web makes it dismayingly easy for false quotations, like false information in general, to spread exponentially. But the web, used carefully, is also a rich mine of true information that can help us to unmask falsehoods. Didn’t I just admit to using it to ferret out the truth about that baffling bumper sticker?

Sadly, figures less popular than American presidents don’t always get the same corrective treatment. So I’d like to use this little corner of the internet to try to set the record straight about another Enlightenment writer, the English historian Edward Gibbon.

cover of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireGibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whose first volume was published in the same year as Jefferson’s Declaration, is one of the greatest historical works ever written. It also used to be widely read, but these days, although most educated people have heard of Gibbon, few read him. That’s understandable; he is learned and witty, but long-winded (the Decline and Fall fills more than a thousand pages) and not easy to digest. So it is no great surprise that bloggers, students, and others wanting to sum up Gibbon’s argument about why the Roman Empire fell rely on second-hand attributions. If you browse the web for Gibbon quotations on decline or decay, as many bloggers clearly do, you may well find these lines about the causes of “cultural decay” attributed to the great writer:

The five marks of the Roman decaying culture:

Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;
Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;
Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;
Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;
Increased demand to live off the state.

When I first saw this bizarre set of bullet-points attributed to Gibbon, it provoked the same jarring sense of anachronism as the pseudo-Jefferson bumper sticker. These cannot be Gibbon’s own words. Yet a little Googling turned up the identical text attributed to Gibbon on in a wide range of websites, from the apparently reputable Affordable Housing Institute to a somewhat more dubious economics blog to an Evangelical jeremiad about pedophilia in The Baptist Press. All of them presented it as an exact quotation from the Decline and Fall.

How could this string of awkward phrases pass for the words of one of the best historical writers in the English language? Not only is the syntax completely unlike Gibbon’s magisterial prose style, but much of the vocabulary is wholly anachronistic. “Obsession with sex” may not be a modern phenomenon, but surely it is a twentieth-century phrase, as is “living off the state.” In fact, the word “obsession” does not even appear once in Gibbon’s entire Decline and Fall. Nor do “freakish”, “sensationalistic”, or “disparity.” Gibbon never used the word “perversion” in the context of “sexual perversion.”

stack of multiple volume's of Gibbon's work.I make these claims not to show off my knowledge of Enlightened prose, but to suggest another way that you can use the internet to spot an internet fake. I don’t have the literary expertise to make all those assertions about Gibbon’s vocabulary from memory. But I can review Gibbon’s entire text, and search it for words or phrases, on the CCEL website, an indispensable electronic resource created by Calvin professor Harry Plantinga. (In the process of looking up this link, I made the nice discovery that one of my former students, Calvin seminarian and onetime History major Laura de Jong, has written the site’s brief introduction to the Decline and Fall.) Better still, you can read the whole text online if you can’t get your hands on a printed copy. All right, I know that is not realistic. I have not read the whole text either. But you can sample a chapter or two. If you are really interested in Gibbon’s broad explanations for the fall of Rome, try chapter 71, or the “General Reflections” chapter.

Even in these chapters, though, you won’t find Gibbon summing up the “causes of decline” or “marks of decay” as neatly as in the bullet-pointed pseudo-Gibbon. The real Gibbon expressly warned that “the complaints of contemporary writers, who deplore the increase of luxury, and depravation of manners” tell us more about their own anxieties than about reliable historical patterns. (Chapter 37) He was right. Like the Cold War warning against big government, the “five marks of cultural decay” listed here say much more about the fears of modern Americans than about those of their supposed author.

If it’s misleading to present Jefferson as a critic of modern socialism, it’s even further from the mark to depict Gibbon as prophet of cultural decline, or as a critic of sexual perversion, decadent art, or welfare dependency. The first and the fourth of these apocryphal five “marks”—the ones about affluence—bear some resemblance to Gibbon’s own account of imperial Rome; he did have a lot to say about luxury and misplaced wealth. But the main culprits in Rome’s decline, as he saw it, were not ordinary citizens misbehaving, growing dissolute, or creating bad art. They were degenerate and immoral rulers, foreign invaders, and (most problematic for modern Christian readers) Christian converts and clergymen.

Indeed, Gibbon had a deeply ambivalent attitude toward Christianity. While he praised the moral integrity of the early Christians, he did not hide his disdain for their “intolerant zeal” and “superstition.” And he argued (especially in Chapter 15) that the Christians’ zeal for the Kingdom of Heaven made them unreliable citizens and contributed to Rome’s military weakness in the face of barbarian invasions. This is one of the most difficult aspects of Gibbon’s argument for modern Christian readers to digest, and one that seems to elude many of the Christian bloggers who present these “five marks” as proof that a great Enlightened thinker shared their views about the inevitable connection between moral corruption and the decline of a great empire.

In short, Gibbon was not a committed Christian, a moralist, or a political scientist. He did not believe that one could systematically recognize the onset of “decline” or “decay” by observing distinctive patterns. He was a skeptical historian who reveled in historical ironies, and believed that historical trends that might seem morally good from one perspective might have undesirable consequences. He is a wise and witty observer of politics and society, but an unlikely godfather for most political parties.

With election season upon us, we should be on guard for spurious quotations that offer false ancestries for modern opinions. As nobody once said, “Good ideas should not need historical quotations to make them credible.”

Kate van Liere is a historian of early modern Europe, with particular interests in Spain, intellectual and religious history, and historiography. She has edited a collection of essays about Christian historical writing in Renaissance Europe. She also teaches in the Spanish and Dutch departments at Calvin and co-directs Calvin’s Rhetoric Across the Curriculum program.

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Did you know that Jonathan Edwards died from a small pox inoculation?

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.
portrait of Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards.

The great 18th century New England preacher and theologian passed on March 22, 1758. Today he is most remembered for his fire and brimstone sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The high school history books link him to the Great Awakening, the revival that swept the Thirteen Colonies during the 1740s. Unfortunately, his sermon did not end with fire, but that part is rarely assigned reading for students. And Edwards was more than a theologian plumbing the murky depths of divine mysteries. Edwards embraced the new science of his day, especially new techniques being used to combat diseases. When small pox swept into Princeton, New Jersey during the winter of 1757-58, Edwards, the local college’s newly minted president, got a shot from a reputable doctor. Thirty-seven days later Jonathan Edwards was dead from the shot.

Actually it was not a shot. The accepted procedure involved rubbing matter removed from a pustule into a small incision made between the thumb and index finger. If all went well, the patient endured a mild case of the pox and lived a normal life without fear of catching the full blown disease. In Edwards’ case something went terribly wrong. At first all was normal. He came down with a mild case and appeared to be on the mend. Then the pox spread into his mouth and throat, making swallowing very difficult.

Small pox was one of that era’s great scourges. Epidemics recurred at fairly regular intervals. One of six patients would die from the pestilence. As Edwards well knew, the mortality rate dropped drastically among those who received inoculations. This procedure had appeared in the English-speaking world when the wife of England’s ambassador to Turkey reported how the procedure saved their son’s life during an outbreak in 1716. Some experts, both theologians and medical doctors, denounced the practice as either of the devil or quackery, or both. Cotton Mather, another great Puritan divine, was among the first to champion the cause for inoculation in the Colonies.

George Washington was among the notable survivors of the disease. He, like most others, lived with scars (pock marks) that remained when sores the size of “…a great Green Pea…” (to quote Abigail Adams) subsided. One medical book of the period advised that the best way to ward off infection was to avoid close contact with swamps and strange women, especially Ethiopians. A tea brewed with sumac root and scrapings from both pine and Spanish oak bark was a recommended remedy, plus pills containing two active ingredients: deer dung and turpentine. The understandably volcanic stomach reaction to these ministrations promoted recovery by purging offending biles and restoring the proper balance to the body’s humours.

Edwards’ infection came from neither a swamp (it was winter, after all) nor an encounter with an Ethiopian (he was strictly monogamous). Princeton was simply the wrong place at the wrong time. Edwards most likely succumbed as his immune system failed from another infection contracted during the inoculation and general fatigue. A relentless worker, Edwards had spent the decades since his ordination in 1727 constantly preaching, lecturing, researching, and writing. When the college’s trustees called him in September 1757, Edwards responded that he should not accept. He pleaded financial needs and his ongoing writing project: a history of salvation from beginning to end, a synthesis of ideas from scripture, theologians, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Augustine’s City of God. Most tellingly Edwards complained of a general tiredness and sense that at fifty-five his mental faculties were starting to slip. The church council of Stockbridge, Massachusetts concluded that their minister must hear God’s voice in the letter from Princeton. Edwards, the devout Calvinist, bowed to the council’s instructions, tearfully it was said.

grave of Jonathan Edwards and family members

The grave of Jonathan Edwards in Princeton Cemetery.

Sadly, Edwards had been called to Princeton to replace his own son-in-law, Rev. Aaron Burr, Sr. Now, after only two months, the college lost a second president in less than one year’s time. But the deaths among the Edwards family would not end with Jonathan. Esther Edwards Burr, the widow of one college president, daughter of Jonathan Edwards, and mother of the future infamous Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, Jr., also died of the pox only three weeks after she had served as her father’s nurse. During the following September, Edwards’ wife, Sarah, who arrived in Princeton soon after her husband’s death, contracted dysentery while retrieving Esther’s orphaned children from Dr. William Shippen, the physician and college trustee who had inoculated Edwards. Sarah died in Philadelphia on October 2, 1758.

Jonathan Edwards, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, and Esther Edwards Burr are buried in row in Princeton Cemetery, a few blocks north of the university’s campus. Esther’s son, Aaron Burr, was interred in the same cemetery in 1836–at a distance.

This post was originally published in the Calvin Courier, the newsletter of the Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids, MI.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his eleventh year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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Student voices: Why take a history survey class?

by Coryn Mulder.

This entry comes from Coryn Mulder, a senior nursing student in Professor Karin Maag’s spring online History 151 class, responding to a final exam question about the value of taking a core history class. Her response is featured here with her permission. History 151 covers human history from the Paleolithic era up until the late Middle Ages. The prompt asked students to imagine a conversation with an aunt and uncle who questioned why taking a history survey class had any value at all:

I would tell my uncle or anyone else with that mindset that when I signed up for History 151 I thought very similarly to them. I didn’t have a spectacular distain for studying History, like many others I know, but I wasn’t exactly elated either. I thought the past was full of mostly really boring facts and stories broken up by an occasional interesting event along the way. However, studying history from the beginning of time to the 1500s has opened my eyes and surprised me in many ways.

I have learned much about specific events, people groups, and empires throughout the first 1500 years of history. Yet more than that, I have learned how to engage with the past and its overall themes. I can identify what causes empires to rise and fall, the effects of religion on society, the ways societies throughout time interact with one another and respond to threats and how they shape one another.

Medieval manuscript image showing crusaders attacking a castle.

A 14th-century depiction of the crusaders’ capture of Antioch from a manuscript in the care of the National Library of the Netherlands.

However, nothing has interested me more than learning about the development of Christianity and the negative impacts it has had on other people groups and societies. I was fascinated by the similarity of Christianity to Zoroastrianism. I was moved by the persecution Christians experienced at the hands of Rome. Though nothing has affected me more than learning about the ways in which Christianity has contributed to the suffering of others. While I had heard of the Crusades before, I didn’t understand them to the extent I do now. I see our culpability now, and how this long ago event influences relations between Christians and Muslims to this day. I was unfamiliar with the persecution of Jews in Medieval Europe by their Christian neighbors until a few weeks ago. It saddens me to know that the people claiming to know the goodness and grace of Jesus have caused some of the greatest harm. It is important, however, to have knowledge of the past and development of one’s religion. Having this more comprehensive understanding of Christianity will enable me to go deeper in my faith and shape my own worldview. As a nurse and future seminary student, I feel better equipped to engage with people of other religious backgrounds.

Stone carving depicting Persian warriors in the Greco-Persian war.

Persian warriors. Image from Wikipedia.

Nearly all that I learned in history was infinitely more interesting than I thought it would be. However, I admit that in ten years I probably won’t remember that Temujin was the leader of the Mongols, the similarities between Hammurabi’s Code and the Hittite and Biblical laws, or exactly what transpired during the Greco-Persian Wars, among other things.  I will, however, remember that every culture, every nation and every people group shapes one another.  The world is a much more connected place than it was centuries ago. I can hop on a plane and be anywhere in the world in a few days. We have a responsibility to our neighbors everywhere on this globe to love each other well and look to their best interests. Nations still go to war, religions still clash, catastrophic events still occur, and cultures still thrive and collapse. So for everything and all the circumstances that stay the same, I want to change the outcomes and the way future generations will read about us in History books. I’m not studying History to prevent the past from repeating itself, but to learn how to engage with it and shape the future.

Professor Karin Maag is offering her online History 151 class again this fall – there are still some open spaces for students to register for the course. The course is open to Calvin students as well as guests from other colleges, universities, or high schools. Contact the Registrar’s office at Calvin College or go to to find out more.


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