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We’ve noticed that pundits like to quote the words of leaders from the past. The practice is so common, that PunditFact has decided, from time to time, to check for accuracy.
There seems to be a cottage industry in misquoting Thomas Jefferson. He didn’t say, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." Nor, "My reading of history convinces me that most bad government has grown out of too much government," nor any variations of those or dozens of other pithy phrases wrongly attributed to our illustrious third president.
But one-time Republican presidential candidate and former pizza franchise executive Herman Cain was at least in the ballpark when he cited Jefferson recently. Cain was explaining the reasons Obamacare was failing on a recent Web video broadcast.
"As Thomas Jefferson said, 'You might be able to fool the people for a while, and they may go astray, but sooner or later the American people are going to wake up and they will correct the course’," Cain said.
Peter Onuf, historian at the University of Virginia and author of Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, recognizes Jefferson's spirit in Cain’s rendition. But not Jefferson's words.
"It's a Jeffersonian sentiment, but I can pretty confidently say those are not his words," Onuf said.
Other Jefferson historians, Jan Ellen Lewis at Rutgers and Annette Gordon-Reed at Harvard, also drew a blank on Cain’s’ paraphrasing.
Jefferson is misquoted so often, the Jefferson Foundation at Monticello has assembled a page called Spurious Quotations.
We emailed Cain TV and they told us that the original line from Jefferson was, "The good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves."
We will sort out in a moment the differences between what Jefferson said and what Cain said that he said, but first we should confirm the accuracy of the original text Cain provided us.
At Princeton University, the Papers of Thomas Jefferson has been compiling and cataloguing Jefferson’s words for 70 years. Editorial assistant Linda Monaco searched the digital files of the project’s "Main Series," "Retirement Series," "the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia" and the unpublished documents of Jefferson’s presidential years.
Result? The quote Cain provided us (not the one he said in his Web video) is indeed Jefferson.
"This is a Thomas Jefferson quote," Monaco said. "It is from Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 16 January 1787."
So the question is, if Cain did not quote Jefferson word for word, how close did he come?
Well, he captured the key words 'the people,' 'astray' and 'correct.' He tacked on the part about fooling the people; that might have come from Lincoln’s line about fooling all of the people some of the time. He also added a phrase about waking up.
In sum, he captured Jefferson’s meaning and some of the key words but embellished freely. It is telling that none of the experts recognized Cain’s version, nor could the researchers at the Letters of Thomas Jefferson find the source based on what he originally said.
Cain said that Thomas Jefferson said, "You might be able to fool the people for a while, and they may go astray, but sooner or later the American people are going to wake up and they will correct the course." Jefferson did write a line that resembles that in some important ways, but Cain put a fair number of words into Jefferson’s mouth. At PunditFact, we believe quotations should be relatively word-for-word accurate. If someone went to the trouble to leave their thoughts for posterity, the least we should do is honor what they actually said.
We rate the claim Half True.
Cain TV, In case you missed it, Nov. 15, 2013
The Founders’ Constitution, Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, Jan. 16, 1787
Jefferson Foundation, Spurious quotations
Email interview with Shane Backler, executive producer, Cox Media Group, Nov. 15, 2013
Email interview with Linda Monaco, editorial assistant, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 15, 2013
Email interview with Jan Ellen Lewis, professor of history, Rutgers University, Nov. 15, 2013
Email interview with Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of history and law, Harvard University, Nov. 15, 2013
Email interview with Peter Onuf, professor of history, University of Virginia, Nov. 15, 2013
Wall Street Journal, To Quote Thomas Jefferson, 'I Never Actually Said That', Dec. 6, 2012
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