Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

By Sean Gorman March 9, 2015

Rick Perry errs in tying patriotism quote to Thomas Paine

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry drew inspiration from one of the nation’s founding fathers during a speech at a recent fundraising dinner for the Republican Party of Virginia.

"Thomas Paine wrote that ‘the duty of a patriot is to protect his country from his government,’" Perry said, drawing applause from the crowd during his Feb. 24 event at the Richmond Marriott.

Paine, a prolific pamphleteer during the Revolutionary War, authored essays such as "Common Sense" and "The American Crisis" that took aim at British rule of the colonies. His words remain widely cited by conservatives to support their calls for limited government.

We wondered whether Perry had quoted Paine correctly. We turned to the National Thomas Paine Historical Association in New Rochelle, N.Y., which posts Paine’s major writings. You can find plenty of patriotic passages there, some of them published while Gen. George Washington suffered battlefield losses in 1776.

"These are the times that try men’s souls," Paine wrote. "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country. But he that stands now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered."

But many quotes have been mistakenly attributed to Paine, and the association also notes on its website what its hero did not write. Among them is a virtually identical phrase the former Texas governor attributed to Paine:  "The duty of a patriot is to protect his country from its government."

Gary Berton, secretary of the association, told us, "I’ve read every word of Paine’s several times. It’s definitely not Paine."  

Berton, who has studied Paine’s writings for decades, said the phrase doesn’t even sound like a thought the founding father would convey. Paine was certainly critical of Britiain’s rule of the colonies and hoped society would one day become so advanced that it wouldn’t need government, Berton said.

"But in the meantime, he was for a strong central government with redistribution of wealth," added Berton, who is also the coordinator of the Institute of Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College in New Rochelle.

Harvey Kaye, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay who wrote a 2006 book about Paine, also told us the quote didn’t come from the pamphleteer. Many conservatives in recent decades have tried to turn Paine into an "anti-statist prophet," Kaye said in an email.

Featured Fact-check

"But Paine was a radical, small-d democratic patriot who opposed monarchical & aristocratic government and called for independence and the making of democratic republic (Common Sense, 1776), proposed a social security system (Rights of Man, 1792), and argued for taxing the propertied because God intended the earth for all to share and the concentration of power and wealth produced poverty for working people (see Agrarian Justice, 1797)," Kaye wrote.

So where did Perry’s misattributed quote come from?

Berton said it appears to have been penned by Edward Abbey, an American anarchist, environmentalist and novelist. Two weeks before Abbey died in 1989, he published "A Voice Crying in the Wilderness," a collection of sayings and quotes that came from a private journal he kept for 21 years.

"A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government," Abbey wrote in his book.

Berton said the attribution to Paine appears to have spread through the Internet.

We can’t swear that Abbey coined the saying.  In a humorous introduction to his book, Abbey noted that many of the collected sayings came from his earlier writings.

"Others may be unconscious plagiarisms from the great and the dead (never steal from the living and mediocre), ideas absorbed in my reading so long ago that I’ve made them mine and forgotten the source," Abbey wrote. "If so, the author would appreciate hearing from readers on this point. (Be kind.)"

Finally, we should note that we reached out to the Perry camp several times while researching this article and did not get a response.

Our ruling

Perry says Paine wrote that ‘the duty of a patriot is to protect his country from his government.’" He offers no proof or citation of where Paine wrote that phrase.

Two Paine scholars tell us the quote didn’t originate with the founding father and that the saying doesn’t appear in any of Paine’s writings.

We rate Perry’s claim False.

Our Sources

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s comments at the Commonwealth Dinner, Feb. 24, 2015.

Email from Gary Berton, secretary of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, March 2, 2015.

Interviews with Gary Berton, March 3-5, 2015.

Thomas Paine National Historical Association, "Did Paine write these quotes?" accessed March 4, 2015.

Email from Harvey Kaye, director of the Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, March 3, 2015.

Interview with Martha Spiegelman, board member and treasurer of the Thomas Paine Friends, March 4, 2015.

Interview with Alaine Lowell, executive director of the Thomas Paine Society, March 5, 2015.

Email from Eric Foner, history professor at Columbia University, March 3, 2015.

Edward Abbey, "A voice crying in the wilderness: Notes from a secret journal," 1989.

Thomas Paine Review blog by Kenneth W. Burchell, "Another bogus quote: ‘It is the duty of every patriot to protect his country from its government,’" Sept. 25, 2010.

The Social Security Administration, "Thomas Paine," accessed March 4, 2015.

Iona College, "The Institute for Thomas Paine studies," accessed March 4, 2015.

The Thomas Paine National Historical Association website, accessed March 4, 2015.

The Thomas Paine National Historical Association, "The Crisis I," accessed March 4, 2015.

The Associated Press, "New York college houses endangered Thomas Paine writings," Sept. 2, 2013.

The Journal News, "New Iona institute home for treasures of Thomas Paine," July 29, 2013.

Encyclopedia Britannica, "Edward Abbey," accessed March 5, 2015.

Northern Arizona University, "Edward Abbey," accessed March 5, 2015.

Los Angeles Times, "Anarchist with an attitude," July 17, 1994.

PBS, "The Continental Army and Washington," accessed March 6, 2015.

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Sean Gorman

Rick Perry errs in tying patriotism quote to Thomas Paine

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up