Andrew Kaczynski and Megan Apper of BuzzFeed have documented that Sen. Rand Paul is a serial offender when it comes to repeating fake quotes from the Founders. Thomas Jefferson, for example, never wrote that a “government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have,” a sentence that sounds pretty modern to my ear. Rand Paul’s response: “Do I need to say in my speech, ‘as many people attribute to Thomas Jefferson, but some people dispute,’ before I give the quote? It’s idiocy, it’s pedantry – it’s ridiculous stuff from partisan hacks.” The publisher of his latest book says, “Sources are properly cited and most are older than those rejecting their veracity.”
No rational person would vote against Paul because of this flap, and nobody expects him to maintain the standards of a scholar. But these are terrible excuses. Of course the fake quotes are older than the sources debunking them! Nobody debunks a fake quote before it’s made up. People who are writing books or giving speeches should take reasonable steps to make sure that what they are saying is true. There are a lot of fake quotes from the Founders (and Lincoln) in wide circulation, so they should be checked before using them. If “many people” attribute a quote to Jefferson but “some people” who have actually looked into the question say he didn’t say it, the quote should not be presented as Jefferson’s. If it’s worth listening to the Founders, it’s worth trying to figure out what they actually said.