QUOTATIONS: HOW RELIABLE ARE THEY?
>I'm doing a training session for legislative staff on evaluating >the accuracy and value of Internet sites. Yahoo lists your site and a site >(apparently no longer maintained although it's undated) from the MIT >Libertarians >(http://www.mit.edu:8001/activities/libertarians/ask-thomas-jefferson/jefferson.html.gz). The student page attributes the quote to Jefferson. You, of course, do >not. Their page is undated, unsigned etc. Yours is well documented, has a >link to your biography etc. It makes a nice example since legislators are >always interested in quotes (PA governor Tom Ridge attributes that quote to >Jefferson in his 99 Inaugural Address at >http://www.state.pa.us/PA_Exec/Governor/Speeches/990119-1.html . In the >course of working this out, I got curious about the attribution of the >quote, and curiouser and curiouser as I found many attributes to Jefferson, >but not in the sources I found most reliable. I did find a Thoreau Society >page that attributes it to Paine in "Common Sense", but I found a full text >searchable copy of Common Sense and it's not there, although there is >something similar (but with caveats on the problem of no government). Thank you for your interesting response and for your kind words. I probably shouldn't say anything about the "competition," but I found Ask Thomas Jefferson very unreliable. Some of the quotes have mistakes in the wording, and, of course, some few are not by Jefferson at all. I have found that about 50% of the quotes one runs into on Newsgroups, etc., that are supposedly by Jefferson, are either spurious or misworded. I once tried policing the Newsgroups (using DejaNews), but only ended up making a lot of enemies. Once, after I pointed out to one young man that had the following quote in his signature attributed to Jefferson: "The natural progress of things is for government to gain ground and liberty to yield." and advised him that he had the last phrases turned around, and that it should be: "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1788. ME 7:37 the young man advised me that he liked it the way he had it, and refused to change it! ;-) This particular person had an email address from a well-known university, presumably a student. Thus from this and the Ask Thomas Jefferson examples, it appears that in seeking to evaluate the accuracy and value of information produced on the Internet, one cannot rely on the fact that the source is associated with even a famous university. In my view, the unreliability of some of the information on the Internet is not all bad. If it forces each user to be wary, and to carefully evaluate the information and judge its reliability, that critical attitude is surely a good thing. My advice to anyone taking quotes off the Internet is to be very wary of any that do not include the source. Sometimes even then they are bogus, but it is much rarer.
> I am not the scholar of Jefferson that you are. of course, you have selected > wonderful quotations from Jefferson, and your selection is your own contribution > that reflects your own views too, so it is not exactly Jefferson in his words, > but rather some of Jefferson in some of his own words, as selected by Mr. > Coates. Actually, it was my intention to select ALL the statements of political principle that Jefferson made, and to be unchoosing about it. There are some Jefferson materials which I have not been able to look at, and so have not made selections from them. But to be honest, I resent the implication that I imparted my own views into the selection of Jefferson quotes. I am quite familiar with the ways some people who quote Jefferson reflect their own views. An extreme (and amusing) example was the atheist who listed the famous quotation as, "I have sworn... eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." I could point to many more subtle ways. If you think my selection reflects my own views, perhaps you would care to cite specific examples of what you had in mind? Otherwise, I feel that you are just being condescending.
> Please excuse me, I was not clear. I think that you did a super job with the > Jefferson site. absolutely no accusation on my part that you were biased, or > deliberately biased, in your selections. anybody doing it would have to select > because Jefferson wrote so much. my point was that selection was necessary. > impossible not to select. and I feel that selection is selection, it reflects > the selectors views of what would be of interest to the readers. Impossible to > avoid that selection problem unless a person selects by computer on a strictly > random basis. I think that your selections are wonderful and reflect the > material that is of greatest interest to yourself and your readers. I don't mean to be contentious, but the truth of the matter is, I did NOT select the quotations as a matter of personal taste. I deliberately set out to select EVERYTHING that fell within a certain criteria, namely, statements of principle on topics related to politics and government. Indeed, that, I believe, is the art of the whole collection. I did not say, "This is an important or a good point, and this is an unimportant or misleading point." I took EVERYTHING, and then worried about what to do with it and where to put it afterward. Perhaps someone might argue that I "unconsciously" selected things and arranged them according to an organization that was formed in my own mind, and perhaps the latter is to some extent unavoidable. But I could show you the first organization I made. It was utter chaos. Gradually, as I went over and over the quotes again and again, the organization began to become apparent. But my selection criteria was ANY AND ALL statements that were general, or that could be reworded slightly so that it made a general statement without changing the essential meaning, AND it had meaning in the area of politics. Obviously, most of what Jefferson wrote had particular or special reference to some matter at hand. I take one sentence at randon: "I have waited hitherto, supposing that Congress might, possibly, appoint a secretary to the legation here, or siginify their pleasure that I should appoint a private secretary, to aid me in my office." Obviously, there is nothing there that has general application to political subjects. It cannot, in principle, speak to our time. Most of what he wrote was of that nature. That kind of thing I passed over. I was going through his writings looking for "gems," with the intention of taking them all. > this is also true of any author who writes a book about Jefferson. Am I wrong? > if I write a book about Jefferson and select any material at all, and offer any > commentary at all, I am putting something of myself into it, in addition to pure > Jefferson. This time, you are correct. Anyone who writes a book ABOUT Jefferson unavoidably puts something of themselves into the book. But you see, I was not writing a book "about" Jefferson. I was almost slavishly, like a computer, selecting everything Jefferson said that fell within certain objective criteria. Only after most of that was done, did I begin to organize it, based on the materials that I had before me. I defy anyone to point out to me any significant statement on politics and government that Jefferson made and that I did not include in my collection, EXCEPT, of course, from those materials I have not had an opportunity to analyze as yet. Nevertheless, I have gone through the 20 volume set of the Memorial Edition of his writings. But even that is not at all everything that Jefferson wrote. So, there is almost certainly more out there. But what I have gone through is the stuff that other scholars have considered the most essential of his writings. So, there may be a few more things, but it is not likely that they are terribly significant. Significant or not, however, they all go in, as far as I am concerned. I don't mean to give you a hard time on this. It is just that it is too easy for anyone to say, "Oh well, you MUST HAVE been selective in the quotations you chose." I feel certain, however, that if I was, then it was to a very insignificant extent. What you read there in the quotes is, as much as humanly possible, Jefferson, not Eyler Coates. > And thank heaven, because that is what I am looking for. I am looking > for a "docent" in the Jefferson museum, if you know what I mean. please, > absolutely no offense intended. I am in fact very grateful to you because I love > some of those quotations, and learned a lot from your comments. your site is so > educational, so stimulating, that I cannot thank you enough.. Thank you. My comments on the sections are somewhat less satisfactory to me. I tried to summarize how things turned out. I go back from time to time and try to make them better. But no one knows better than I do that Jefferson was a true genius. His expression in the English language is invariably exactly what he intends to say. His ideas are NEVER fuzzy. It is amazing. That's why, when people ask me if such-and-such is a genuine Jefferson quote, and I see something (1) I have never seen before, and (2) is expressed in inept, fuzzy language, I can usually tell right off that it is not Jefferson.
Table of Contents