Tag Archives: Barry Lynn

Misquotes, Fake Quotes, and Disputed Quotes of the Founders


Many inauthentic quotes attributed to the Founding Fathers have been in circulation for much of the 20th century. These are still being used frequently, especially by those in the religious right.

Fortunately we have many of the letters, diaries, and notes written by the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson wrote many letters daily. John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary every day for 18 years straight. During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, James Madison wrote notes in shorthand which he converted into longhand every night. Newspapers of the day are also a good source. Actually, George Washington’s farewell Presidential Address in 1796 was only a newspaper article. In sum, our prolific Founders left us with many sources of material.


If one quotes the actual words of a Founding Father but does not give the context, then he is guilty of misquoting.

John Adams (1735-1826) “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.”

John George and Paul Boller, Jr. in their book They Never Said It set the record straight:

Adams did indeed make the statement, but only to repudiate it. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson about religion on April 19, 1817, he mentioned reading some polemical books that reminded him of the way his boyhood minister, Lemuel Bryant, and his Latin schoolmaster, Joseph Cleverly, used to argue ad nausea about religion, and he told Jefferson: “Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!!’ But in this exclamation, I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in public company–I mean hell.”

 Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) “I therefore beg leave to move–that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that article.”

This is exactly what Franklin said at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. However, many in the religious right ignore that fact that his motion was tabled and never voted on. For instance, Tal Brooke comments, “It was Benjamin Franklin who called the Constitutional Convention to prayer with a powerful statement of their debt to God. As mere men, they could not presume to undertake so great a task without petitioning Him for guidance. America abounds with Christian evidences from its earliest days.”

Actually this version of the Franklin prayer motion originated with a letter written in September of 1825 from William Steele to his son, Jonathan. The letter told about William’s recollection of a conversation with General Jonathan Dayton, a member of the Constitutional Convention. This incorrect account later appeared in the National Intelligencer, and other sources as well. According to Steele, Dayton recalled that “the motion for appointing a chaplain was instantly seconded and carried.” However, James Madison in a letter to Thomas S. Grimke (January 6, 1834) stated that Franklin’s “proposition was received and treated with the respect due to it; but the lapse of time which had preceded, with consternations growing out of it, had the effect of limiting what was done, to a reference of the proposition to a highly respectable Committee… That the communication [Steele’s account of Dayton testimony] was erroneous is certain; whether from misapprehension or misrecollection, uncertain.”

We should learn a lesson from James Madison. It is one thing to correct a person who is mistaken about historical details, but it is quite another to accuse someone of intentionally fabricating a story. Note that Madison stopped short of doing the latter.

Fake Quotes

A fake quote is an inauthentic quote attributed to a Founding Father. The late Robert S. Alley, former professor at the University of Richmond has rightly stated that “proving that a quotation does not exist is a daunting task…” However, evidence exists that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the following quote is not authentic.

James Madison (1751-1836) “Religion …[is] the basis and foundation of government.”

This fake quote is taken from Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance. The subject in this sentence is not “Religion,” but actually the “Declaration of those rights ‘which pertain to the good people of Virginia.'” Nevertheless, this inauthentic quote has been circulated for many years.

Disputed Quotes

A disputed quote may actually be authentic, but no primary source has been found. Some scholars would put the following two quotes in the previous category of “Fake Quotes” while other scholars may hold out hope that a primary source will be found.

James Madison (1751-1836) “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves…according to the Ten Commandments of God.”

Possibly this quote was originally given by Bishop James Madison (a cousin) or from James Madison’s father, James Madison, Sr., but this is pure speculation. There is always a distant chance that a quote could turn up from a primary source that was found in someone’s attic. In fact, a primary document from James Madison surfaced as late as 1946, but don’t hold your breath till that happens again. The fact remains that there is not a shred of evidence that links James Madison to this quote. Moreover, Paul F. Boller, Jr. in a personal letter to me stated, “The Madison quote about the Ten Commandments sounds un-Madisonian. I’ve read a lot of Madison, and I know he didn’t express himself that way…Sometimes the questionable quote can’t be found in any of the writings that have survived of the person who is supposed to have made the statement. The Madison quote doesn’t appear in any of Madison’s writings.”

Christian apologist Gary DeMar wrote concerning his research concerning the quote:

I credited this quotation to Madison in the first edition of the first volume of God and Government. Nearly every book written by a Christian author to support the Christian America thesis claims Madison as the quotation’s author. I have searched in vain for the quotation’s original source. American Vision even contacted a Madison scholar for help. He was not familiar with the quotation. Further study led me to the January 1958 calendar published by Spiritual Mobilization. What was Spiritual Mobilization’s source for the quotation? None was listed. Additional detective work led me to another James Madison, a cousin of President Madison. Madison served as president of William and Mary College and was the first Protestant Episcopal bishop of Virginia. Is he the source of the quotation? Very possibly. Christians should stop attributing of the quotation to President James Madison until we find out.

 It is my opinion that this disputed quote attributed to Madison has been the one used more than any other by the religious right. This is probably due to the fact that the Supreme Court banned the display of the Ten Commandments in the public school rooms in the case Stone v. Graham in 1980.

George Washington (1732-1799) “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”

Several years ago, I was guilty of using this disputed quote, and the late Professor John George of the University of Central Oklahoma, Political Science Department, told me that there is not a shred of evidence to link Washington to this quote. Professor George was a leading expert on this subject, and he co-authored They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions with Paul F. Boller, Jr. of Texas Christian University.

I had copied this disputed quote off of a bumper sticker that my friend from church had on his truck. However, I was surprised at my friend’s reaction when I told him he should remove his sticker. He said,  “Is Professor George a Christian? If not then he probably has an axe to grind.” I later discovered that Professor George had corrected many atheists too. Nevertheless, I tried to find someone in the religious right who also had some knowledge on the subject.

So I called up the company that specialized at putting out bumper stickers with quotes from the  Founding Fathers dealing with God. The owner of the company actually spent a whole year researching the Washington quote and he said he concluded that Washington did not say it. He commented, “Washington did not talk that way. He did not use the word ‘Bible’ any that I can remember, and I believe, I have read everything available that Washington wrote.”

This fellow was a Christian lawyer, and he said he could no longer sell the Washington bumper sticker even though it made up 90% of his sales. Again I went back to my friend, but he replied, “That fellow is not a historian. David Barton has studied the history of the founding fathers for over 20 years. I have a lot of respect for Barton.”

Then I contacted Barton’s organization, Wallbuilders Inc of Aledo, Texas. They mailed me the “Unconfirmed or Questionable Quote” list and it featured the Washington quote. Furthermore, it recommended not using this quote until it is authenticated.

When confronted with this opinion from Barton my friend responded, “I am not going to take my bumper sticker off until I have an explanation of how the quote could have possibly been mistakenly attributed to Washington in the first place.”

Then I received a few weeks later an updated “Unconfirmed Quote” list from Wallbuilders, and under the Washington disputed quote is this explanation:

There is a very real possibility that the quotation has its origin in an 1835 biography by James K. Paulding. In a description of Washington’s character, with supporting quotations, Paulding declares Washington to have said, “It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe without the agency of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being.” The similarities are obvious; a paraphrase of these quotes could have easily generated the words in question. However, we have not been able to trace Paulding’s cite to a more scholarly reference. He offers no footnotes.

I thought my friend would finally back down when I showed him this evidence, but I was about to learn something about human nature. I explained to him that this quote originated around 1835 when someone read Paulding’s book A Life of Washington. This is because it contained another unconfirmed quote of Washington which also had the words “impossible” and “govern.” Obviously a paraphrase took place at that time. My friend replied, “Are you 100% sure it is a bad quote? If not then I am going to continue to use it!”

Needless to say I have learned a lot about people’s tendency to ignore evidence when it goes against their presuppositions. Furthermore, I have quit trying to convince my friend that a disputed quote should be shelved until it is authenticated. He truly believes if Washington were here today he would say it now even if he didn’t say it the first time.

  Everette Hatcher is a businessman in Little Rock, and his blog is www.thedailyhatch.org . He is a conservative Republican and he has confronted over 30 religious right authors over their misuse of disputed quotes. (The article above has been recommended by unlikely advocates such as the atheist Farrell Till of the Skepitcal Review.)

(Update: You will notice above in the section labeled “Fake Quotes” that I linked a comment by the late Dr. Robert Alley to an article by Rob Boston of Americans United published in 1996. I posted earlier how I was the source for the two articles that Rob Boston wrote on David Barton but unfortunately he implied that Barton made up these quotes. Fortunately I was given the opportunity to set the record straight in The Freedom Writer.

Later I got several board members of Americans United to contact Boston on my behalf and voice their opinion of how unfair Boston had been to Barton in his article  “Consumer Alert”. On March 7, 1997, I spoke with Barry Lynn the executive director of Americans United. Lynn was very gracious on the phone and  promised to consider an article from me in response to the slanted  “Consumer Alert” article Boston had written earlier. Americans United board member Dr. Paul Simmons of Louisville helped me write the aritcle, but ultimately it was never published until today.)

George Washington (Lansdowne portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, oil on canvas, 1796

George Washington (Lansdowne portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, oil on canvas, 1796
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

Did David Barton fabricate quotes and attribute them to the founding fathers?

On the Arkansas Times Blog on June 17, 2012 I noted:

Google the phrase ” David Barton fabricated quotes” and you will get many websites that claim this is true and Rob Boston’s 1996 article “consumer alert” in the Church and State Magazine is what prompted this reaction throughout the country. As a journalist you would think people like Max would call Boston out on this. An apology should have been issued by Boston years ago.

Hopefully today when you google that phrase you will be taken to my website, www.thedailyhatch.org, and you will not have to read all those lies that were prompted by Rob Boston about David Barton.

If you go to http://www.youtube.com and type in “Rob Boston Fake Quotes” you will get a 6 min, 47 sec clip with Rob Boston being interview on February 10, 2010 on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. The origin of this “fake quote scandal” was my 1996 encounter with Rob Boston. Looking back I think it was my trusting nature that got me in trouble.  (I should have known that Boston could be quite rude at times and that should tipped me off to a character flaw.)

It all started because I was involved in a series of correspondence with  Boston who is the senior policy analyst at the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) and a board member of the American Humanist Society.

(Portions of this below appeared in an article I did for the Freedom Writer in May/June 1997 issue which is a publication friendly to Boston and not to me but they felt the record should be set straight concerning the misleading article that Boston had written in 1996 in Church & State titled “Consumer Alert.”.)

Let me start from the very beginning. As an evangelical Christian and a member of the Christian Coalition, I felt obliged to expose a misquote of John Adams’ I found in an article entitled “America’s Unchristian Beginnings” (Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1995, p.B-9) by the self-avowed atheist Dr. Steven Morris. However, what happened next changed my focus to the use of misquotes, unconfirmed quotes, and misleading attributions by the religious right.

In the process of attempting to correct Morris, I was guilty of using several misquotes myself. Dr John George  coauthor (with Paul Boller Jr.) of the book They Never Said It! (Oxford University Press, 1989) set me straight. George pointed out that George Washington never said, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” (They Never Said It! pp. 126-127). I had cited page 18 of the 1927 edition of Halley’s Bible Handbook. This quote was probably generated by a similar statement that appears in A Life of Washington (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835) by James Paulding. Sadly, no one has been able to verify any of the quotes in Paulding’s book since no footnotes were offered.

After reading They Never Said It! I had a better understanding of how widespread the problem of misquotes is. Furthermore, I discovered that many of these had been used by the leaders of the religious right. I decided to confront some individuals concerning their misquotes. WallBuilders, the publisher of David Barton’s The Myth of Separation (published in 1989), helped me further by providing me with their “Questionable Quote” list. The list contained a dozen quotes of the founders that Barton could only confirm with secondary sources.

Proverbs 19:25 states, “…rebuke a discerning man, and he will gain knowledge.” Since I was rebuking fellow Christians, I felt certain they would all gladly quit using unconfirmed or questionable quotes. The religious right leaders I contacted had three different responses.

The first was the reaction that I expected. Several thanked me for bringing these corrections to their attention. They agreed that it is wrong to use disputed quotes as if they were authentic.

The second, which was the most common response, was to claim that their critics were biased skeptics who find the truth offensive. The premise of this argument is, “We know our critics are 100% wrong all the time, so who cares what they have to say anyway. We are the only unbiased ones.”

And the third response was from one who defended his method of research and his method of confirming sources. Furthermore, he said that he pursued his graduate education in order to improve his level of scholarship. Nevertheless, that respondent never provided me with his original sources.

There are some misquotes used commonly by separationists, but evidently the religious right has a much more widespread problem. One illustration demonstrates just how widespread the problem is among religious right lay historians. When David Barton wrote The Myth of Separation he used many secondary sources for the 500 quotes that appeared in his book published in 1989. After an effort to find primary sources for these quotes, Barton complied the “Questionable Quote” list with the 12 quotes that could only had confirmation through secondary sources. None of these questionable quotes originated with Barton.

After confronting over thirty religious right authors, I turned my attention to individuals from the separationist point of view. During this time I provided Rob Boston, of Americans United, with the “questionable quote” list in the hope that he would confront some individuals on his  side of the ideological fence. I even included my correspondence from several religious right leaders such as the late D. James Kennedy. Nevertheless, based upon the “Questionable Quote” list that I provided to him, Boston wrote the slanted article for Church & State titled “Consumer Alert.” (July /August 1996). In this article he implies that Barton made up the dozen quotes on the “Questionable Quote” list.

In “Consumer Alert,” these words appeared in bold print: “Mything in action: David Barton’s ‘Questionable Quotes.'” Barton was called a “double fraud.” 

Professor Fritz Detweiler of Adrian College’s religion and philosophy department responded to this controversy in his weekly column stating that Barton “made up quotes and attributed them to James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other leading Americans…. Barton’s fabricating quotes to serve his purpose is particularly disturbing on two fronts. First, Barton was not content to let the record speak for itself because it didn’t say quite what he wanted it to say. Second, the fraudulent construction of quotes poses a particular problem for [historians] seeking to verify their accuracy.”

In response to that article, David Barton wrote in WallBuilders‘ summer 1996 newsletter that “the article,  “Consumer Alert”‘ is agenda driven. Our honest efforts to clear the ‘world’s rhetorical rivers,’ as we casually stated in the earlier draft, were twisted and misconstrued to sound as if we created the quotes… We regret that the unconfirmed quotations have been circulated over the last century-and-a-half, and WallBuilders acknowledges the errors of using secondary sources for primary historical figures. (These quotes have been purged from our materials wherever possible.) David Barton went on to make clear that his current level of scholarship as of the early 1990’s was not to use founders quotes unless they are documented by a primary source.

I had the opportunity to talk to Rob Boston on the phone about this on November 19, 1996. I told him that people all across this country have been writing letters to the editor of their local newspapers blasting David Barton because of Boston’s article and many more have been posting articles on the internet.) Boston said he was very glad people were on to Barton.

Then I pointed out to Boston that many of these people were accusing Barton of knowingly using bad quotes. Furthermore, one individual accused Barton of “creating quotes.” These people could be sued for libel. Boston replied, “No malice can be proved. I don’t know much about law, but I at least know that much.” Shortly after that Boston hung up on me, but not before he claimed “poetic license” and said he was glad that Barton’s reputation had been damaged. (Blair Scott, Alabama State Director, American Atheists, Inc. has since claimed, “David Barton was cornered and he admitted to fabricating the quotes, okay he actually called them “spurious,” but we all know that means he made them up.”)

Later I got several board members of Americans United to contact Boston on my behalf and voice their opinion of how unfair Boston had been to Barton in his article  “Consumer Alert”. On March 7, 1997, I spoke with Barry Lynn the executive director of Americans United. Lynn was very gracious on the phone and  promised to consider an article from me in response to the slanted  “Consumer Alert” article Boston had written earlier. Americans United board member Dr. Paul Simmons of Louisville helped me write the aritcle, but ultimately it was never published.

The real scandal is that this same lie caused by Boston’s article about Barton is still today being spread throughout the world on youtube and on TV. On Feb 10, 2010 on MSNBC’s show Countdown with Keith Olberman, Rob Boston was the guest and Olberman opened the show with these words:

“What happens if you want your audience to believe that the the founding fathers did not want the separation of church and state when obviously and clearly and repeatedly they did. Well you make up quotes defending your position and dishonestly attribute them to the likes of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson… More on Mr Barton and those quotes in a moment.”

Then Olbermann and Boston go on to criticize  Barton throughout the remainder of the program. However, in this interview Boston never says that Barton manufactured quotes, but he doesn’t stop Olbermann from telling the same old lie about Barton that came from this 1996 scandal. Boston knew that his article  “Consumer Alert” from 1996 was responsible for Olbermann’s inaccurate words about Barton, but Boston didn’t lift a finger to set the record straight. In 2009 Boston finally admitted concerning Barton “Unconfirmed Quote List”: “He didn’t make the stuff up, he just relied on bad sources.” Boston should have admitted this in 1996 and apologized and then tried to correct the record anytime he saw it on the internet.

Furthermore this youtube video clip has received over 75,000 hits. The clip was put on youtube by a person going by the username “JesusSavesAtCitibank” whoever that is. If you click on the username you will be provided several links to articles. The first link will bring you to Boston’s 1996 article  “Consumer Alert”.

David Barton has tried to raise the level of scholarship in the debate concerning the founders by committing to use only quotes that have been confirmed by primary sources. Dr. John George has commented, “While not agreeing with Barton concerning separation of church and state, I must say he has done everyone a service by circulating the ‘Questionable Quote List.’ Especially gratifying is his encouraging those in his own Religious Right camp to cite only primary sources for the quotes they utilize. Unfortunately, a sizable minority will ignore the advice.”

Many separationists like Dr. George praised Barton for challenging others to a higher level of scholarship concerning these unconfirmed quotes. Instead, of complimenting Barton when I provided this information to Boston in 1996, he chose to imply that Barton was guilty of making up quotes.

Now Barton is being attacked on the Arkansas Times Blog June 15, 2012 by the username “Deathbyinches”for making up quotes and attributing them to the founders and another blogger even provided a link to the People for the American Way website which includes many criticisms of Barton concerning these quotes. Last year when Barton was scheduled to come hold a seminar for state legislators and constitutional officers on Jan 25 and 26 in Little Rock,one liberal media person (Max Brantley) in Arkansas associated with Americans United had called him the “bogus Texas historian.” That is when I knew I had to set the record straight concerning Rob Boston’s fake quote youtube clip.

Related posts:

Unconfirmed Quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson

HALT:HaltingArkansasLiberalswithTruth.com Part 6 David Barton:Were the Founding Fathers Deists? In 1988 only 25% of Christians voted but that doubled in 1994. Christians are the salt of the world. The last few days I have been  looking at this issue of unconfirmed quotes that people think that the Founding Fathers actually said and the historical evidence […]

Two Unconfirmed quotes attributed to Noah Webster

HALT:HaltingArkansasLiberalswithTruth.com Part 5 David Barton: Were the Founding Fathers Deists? First Bible printed in USA was printed by our founding fathers for use in the public schools. 20,000 Bibles. 10 commandments hanging in our courthouses. The last few days I have been  looking at this issue of unconfirmed quotes that people think that the Founding […]

Unconfirmed Quote attibuted to Patrick Henry

HALT:HaltingArkansasLiberalswithTruth.com Part 4 David Barton: Were Founding Fathers Deists? Only 5% of the original 250 founding fathers were not Christians (Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Joe Barlow, Charles Lee, Henry Dearborn, ect) In the next few weeks I will be looking at this issue of unconfirmed quotes that people think […]

Samuel Adams Unconfirmed Quote was Confirmed Eventually

HALT:HaltingArkansasLiberalswithTruth.com Part 3 David Barton: Were Founding Fathers Deists? American Bible Society filled with Founding Fathers Here is another in the series of  unconfirmed quotes that people think that the Founding Fathers actually said and the historical evidence concerning them. David Barton has collected these quotes and tried to confirm them over the last 20 […]

Unconfirmed Quote attributed to Ben Franklin

HALT:HaltingArkansasLiberalswithTruth.com Part 2 David Barton on Founding Fathers were they deists? Not James Wilson and William Samuel Johnson In the next few weeks I will be looking at this issue of unconfirmed quotes that people think that the Founding Fathers actually said and the historical evidence concerning them. David Barton has collected these quotes and […]

Unconfirmed Quote attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville

HALT: HaltingArkansasLiberalswithTruth.com Part 1 David Barton: Were the Founding Fathers Deists? Religious holidays, Court cases, punishing kids in school for praying in Jesus name In the next few weeks I will be looking at this issue of unconfirmed quotes that people think that the Founding Fathers actually said and the historical evidence concerning them. David […]

Supreme Court never said It.

Halting Arkansas Liberals with Truth David Barton goes through American History and looks at some of the obscure names in our history and how prayer and Bible Study affected some of our founding fathers In the next few weeks I will be looking at this issue of unconfirmed quotes that people think that the Founding […]

Lots of Fake Quotes of Founding Fathers in Circulation

HALT: HaltingArkansasLiberalswith Truth   ___ I wanted to thank Gene Lyons for bringing this issue of fake quotes of the Founding Fathers to our attention because it should be addressed. In April 8, 2010 article “Facts Drowning in Disinformation,” he rightly notes that Thomas Jefferson never said, “The democracy will cease to exist when you […]