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Living History: Need a pithy quote? Make one up

Published April 7, 2013 4:28 pm

History • We all cite authority to bolster arguments. The trick is doing it honestly.
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I hear dead people.

More precisely, I read stuff from dead people all the time. But in a new twist, they are saying things they neglected to say while alive.

We've all had discussions and arguments where, half an hour later, we slap our foreheads and think, "I should have said [the brilliant thing that would have ended the argument in my favor]."

It must be something like that for the dead — and now they've discovered the Internet.

Mostly, these dead are famous people whose opinions carry a lot of weight. So, of course I am interested when a great many of the Founding Fathers have interrupted their eternal rest to comment on the current gun debate.

They seem especially concerned that We the People have enough firepower to blow away the government they took such pains to create.

I've been introduced to these gun nuggets of the famous dead by firearm enthusiasts. They fill my email inbox.

One of my favorites is George Washington's "Liberty Teeth" speech to the second session of the first U.S. Congress, in which he says, "Firearms are second only to the Constitution in importance; they are the people's liberty teeth."

Wow. Game, set and match to the gun-rights crowd!

The only problem is that there's no record of Washington saying any such thing. It's worth reading the whole "address" just for laughs. It references "prairie schooners" more than a decade before Lewis and Clark first gazed upon a prairie, and the "99.99 percent" part is a real howler to anyone who's slogged through 18th-century-speak in the original.

Yet it's still quoted as Second Amendment gospel on the Internet.

By the way, if you want to know which Internet quotes about guns attributed to John Adams, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are bogus, here's a good rule of thumb: All of them.

Supposed specifics, like being from the second session of the first U.S. Congress, are a nice touch, lending an air of authenticity.

This is not a new phenomenon. Overly pious Christians in the third and fourth centuries created a new genre of Gospels dealing in the infancy and adolescence of Jesus. Meant to bolster the faith of the weak, these tales instead make Christianity look silly.

It might be comforting to think that the juvenile Jesus was tender-hearted enough to use his miraculous powers to fix his stepfather's shoddy carpentry, but what of the masses dying from starvation just down the road?

We all cite authority to bolster arguments. The trick is doing it honestly.

For example, Brigham Young is being deployed by both sides over the role of women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Those who want to paint Young as a proto-feminist offer compelling quotes encouraging women to get beyond homemaking and "study law or physic [medicine], or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large."

But you don't have to dig very deep to find instances where Young comes across as seriously unenlightened. He condemned female fashions and behavior and commanded women to "cheerfully submit" when the husband showed up with a new wife.

In his biography of Brigham Young, John Turner warns against judging Young by our 21st century lights. Young was a man of his time. Child labor, annihilation of Indian nations, slavery and female subservience were the norm.

To appreciate the man on his own terms means taking the time and trouble to learn about his world.

The Founding Fathers were certainly engaged in a debate about the role of arms, but it's a mistake to think it's the same Second Amendment argument we're having today. The genuine quotes sound obtuse to modern ears and require deep dives into the 1700s just to figure out what the heck they were talking about.

I also take to heart the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, who said, "Don't believe everything you read on the Internet."

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune.






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