The illusion of tradition: spurious quotations and the gun control debate.

Author:Harpine, William D.

Opponents of gun control publish pro-gun quotations in newspapers, flyers, books, and websites. They attribute most of these quotations to eminences of the United States constitutional period. Many of the quotations are correct, while some, including the three that this essay studies, are misattributions or forgeries. Three quotations, in particular, have become especially relevant to pro-gun rhetoric:

* Wrongly attributed to Thomas Jefferson: "The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it." ("Second Amendment," 2013)

* Wrongly attributed to Thomasjefferson: "The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government." ("Thomasjefferson," 2011)

* Wrongly attributed to George Washington: "Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people's liberty teeth and keystone under independence." (Geer, 2013)

All three of these quotations are, as we shall see, recent fabrications. These three quotations come from a larger body of spurious quotations that are wrongly attributed to revered persons (Bagley, 2013; Rendall, 2010). In this paper, I establish that some gun advocates use these quotations to argue that the Second Amendment endorses the right to bear arms against the government, thus misappropriating the prestige of the nation's revered Founders in an attempt to circumvent reasoned debate about that momentous question. Those who offer these false quotations have found a way to advocate a controversial position for which no justification, either traditional or argumentative, actually seems to exist.

These spurious quotations, examples of what Hobsbawm (1983) calls invented tradition, lend heritage and authority to a radical pro-gun, anti-government position. They mostly spread through alternative media, where they receive little critical evaluation. They often appear in seemingly random lists of pro-gun quotations, which create a misleading impression. Repeatedly presented as unequivocal proof that the Second Amendment's purpose is to facilitate insurrection, their influence reaches well beyond the fringes of political opinion.

The quotations' purveyors mistakenly assume that they are recovering a lost tradition. Those who believe that the historical reason for gun rights is to foment rebellion most often either cite one or more of these spurious quotations to support that point, or offer no proof at all. In either case, they argue as if their claim's validity is obvious. To disagree with Jefferson and Washington might seem to express arrogance.

Indeed, John Locke (1690) showed that confronting a revered authority can seem arrogant. Locke (1690) characterizes argument from authority, ad verecundiam, as derived from persons "whose parts, learning, eminency, power, or some other cause, has gained a name, and settled their reputation" (p. 507; see also Goodwin, 1998; Goodwin, 2011; Wagemans, 2011). To contradict an authority implies "insolence" (Locke, 1690). That is, one might prefer to show shame or modesty (the literal meaning of ad verecundiam) rather than to challenge an authority. Similarly, to challenge a tradition might invite chastisement rather than reasoned response. Thus, spurious quotations become, to suitably motivated persons, undisputable debate stoppers.

These spurious appeals create the impression that certain ideas trace back to the nation's Founders, and, thus, to challenge this tradition with novel ideas represents an effrontery so deep as to obviate the need for further argument. Such arrogance is to be mocked, not refuted. In the face of these virtues, the inability to verify these quotations seems to pale in significance. That Jefferson and Washington did not actually say these things becomes a triviality. The sentiment that these quotations sustain, too easily dismissed as a fringe belief, has merged with the larger body of right-wing rhetoric.


Those who support opinions with presumably traditional, but, in this case, false quotations talk as if their repetition establishes their validity. This is what Hobsbawm (1983) calls "invented tradition." Repetition creates the impression that invented traditions are old (Hobsbawm, 1983, pp. 1-4). As long as the spurious quotations are reiterated, debunking is easily overlooked.

Many people indeed hold it to be a tradition that the Second Amendment authorizes insurrection. Shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings, a Rasmussen Reports (2013) poll found that "65% of American Adults think the purpose of the Second Amendment is to make sure that people are able to protect themselves against tyranny." Do the spurious quotations underlie or support this widespread belief? That would be hard to say, although, in the absence of evidence from real statements from the Founders, it is conceivable that they do.

People have a long-recognized tendency to accept information that confirms what they believe, while applying stricter standards to information that challenges their beliefs (Koslowski, 2013; Kruger & Dunning, 1999). Furthermore, motivated persons may disregard information that contradicts their opinions (Strickland, Taber, & Lodge, 2011). Those with extreme political views may feel that they understand a topic, even if their facts are wrong (Fernbach et al., 2013). This problem becomes more severe when people interact mostly with those who share their opinions (Mercier & Landemore, 2012).


These quotations circulate, for the most part, in what Viguerie and Franke (2004), in America's Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, characterize as "'under-the-radar' media" (p. 325). These include direct mail, blogs, Internet sites, and self-published books that give their content little critical evaluation. Alternative media have come to pose a challenge to the major newspapers and television networks (Couldry & Curran, 2003, p. 7). Thus, as conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart remarked, conventional news organizations can "no longer control the narrative" (Jonsson, 2010; cf. Sandoval & Fuchs, 2010). Thus, although no source that engages in minimal fact checking would perpetuate these spurious quotations, they nonetheless spread and escape eradication.

Too often, people consider this sort of rhetoric to lurk harmlessly on the fringes. However, the false quotations represent a widely circulated viewpoint from which many people interpret public issues. Aspects of this viewpoint are supported, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, by the false quotations. Worse, these quotations occasionally emerge in socially legitimated sources such as newspapers and political speeches (cf. Bruschke, 2012; Rowland, 20112 on everyday argument). Furthermore, as Bruschke (2012) notes, argumentation scholars should investigate argument in its natural settings, which might well include denigrated or even frightening rhetoric. By doing so, argumentation scholars hope to critique public debate (esp. pp. 59, 61; cf. Rowland, 2012). Bruschke (2012) also notes that, even when the public rejects extremists, portions of their discredited beliefs and policy ideas may yet circulate to the wider public. As we shall see, something much like this appears to happen with the spurious pro-gun quotations.


The three spurious quotations examined here crop up like perennial weeds that resist eradication. One can purchase t-shirts, wall clocks, and souvenirs displaying these bogus quotations. A musical group calls itself Liberty's Teeth (Liberty's Teeth, 2013). The quotations have taken on a life of their own, in the face of repeated debunking (e.g., Coates, 1996; Freedomkeys, n.d.; Rendall, 2010), in what Michigan militia leader Norman E. Olson (1995) proudly calls "alternative sources of news to convey truth to the American people" (108).

The Spurious "Beauty of the Second Amendment" Quotation

The first quotation, wrongly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, is:

The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it. ("Second Amendment," 2013)

There is no evidence that Jefferson ever said this. After searching several sources, Anna Berkes (2012) of the Monticello Library concluded that "We currently have no evidence that Thomas Jefferson said or wrote" that quotation or any known variation thereof. An original search of Jefferson's papers on-line at the Library of Congress also found no references under the search terms "beauty of the Second Amendment" (search conducted in Jefferson, 1606-1827). To this writing, no citation for this quotation, real or fabricated, has been discovered.

This quotation's earliest print appearance may be in Matt Carson's (2007) libertarian novel, On a Hill They Call Capital [n'J: A Revolution Is Coming. Carson's novel ends with a non-violent anti-tax revolution against the United States government. Carson tucks the "Beauty of the Second Amendment" quotation into a quotation appendix (p. 131). Carson does not integrate the false Jefferson quotation into an argument. It is merely the last in a string of seven quotations.

Numerous Internet sites also cite the "beauty of the Second Amendment" quotation, sometimes with minor variations (e.g., "Constitution: Second," 2014; National Liberty, ca. 2014; Nemo, 2013; "Questions," 2013; Woody Creek Farmer, 2012; Young, 2012). Many of these also merely include the quotation in a list.

The Spurious "Tyranny in Government" Quotation

Another spurious Jefferson quotation is:

The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government. ("Right to Bear," 2011)

Unfortunately, this quotation is also not authentic. Berkes (2012) states "This quotation has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson." My...

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