Thomas Frank

Check It Yourself

By Thomas Frank

I share a sentiment with the Tea Party movement, and it's not a trivial one: Historical illiteracy is a threat to the health of the republic. Our ignorance of the key events and basic concepts of the nation's development is a matter of statistical fact, and despite years of warnings we continue to show little interest in how the past determines contemporary choices.

Where we differ, the Tea Partiers and I, is on the question of what historical literacy looks like. For them, it is strictly a matter of everyone else acknowledging that the Founding Fathers would take their side in the present-day debates; that Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington were "rightwing extremists," as a popular T-shirt puts it. At Tea Party rallies, quotes from Founding Fathers are emblazoned on protest signs and declaimed from podiums; audiences recite them right along with the speaker; and, of course, there are always a few people on hand who feel such a surge of enthusiasm that they are moved to dress up in the manner of late-eighteenth century Bostonians.

Glenn Beck, with his televised evening classes, has been an inspiration as well as an admiring observer of the new historical awareness. In his 2010 novel The Overton Window, he imagines a group of protesters who spend much of their time memorizing the words of the Founding Fathers. They do this because the works and sayings of their heroes are threatened with destruction, and committing them to memory is one way to make sure they are not lost.

As one of the memorizers says, "It's already happening":

Not burning, but changing. Ask an elementary school kid what they know about George Washington and it's more likely you'll hear the lies about him, like the cherry-tree story or that he had wooden dentures, than about anything that really made him the father of our country. Ask a kid in high school about Ronald Reagan and they'll probably tell you that he was a B-list-actor-turned politician, or that he was the guy who happened to be in office when Gorbachev ended the Cold War. . . . Do you see? No one really needs to rewrite history; they just have to make sure that no one remembers it.

Later on, the character to whom this speech is addressed has an opportunity to spend a few hours reading one of the memorizers' books of "quoted passages" from Thomas Jefferson; it is a transformative experience. He finds the assembled quotes from the third president so visionary that "it seemed that each of these writings was addressed to this current time, and this very place...."

And that is the Tea Party sensibility, all right: Jefferson is here with us today, alive in a blizzard of quotes, judging the smarty-pants liberals as well as the apolitical couch potatoes.

But there's a problem. When one is urging history-worship on the world and, smack-dab in the middle of the jeremiad, seems to get a basic fact wrong, it is something more than an ordinary boo-boo. And so I trust that it is not too petty to point out that it was George H. W. Bush, not Ronald Reagan, who was president when Boris Yeltsin ended the Cold War.

“Can anyone on Capital [sic] Hill read?" demanded a sign held by a protester at one of the first Tea Party rallies, back in February of 2009.

If so read the
As Americans we do not
have the right:
To a house
To a car
To an education
Americans have a right
to per sue [sic] happiness
not to have it given to

The sign intrigued me, and so I took a picture of it as its author held it aloft. Nobody's entitled to the good things in life, her sign seemed to be saying, and so presumably we should stop crafting policy to make home ownership, travel, and education affordable—a curious demand in the middle of an economic catastrophe. But I was also taken by the surface-level irony: accusing others of cultural illiteracy while herself apparently mixing up the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence, the document that actually mentions the "pursuit of happiness." I filed it away and eventually forgot about it.

Until a year and a half later, when I was reading Spread THIS Wealth (And Pass THIS Ammunition!), a book by one C. Jesse Duke, a Tea Party enthusiast who has actually designed and copyrighted his own version of the movement's familiar snake flag. Mr. Duke writes as follows:

Benjamin Franklin said, "The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself."

Here it was again, this time attributed to one of the few men who had a hand in drafting both the Declaration and the Constitution. Could Franklin really have got them confused? I read on. After Mr. Duke's next sentence—"By patronizing our fellow citizens under the guise of 'helping' them, we have taken away their fundamental dignity"—he included an endnote. I flipped to the back of the book and found this reference: "Proverbs 20:4."

Now I was really intrigued. The wording of the quotation reminded me less of Franklin's well-known style than of mid-twentieth-century self-help. "You have to catch it yourself," I soon discovered, is an exceedingly popular bit of Frankliniana, complete with the awkward reference to the Constitution. It can be found on countless quote-compiling websites, the modern-day equivalent of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations minus the fact-checking. Authors associated with the latest right-wing revival routinely attribute great significance to this quotation. Bloggers love it, especially those bloggers partial to a strict, no-welfare-allowed interpretation of the founding documents.

The saying crops up in all sorts of curious places. In 2003, the president of Stanford University used a version of it to welcome new students to the groves of academe. According to an article last summer in the Dallas Morning News, it adorns the office of the economic adviser to the prime minister of Georgia (the former Soviet republic, that is). Ann Landers quoted it in a 1992 column.

Nowhere, though, could I find anyone who sourced the phrase back to a primary work by or about Benjamin Franklin. It does not appear in Bartlett's itself. A search of the authoritative database of Franklin's writings yields no matches. Google Books assures us it does not come up in any of the major Franklin biographies. I contacted six different Franklin authorities; none had ever heard of it. A search of scholarly journals turned up exactly one instance of the saying, in a 1960 issue of a magazine for high school English teachers—again, without the benefit of mooring to any primary works by or about Franklin.

Over the years, this favorite Franklin adage has changed considerably. The version du jour—"catch it yourself"— belittles the welfare state and implies that those who don't understand the no-freeloaders aspect of the Constitution are lazy and a little bit stupid. It thus offers a political as well as a psychological payoff to the historically minded striver who invokes it.

In previous decades, the elusive saying often took the form of an anecdote: Franklin in a tavern, or giving a speech, suffering the abuse of a drunkard or a heckler, who demands to know the whereabouts of the happiness promised by the Declaration of Independence (a few versions get that part right). Whereupon Franklin retorts: Catch it yourself.

In some tellings, the quote is supposed to establish the need for effort in the search for happiness. In others, we are supposed to be amused by Franklin's saucy cleverness. Once upon a time, the quote was a common feature in books about public speaking. It was also a staple of how-to books about life's difficulties, such as A Passage Through Divorce and Are We Having Fun Yet? The 16 Secrets of Happy Parenting. And to this day it is a popular item on websites about sermon-writing—itself a fusion of these two other genres— where the "catch it yourself" story is suggested to preachers as a way to remind the flock that we can all win happiness, but only if we try.

The earliest instance I was able to find that associated the phrase with Franklin's name dates to 1944. Before that, jokes about pursuing-vs.-catching happiness cropped up in magazine wit columns from time to time, but without benefit of the philosopher's name. Literary Digest ran a version of it in 1926 attributed not to Franklin but to the Detroit News. Southern Cultivator included an unattributed version in 1891, and from The Christian Advocate for November 1881 comes this simple, apolitical gem:

"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is an American's inalienable birthright. He keeps up the pursuit of happiness, but very seldom catches him.

Even the witty axioms of Benjamin Franklin fade to insignificance when a liberty-minded protester contemplates the mighty utterances of Thomas Jefferson, such as this one:

The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite.

It is a beloved saying. Someone has made a YouTube video in which a cartoon Founder recites the quote and then dares us modern-day slackers to do something about it. It has been incanted by Michael Steele, Lou Dobbs, and Christine O'Donnell, the former Senate candidate from Delaware, who deployed it to bolster the victimology that characterized her campaign: "That is the question, isn't it?" she said in a speech last September, according to The New York Times. "And the verdict is in. The small elite don't get it. They call us wacky, they call us wing-nuts. We call us, 'We the people.' "

I was at first mystified by the right's enthusiasm for this quotation. After all, the "small elite" that rules us was installed in its privilege by none other than conservatives themselves, who have done so much to make America a land where the voice of money outshouts everyone else. When the Tea Party faithful talk about the "elite," however, they mean the exact opposite of that: they know that "elitism" is what happens when bureaucrats interfere with the natural, democratic, free-market order of things, and therefore they find the maxim to be a stirring call to rise up against the lash of Boss Obama and his gang of unelected czars.

As with the Franklin quote, "ruled by a small elite" cannot be traced to an actual primary work by the sage of Monticello. The online Papers of Thomas Jefferson contain nothing. I consulted Jefferson scholars and the nice people at Monticello; none had heard it. Jefferson biographies: zip. I looked up elite in the Oxford English Dictionary and found that the word was first used this way in 1823, just three years before Jefferson's death. An assistant editor of Jefferson's papers at Princeton University told me that "as far as I can tell, TJ never used the word."

In our own time, however, "elite" is a word in heavy, ominous rotation, and the earliest instance I found of the words "ruled by a small elite" appearing in print in connection with Jefferson is in a 1980 tract on regulation by Bernard Siegan, a famous law professor who was a player in the conservative revival of the Eighties. Siegan's book does indeed use most of the words in question, in a passage commenting on a letter Jefferson wrote in 1813.1 But the words express Siegan's own interpretation of Jefferson's views; they are not in quotation marks.

That was someone else's doing. Another writer must have thought it would pack more of a punch if ownership of the phrase was transferred to Jefferson himself, and by the Nineties the quote was appearing in hard-right literature in the form we know it today, complete with the added literary curlicue: "same as it has been throughout all history." And though it has jumped the rails of facticity, the saying has somehow retained the libertarian character of the author who, it seems, accidentally loosed it on the world. The Franklin directive to "catch it yourself" wandered far and wide before it fell into the arms of the conservative movement; the Jefferson axiom never strayed so.

One reason these quotations have multiplied is that they seem true to Ben and Tom as we all know them through their appearances over the years in movies, musicals, and schoolbooks: the earthy Founder, cracking wise; the rebel Founder, seething against tyrants. Those who use the mysterious quotes do not mean to deceive. In nearly every case, they are merely repeating something they've read numerous times in what appear to be authoritative works. All journalists, myself included, have made similar mistakes.2

On the other hand, when you set the Founders up as infallible oracles of democracy, when you claim clairvoyance with their political spirit, when you dedicate yourself to remedying the nation's historical illiteracy, you put yourself under a special obligation. And given that it is only a little more difficult to use the Internet to check fake quotes than to reproduce them, one wonders: Why don't the guardians of Founder purity take that step? Why do fakes proliferate instead of disappear?

I think the answer is that the myths are so much more satisfying than reality. In a 1989 study of spurious quotes, They Never Said It, historians Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George write that quote fakers "dream up things that never happened but which they think should have and then insert them into history." They also note that, from Joe McCarthy to Ronald Reagan, this is a species of fabrication that "for some reason" attracts the right more than the left.3

Painstaking faithfulness to primary documents is one of the shibboleths of academic professionalism. The modern populist right, by contrast, holds academic professionalism in broad contempt; theirs is a sacred mission to rescue history-as-legend from the corrosive influence of liberal college professors and the cynics employed by the mainstream media. It's a species of reverence that lends itself to error as a matter of course.

They know Jefferson thought that the regulatory state was a form of aristocracy, because that's what they feel it to be. They know Franklin snorted with derision at those who expected government to make life easy, because that's what they do. Make the Founders sacred and it is inevitable that someone will try to cram his own sayings into their inviolable mouths.

1. After quoting Jefferson's well-known epistle to John Adams about different kinds of aristocracy, Siegan wrote this: "In other words, man should be allowed to govern himself, and he should not be ruled by a small elite."

2. Besides, there's a very small chance the quotes aren't apocryphal. Just because no one I consulted could find these lines in primary sources doesn't mean the Founders didn't say them. Maybe they're in letters currently residing in a box in someone's attic. Maybe they've been passed down over the centuries by oral tradition, mysteriously vanishing and then resurfacing just when needed most.

3. There are some juicy examples of liberal quote-faking, too: Consider Chief Seattle's beloved 1854 speech about ecology, which (it turns out) was written by a man in Texas in the Seventies. [Note added August 2012.]

From Harper's Magazine, April, 2011

Pity the Billionaire

From the bestselling author of What's the Matter with Kansas?, a wonderfully insightful and sardonic look at why the worst economy since the 1930s has brought about the revival of conservatism

The Wrecking Crew

Casting his eyes from the Bush administration's final months of plunder to the earliest days of the Republican revolution, Thomas Frank uncovers the deep logic behind the graft and incompetence of conservatives in power.
Amazon Facebook