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George Washington (didn’t) sleep here: Quoting the founders in the 21st century

WSU's Dr. Lawrence Hatter.
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News
WSU's Dr. Lawrence Hatter.

It’s fashionable in some circles today to quote America’s founders to justify a modern viewpoint, lend credence to a personal view, or simply trash someone you disagree with.

Ben Franklin’s remark “A republic – if you can keep it” is commonly deployed to criticize political views on the left and the right. Another quote, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, says one reason for people to own personal weapons is to protect themselves from the government. (For the record, Jefferson never said that.) A handful attributed to James Madison warn readers not to trust the federal system he helped create.

The images – typically following a predictable template of a quote superimposed on an oil painting of a colonial leader – seem to imply that the founders’ generation has a final-word opinion or dark warning that fits every issue modern society faces.

But that’s the catch, says Washington State University’s Dr. Lawrence Hatter. The quotes you see on social media to justify everything from banning abortions, to anti-government views, to total freedom for firearms, are often taken out of context, and sometimes – as in the Jefferson example -- apocryphal.

“If you had a question about what the founders thought about something, which I think is a perfectly legitimate thing,” Hatter said. “Then begin with a question. Don’t begin with a conclusion.”

Hatter, an associate professor who specializes in early American history, advises finding the founders’ own words first, which can be found in primary-source documents – the writings of the men themselves, plus contemporary news accounts. Or you can look in secondary-source documents – the vetted books, journal articles and published research of professional historians.

But even then, your work isn’t done. If you can prove the words are real, you should then examine context. The way, for example, Jefferson felt and thought about an issue in 1776 may be quite different than how he thought and felt by the time of his presidency, some thirty years later.

“In the history business, we are very much into change over time and historical context,” Hatter said. “You have to be attuned not just to the maturity of thought – the fact that we are fundamentally different people as we age – but also what’s going on at the time…world events, or even local events or personal events in your life change the way that you view things.”

Asked if it’s a mistake to quote long-dead men to bolster modern arguments, Hatter said not necessarily – depending on the context or the argument. In legal circles, for instance, judges often have to consider the founders’ words and debate their meaning.

But for that Facebook post you want to share? Do your homework, check the historical and personal context of the statement, and consider one last thing before hitting “post.”

“Don’t abuse the past to project your views on the present and the future,” Hatter said.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for nearly twenty years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.