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The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Study Guide: Quotes in General

Citing quotes to prove a point is tricky business. This study presents some pointers both for using quotes and for evaluating them when someone else uses them.

by Jim Allison


Regarding Quotes in general

Anyone spending much time in the various newsgroups of Usenet on the Internet will frequently find quotes being used by a great many people trying to prove a great many things. One can also find hundreds, maybe thousands of quotes on various web sites. Two main problems exist with regards to these quotes. (1) Quotes can be extremely valuable, but they can also be very misleading. (2) Many, particularly those found on sites that are not governement or university affiliated, are not cited or not properly cited.

Misleading quotes

Context in the author's work

Most human being are complex creatures. They can hold a variety of opinions and beliefs on a variety of subjects. They can also change opinions and beliefs as they travel through life. A person can also hold beliefs and opinions that they offer to people in general, other thoughts and opinions they offer to some friends and still others that they offer to family and very close personal friends. As a result, one can frequently find contradictory statements from the same person on the same subject when dealing with things people said or wrote.

Which reflects the real thoughts, opinions and beliefs of that person? In some cases, all of them reflect that person's real thoughts, beliefs and opinions. Especially if they are from a wide range of periods in that person's life. They are a accurate reflection of that person's changing views as that person traveled the road of life.

In other instances, one has look to the circumstances. Who is the statement being said to or written to? What is the relationship between these people? Is this person a family member or a very close personal friend that is highly trusted, or this person just a friend or acquaintance? Is this person a stranger or perhaps a group of people. Is it a case of a public figure addressing the public?

People often times say things to an audience made up of strangers or mere acquaintances and different things to close family members and trusted personal friends. Are they lying? Not necessarily. Generally speaking, most people try to be polite, and that often times means that they take on the role of trying to be all things to all people to, at least to some degree.

The above is critical in trying to figure out how to deal with contradictory statements made by the same person regarding the same topic. Nothing exists in a vacuum. All documents, statements, writings exist in a context and studying that context is essential in coming to an understanding of how to deal with any quotes and especially contradictory quotes.

Taking the quote out of context

Another problem with quotes is that sometimes a person will select only a portion of a statement. They will offer that quote to support a position they are trying to advance. However, when the quote is placed back into its proper context it takes on a different meaning, often times a totally opposite meaning. Here is a classic example of that:

This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it!!! -- John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson

Taken out of context, this statement seems to have a certain meaning, but here is the quote restored to its original context:

Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it. ! ! !" But in this exclamati[on] I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell. So far from believing in the total and universal depravity of human Nature; I believe there is no Individual totally depraved. The most abandoned Scoundrel that ever existed, never Yet Wholly extinguished his Conscience, and while Conscience remains there is some Religion. Popes, Jesuits and Sorbonists and Inquisitors have some Conscience and some Religion. So had Marius and Sylla, Caesar Cataline and Anthony, an Augustus had not much more, let Virgil and Horace say what they will.

Excerpt of letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, April 19, 1817 -- John Adams, quoted from Charles Francis Adams, ed., Works of John Adams (1856), vol. X, p. 254; The Adams Jefferson Letters, The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, Edited by Lester J. Cappon, University of North Carolina Press (1959, 1987) p.509

Put back into it's original paragraph, the meaning of that statement is entirely different.

The solution to this problem is in doing your homework--not trusting carte blanche that whoever is presenting the quote has done their homework. In short, whenever possible check out the quote yourself. If by chance you cannot do that, either don't use the quote or be up front and say you cannot or did not verify the quote in its original context and therefore will not vouch for it. The best solution is not to use it until you can vouch for it.

Bogus quotes

Another situation is false or bogus quotes. It is a fact that for whatever reason, some people will invent, or make up quotes and attribute them to someone. Some people will take something someone actually did say, do some creative deleting and rearranging and produce a totally new quote the original person didn't say and probably reflects a totally opposite meaning that what the original person did say. The following are two very good examples of this:

Is it true that Madison said "Our future is staked on the 10 commandments?"

Is it true that Madison said "Religion is the foundation of government?"

The overall solution to this is for people to do their homework before presenting a quote to support a position or point they are trying to make. Doing their homework simply means they personally verify the quote by comparing the version they have with the version that is found in the original document or in a accepted primary source publication. In order to do that one has to know where to locate that original or that accepted primary source publication. Thus, we get into the importance of proper and complete citations.

Citation

Proper and complete cites are frequently very rare in discussions in Usenet newsgroups on the Internet.

To demonstrate, examine the citation for this quotation:

We have solved by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government, and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving everyone to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason, and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.

Lipscomb, Andrew and Bergh Albert E., Letter to the Baptist Association at Chesterfield Virginia, November 21, 1808, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Twenty Volumes (Washington, D. C.,Issued under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States), 1904-05. Memorial Edition, Vol. 16, p. 320.

The above is a proper and complete quote using the standard rules of citation of quotes.

These would also be acceptable valid cites:

The following are NOT acceptable cites.

Compare the differences and notice what elements are required to make a valid and complete cite. There must be enough information to enable the reader to go straight to the source from which the quote was taken.

Rule of thumb: Always treat non-cited or improperly cited quotes with a high degree of suspicion. Do not blindly accept quotes as being valid when they are cited to a secondary source only. In doing so you are trusting that person did the proper homework and frequently that isn't the case.

There are far too many examples of a secondary source publishing a quote that is bogus or a has some other problem. The following, from a secondary source, is an example of a quote that is valid but has another problem with it:

"[W]e have solved by fair experiment the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, December 16, 1786, according to Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 47.)

The problem here is that the letter cited above, Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 16, 1786, does not contain the above quote. The quote actually came from a letter Jefferson wrote to the Baptist Association at Chesterfield, Virginia in 1808. The more complete quote with a proper citation is:

"We have solved by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government, and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving everyone to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason, and the serious convictions of his own inquiries."

Lipscomb, Andrew and Bergh Albert E., Letter to the Baptist Association at Chesterfield Virginia, November 21, 1808, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Twenty Volumes (Washington, D. C., Issued under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States), 1904-05. Memorial Edition, Vol. 16, p. 320.

The following in an example of a invalid quote that is published in secondary sources.

Is it true that Madison said "Our future is staked on the 10 commandments?"

Here are some additional guidelines and examples with regards to quotes on the topic of church state:

What about quotations that appear to oppose separation?

A list of flawed quotes.

Misquoting by the Religious Right

Thomas Jefferson supported Bible reading in school; this is proven by his service as the first president of the Washington, D.C. public schools, which used the Bible and Watt's Hymns as textbooks for reading.

Critique of David Barton's America's Godly Heritage from the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

Sects, Lies and Videotape: David Barton's Distorted History by Rob Boston

Consumer Alert!: Wallbuilders' Shoddy Workmanship by Rob Boston

An Index to Factual Information About David Barton And His Books

The Barton Chronicles