Politicians and pundits often cite the Founding Fathers to prove that their views on the role of government are in line with the original vision for American democracy. But misquoting them has also become something of a tradition in itself.
The latest such gaffe happened on Fox & Friends on Thursday. In the course of a discussion about Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy's bill to revamp the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, Vice President Mike Pence backed up his argument with these words: "Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Government that governs least governs best.’"
Except Thomas Jefferson didn't actually say that.
Pence is not the first to make the mistake. The late columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have done so too, and, in fact, people have been misattributing those words to Jefferson for at least a century and a half, since Edward Peterson's History of Rhode Island did so in 1853. The quote is commonly associated with the small federal government ideology espoused by Jefferson's political party, the Democratic-Republicans. But, while the phrase has been found in Henry David Thoreau's 1849 essay "Civil Disobedience," law professor Eugene Volokh says that Thoreau was not quoting Jefferson. Instead, he was quoting a man named John O'Sullivan — also the coiner of the term "Manifest Destiny" — who used it in the first 1837 issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review.