Another Perspective

Accuracy Is Desirable

Conservatism finds itself at a rhetorical Crossroads.

By 3.9.09

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In 1837, a henpecked Jefferson Jackson, husband of a volcano known as Marjory ("yellin' and screamin'") Jackson and proprietor of the Crossroads Tea Shop in Crossroads, Tennessee, whispered to a frightened employee, "It takes a man with courage to make Marjory tea."

His remark, which has come down to us as "It takes one brave man to make a majority," has been attributed regularly to Andrew Jackson and occasionally to Thomas Jefferson. The attribution is false -- as is the entire story about Jefferson Jackson from Crossroads, neither of which existed. There appears to be no record of either Andrew Jackson's or Thomas Jefferson's having made the remark.

But should we let the truth stand in the way of a good story -- or a good quote? Ronald Reagan used the "one brave man" quote in a radio address discussing the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, though he may not have known it was phony.

Another frequently used bogus quote is attributed to Alexander Tytler, an 18th-century writer and lawyer, who is a popular resource for conservatives. He is said to have said: "A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship."

Tytler is also credited with the observation that the world's civilizations arc "from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence back to bondage."

But once again, there doesn't appear to be any evidence that it was Tytler's formulation.

An article titled "The Truth About Tytler" by Loren Collins purports to tell the full story about both quotes. Collins writes: "With regard to the first quoted paragraph, the Library of Congress' Respectfully Quoted writes, 'Attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee. Unverified.' The quote, however, appears in no published work of Tytler's. And with regard to the second [the "trajectory" quote], the same book says 'Author unknown. Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli. Unverified.'"

There's another problem with the "Tytler" quote: do we really think it's true? Is a democracy always temporary in nature? Whether American democracy, which has lasted for more than 200 years, is temporary or not depends on your time frame. In the long run, Keynes said, we're all dead. But in the meantime, American democracy -- it is accurate and desirable to say -- has been and continues to be an anchor of hope in a tempestuous world.

Milton Friedman said, or is said to have said (we must learn to be careful), "Accuracy is desirable." Conservatives, who take truth seriously -- and whose inaccuracies the media tend not to forgive -- have to remember that although the Internet is a sea of information, it is not without shoals of inaccuracies.

It is understandably tempting to bolster an argument with quotes heavy with the patina of lineage even if it means every now and then having to flash a poetic license to the accuracy police. Of course, if you're president, they may not pull you over. After President George H. W. Bush tripped, stumbled, and fell trying to pronounce "Demosthenes" in a speech, a wrathful presidential aid instructed the speechwriter, "Next time, damn it, write 'Plato'."

Or Tytler.

Conservatives might ask, next time they're tempted to use the "Tytler" quote or the "one brave man" quote, why quote at all? Isn't now the time to roll a new generation of hoary phrases?

After all, as Jefferson Jackson is said to have said to his wife Marjory one afternoon at the Crossroads Tea Shop in Crossroads, Tennessee, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.