Maybe there is something in the tea–this habit that Tea Party candidates have, on election night, of misquoting the nation’s founding fathers. Just now, in a rousing victory speech, Kentucky’s newest senator, Rand Paul, announced, “Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘That government is best that governs least.’”
Except, no. He didn’t. Henry David Thoreau did. According to the official Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, kept by his estate at Monticello, “Although the saying ‘That government is best which governs least’ is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, we have not found this particular statement in his writings.”
This is not the first time the words of our founding fathers have been garbled and misrepresented by a Tea Party favorite. When Christine O’Donnell won the Delaware Republican primary she announced that she was quoting Thomas Jefferson’s words, “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Except, he never said that either.
Maybe, none of this matters. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The specifics of history don’t matter. Just make it up as you go along.” (No, he didn’t say that either.)
Since we are on the topic, it might be worth recounting the probable source of the quote Paul used today. According to Bartleby, here is the passage, from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which argues for a sort of benevolent anarchy.
I heartily accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.