On Friday, Chris Pirillo posted a quotation that was sourced to Thomas Jefferson:
Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have… the course of history shows that as a government grows, liberty decreases.
Having read a good many of Jefferson’s works, I was suspicious. This didn’t sound at all like Jefferson’s diction. A little Googling turned up a couple other suspects for originators of the quotation: Gerald Ford and Barry Goldwater.
And in almost every case I’ve found on line, the quotation is on a conservative forum and the ellipses are intact.
Which raises, for me, some questions:
- Was it Jefferson, Goldwater, or Ford?
- Why, when Jefferson had so many other good quotable moments about the limits of government, did someone want to attribute this quotation to him?
- Who was the first person to make this attribution?
In partial answer to the last point, a search through Google Groups shows a reference in 1996, posted to alt.fan.rush-limbaugh, that cites the second half of the quotation and attributes it to Jefferson, while a 1995 post to rec.arts.frp.marketplace shows the first half of the quotation. But earlier references can be found sourcing the quotation to Davy Crockett.
So what’s the real story here? Jefferson wrote enough during his lifetime that you could find support for just about any liberal or conservative position in his own words. Why bother attributing such a clumsy phrase to him? And why do so many people quote it without question, even on pages that source every other Jefferson quote by date and addressee?