Mark Steyn has been tracking down a quotation widely misattributed to Thomas Jefferson: "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." (Tip to Betsy and Tim Blair)
From my research on Lexis and Westlaw, it appears that Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and ACLU head Nadine Strossen are quoting views on dissent, not of Jefferson, but of Dorothy Hewitt Hutchinson, a dissenter and strict pacifist who opposed World War II as immoral, but who made a point of ignoring dissent when it was directed toward herself. To her critics and those who dissented from her views, Hutchinson's response was not to "budge one inch."
Here is Steyn in the Chicago Sun-Times on those who are misquoting Jefferson:
John Kerry announced this week's John Kerry Iraq Policy of the Week the other day:
"Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to deal with these intransigent issues and at last put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military."
With a sulky pout perhaps? With hands on hips and a full flip of the hair?
Did he get that from Churchill? "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, at least until May 15, when I have a windsurfing engagement off Nantucket."
Actually, no. He got it from Thomas Jefferson. "This is not the first time in American history when patriotism has been distorted to deflect criticism and mislead the nation," warned Sen. Kerry, placing his courage in the broader historical context. "No wonder Thomas Jefferson himself said: 'Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism.' "
Close enough. According to the Jefferson Library:
"There are a number of quotes that we do not find in Thomas Jefferson's correspondence or other writings; in such cases, Jefferson should not be cited as the source. Among the most common of these spurious Jefferson quotes are: 'Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.' " . . .
It was the Aussie pundit Tim Blair who noted the Thomas Jeffefakery. American commentators were apparently too busy cooing that "Kerry may be reflecting a new boldness on the part of liberals to come out and say what they believe and to reclaim the moral high ground on patriotism" (CBS News) to complain that KERRY LIED!! SCHOLARLY ATTRIBUTION DIED!!! Instead, KERRY MISQUOTED!! MEDIA DOTED!!!
Indeed, America's hardboiled newsmen can't get enough of the Thomas Jefferbunk. The Berkshire Eagle used it as the headline for last year's Fourth of July editorial. Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press thundered:
"We need to stop slicing this country in half, and saying those who support this act or this politician are 'good' Americans, and the rest are not. Sometimes 'dissent is the highest form of patriotism.' I didn't make that up. Thomas Jefferson did."
Er, no. You made up that he made it up. But former Georgia state Rep. Mike Snow uses it, and Miranda Yaver of Berkeley wore it on a button to the big anti-war demo in Washington last year, and Ted Kennedy deployed it as the stirring finale to his anti-Bush speech:
"It is not unpatriotic to tell the truth to the American people about the war in Iraq. In this grave moment of our country, to use the words of Thomas Jefferson, 'Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.' . . . "
As far as I can tell, it was Nadine Strosser [sic], the ACLU's head honcho, who cooked up the Jefferson fake. At any rate, she seems to be the only one who ever deployed it pre-9/11.
I researched Lexis and Westlaw and found that Nadine Strossen used the fake Jefferson quote several times in the 1990s on Fox News and CNN. The earliest attribution to Jefferson that I found is a June 2, 1991 Boston Globe interview with Strossen:
Q. Shortly after your election as president you told The New York Times you wanted to emphasize the "American" in American Civil Liberties Union. Can you elaborate on that?
A. I think that the ACLU really got a bum rap, in particular from George Bush, during the last presidential campaign when he was able to associate the ACLU in people's mind, first with the "L" word - and I think that's an unfair label, because it is an organization that is not ideological, that is not partisan, that doesn't have a liberal or conservative agenda, but a neutral civil-liberties agenda. But even more, I think there was a suggestion that it's somehow unpatriotic not only to be an ACLU member; Bush went even further and suggested there's something inherently unpatriotic about free speech. That we're in favor of flag-burning, and therefore must be anti-American. And I do think that what Thomas Jefferson said is true, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." I don't even think what we do is dissent. We are defending the core rights on which our country was founded. I think that could equally well be described as a conservative foundation, and certainly as a very patirotic foundation for an organization. So that is the bottom-line message I would really like to have come across.
To read about who might have originated the words misattributed to Jefferson, click to
Other versions of the quotation, not attributed to Jefferson, go back at least to the 1960s. There is this tantalyzing abstract of a 1969 NY Times story, in which NY Mayor John Lindsay "calls demonstration highest form of patriotism":
October 16, 1969, Thursday SECTION: Page 21, Column 1 ABSTRACT: In NYC Vietnam war and Vietnam Moratorium day become major issue as NYC Mayoral candidates Sen J J Marchi and Controller M A Procaccino take vehement stands against Mayor J V Lindsay, very active participant in moratorium demonstration; Lindsay calls demonstration highest form of patriotism; gets tremendously enthusiastic receptions as he and wife spend about 12 hrs visiting 10 rallies, speaking to about 60,000 people . . . .
So far the earliest attribution I've found is a 1984 obituary of Dorothy Hewitt Hutchinson, quoting a 1965 interview. The Nov. 11, 1984 Philadelphia Inquirer obit read (in part):
Dorothy Hewitt Hutchinson, 78, former national president and international chairwoman of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, died Sunday at a Jenkintown nursing home. Formerly of the Rydal section of Abington Township, she lived in recent years in Sewanee, Tenn.
An author, lecturer and world traveler, Mrs. Hutchinson marched in protests and demonstrations and spoke from pulpits whenever and wherever she could in the cause of peace. For her efforts, she was frequently criticized.
But none of her critics caused her to "budge one inch," she said. . . .
She dated much of her work by relating it to the growth of her children. As an example, she recalled to the day and hour when an anonymous note predicting that she would hang arrived early in World War II. It came, she said, while she was bathing her 3-month-old son.
But the note and other forms of criticism did not faze her. "Dissent from public policy can be the highest form of patriotism," she said in an interview in 1965. "I don't think democracy can survive without it, even though you may be crucified by it at times."
Mrs. Hutchinson noted that what critics said had little to do with what she did or thought.
"There's no misery in my life," she said. She wouldn't permit it. . . .
Mrs. Hutchinson took the plea for peace and freedom to the Kremlin, leading a 12-member delegation to Moscow and a tour of the Soviet Union in 1964. . . .
Mrs. Hutchinson led sit-ins and hunger strikes against the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; protests at the White House against the Vietnam War, and demonstrations on behalf of a nuclear freeze.
Thus, it appears that these misguided politicians are quoting, not Jefferson, but Dorothy Hewitt Hutchinson, a strict pacifist who opposed World War II as immoral and who ignored dissent when it was directed toward herself and her ideas.
Related Posts (on one page):
- More on Kerry on Jefferson on Dissent.--
- Thomas Jefferson's Love of Dissent.--