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July 19, 2005

The virtue of prudence in quotation

The following quotation was included in a message posted to an e-mail list that I run:
A government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything you have.

– Thomas Jefferson
This is a familiar quotation, and one with which I am in full agreement.

However, I had heard it attributed before to former president Gerald Ford. I decided to Google the phrase "government big enough to give you", and concluded that, with minor variances in the wording, everyone said it at some point.

Not really, but I did find a lot of disagreement on who said it. My brief survey found it attributed to Jefferson, Davy Crockett (who served a couple of terms in the U.S. Congress before going adventuring in Texas), Barry Goldwater and Gerald Ford. By far, the most attributions were to Goldwater and Ford.

I think it's significant to note that not a single one of the attributions I surveyed included a source for the quote. So who should get the credit?

Based on my brief survey, I'm convinced that Ford actually did say it, precisely because it's unlikely that anyone would mistakenly attribute it to a president who was no friend of limited government (but who could pretend to be so in a speech).

I suspect that Goldwater had the original idea, Ford picked up on it in a speech without attributing it, and various others have projected the sentiment onto Jefferson (and Crockett). It's certainly consistent with Jefferson's (not to mention Crockett's) political philosophy, but I'll remain skeptical about attributing the quote to him until I see an actual source.

I think I'll close out this post by taking a famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson completely out of context:
I hate quotation. Tell me what you know.

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