Keep Quotes In Context

We all do it.  We throw quotes around to support our agenda.  However, it’s important when quoting historical figures (or anyone for that matter) to make sure that the “quote” you are ascribing to them, and the context in which you are utilizing the quote, matches their original intent.

Let’s examine a few hot button quotes that I’ve seen on the internet in the last few weeks, as the topics of ‘founding fathers’, ‘Christianity’, ‘nationalization’, and ‘socialism’ are all on the forefront of the public mindset.

Thomas Jefferson – One of the most frequently contextualized historical figures.

Earlier this year, journalists were quoting Thomas Jefferson’s famous line: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter”.  They were missing the point, noting that he really meant journalism not newspapers — and journalism isn’t going away at all. However, Jay Rosen points out that the quote is actually out of context. The full Jefferson quote even more clearly makes the point that it’s not physical newspapers, he’s concerned about:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” — Thomas Jefferson

IRONY: Jefferson also said the only reliable truths in newspapers were the advertisements, and that he was happiest when not reading the papers.”…

John Adams – another of the most abused by the mis-quoters

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams recounts a conversation between a parson and a schoolteacher.  Elements of the conversation between the parson and schoolteacher have been numerously but extremely erroneously attributed to both Adams and Jefferson.  The line most often attributed to either men is “you would be the best man in the world, if you had no religion.”  What follows, is the context of the letter.

“The Parson and the Pedagogue lived much together, but were eternally disputing about government and religion. One day, when the Schoolmaster had been more that commonly fanatical and declared if he were a Monarch, He would have but one Religion in his Dominion. The Parson cooly replied ‘Cleverly! You would be the best man in the world, if you had no religion.’

Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!’ But in this exclamatic I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell…”

Lincoln – numerous quotes in which Lincoln speaks disparagingly of Christianity and the Bible.

Lincoln, as most of us, had several periods of his life that can be defined or marked by major events.  A concise summary is best recapped by Charles Coffin, as recounted below:

Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?

By Charles Coffin

The Christian character of President Lincoln is an American enigma. A lifelong non-churchgoer, Lincoln has been the subject of numerous speculations concerning his faith. He was more intensely spiritual than almost any other American President, yet the confusion about the genuineness of Lincoln’s Christianity arises from the ambiguities of his early life. Charles Carleton Coffin, a Civil War correspondent and author of eight American history novels, published his final novel on Lincoln in 1892. Coffin provides us with a definitive answer on Lincoln’s faith. An early spiritual crisis in 1841 marked a turning point in Lincoln’s life:

Much has been written concerning him, and doubtless much more will be written. My acquaintance with him began in his Springfield home following his nomination for the Presidency. It was such an acquaintance as a correspondent of a leading journal was privileged to have with public men. I saw him frequently during his Presidential term, met him socially on several occasions, and walked with him through the burning streets of Richmond. In preparing this work, I have visited the scenes of his early years. From playmates of his childhood, and from those who knew him in later years I have obtained this information which may be accepted as authentic.1

The marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd would be a notable event. There was much preparation in the hospitable mansion of Ninian Edwards. The guests assemble; the feast is prepared; all are waiting. The evening wanes. He does not come. The guests take their departure; the lights are extinguished; the wedding feast is not eaten. Mary Todd is in her chamber, overwhelmed with mortification. Joshua Speed searches for the delinquent groom, and finds him pale, haggard, and in the deepest melancholy.2 Heart-rending is the letter which he sent to his friend, Mr. Stuart:

“I am the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be a cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better.”3

Unmindful of what was going on around him, silent, pale, his mind tempest tossed, Mr. Lincoln was sinking into distressful melancholy. It was very kind of Joshua F. Speed, who had closed his business in Springfield, and who was going to Kentucky, to take Mr. Lincoln with him to his former home just out from Louisville.4 There was tenderness in the sympathetic welcome given him by the mother of Mr. Speed, a great-hearted Christian woman.

To men who think for themselves, no matter what may have been their previous religious belief, there not unfrequently comes a period of doubting. Such a period came to Abraham Lincoln. He had not forgotten his mother’s teachings. He could repeat much of the Bible, but he was not moved by emotional appeals. When his first love Ann Rutledge died, and his soul was wrung with grief, no one had talked to him of divine love and eternal goodness. So far as he could see, his own life had been a failure. Hopes had not been realized, desires not gratified. He had accomplished nothing.

He is out in the desert – hungry, thirsty, weary, depressed in spirit – no star to guide him. But as angels of God came to the carpenter’s Son of Nazareth, so came Joshua Speed and Lucy Gilman Speed to him.

He finds himself in a hospitable home. Flowers are blooming around it; balmy breezes sweep through the halls. He breathes an atmosphere of restful peace. A saintly woman sits by his side, opens the New Testament, and reads the words of One who Himself had been in the wilderness. She talks of God as a father, Jesus Christ as a Brother. New truths dawn upon him, and the Bible becomes a different book from what it has been in the past. Little does Lucy Gilman Speed know that God has crowned her with glory and honor, to be a ministering spirit in leading a bewildered wanderer out of the desert of despair and unbelief, that he may do great things for his fellow-men. Weeks go by, the gloom and anguish disappear. The period of doubt has gone, never to return. From that hour the Bible is to be his rule of life and duty.

His biographers – those who knew him later in life – have this to say of him: “The late but splendid maturity of Lincoln’s mind and character dates from this time; and although he grew in strength and knowledge to the end, from this year we observe a steadiness and sobriety of thought and purpose discernible in his life.”5

This estimate does not include the service rendered by Lucy Gilman Speed. When the great account is made up, and the angels of God come from the harvest fields to lay their sheaves at the feet of the Master, hers will be the changed life of Abraham Lincoln.

As this biography of Lincoln unfolds, there will be seen, as the years go by and the responsibilities of life roll upon him, a reverent recognition of Divine Providence, an increasing faith and childlike trust in God.6

1 Charles Carleton Coffin, Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893) Introduction.
2 W.H. Herndon, Lincoln, p. 215 (edition 1889).
3 Letter to J.T. Stuart, quoted in Herndon’s Lincoln, p.215.
4 Joshua Speed, Lecture on Abraham Lincoln, p.39.
5 Century Magazine, January, 1887.
6. Coffin, pp.110-114


~ by Bill Newman on May 9, 2009.

One Response to “Keep Quotes In Context”

  1. Bad sectors only grow into a worse problem soon. Bibles

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