"1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!" an unhinged Alex Jones once screamed at a slightly more-hinged Piers Morgan. Jonesies—who've gone all in for Cliven Bundy—love to cite America's founders to defend their gun caresses. Usually, they get it wrong.
Sure, the elite landed intellectuals who laid America's groundwork saw the usefulness of their age's rudimentary firearms. But their views on guns were complicated and narrow, with nuances that don't fit easily on Second Amendment absolutists' bumper stickers.
As gun-toters and their industry-funded lobby have simplified and meme-ified their arguments, they've simplified our view of the founding fathers, too—usually with distorted or fabricated quotes that give historians paroxysms. Here are some of the gunners' greatest mythical quotations, along with their nutty origins.
1. "The people will not understand the importance of the Second Amendment until it is too late."
FALSELY ATTRIBUTED TO: Thomas Jefferson.
TRUTH: This is a "spurious" quotation, according to Jefferson scholars at his ancestral home of Monticello; it reportedly first appeared in a 2007 revolutionary screed by a libertarian author who also managed to misspell "Capitol" in his book's title.
2. "When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny."
FALSELY ATTRIBUTED TO: Thomas Jefferson, or Thomas Paine, or Samuel Adams.
TRUTH:The earliest version of this didn't appear until 1914, when an obscure anti-marxist crusader used it in a published debate on the correctness of socialism. It was first attributed to Jefferson in a 1994 pamphlet by a "mind control" conspiracy theorist who also recently asked readers: "ARE U.S. PRESIDENTS CLONED? (WHAT HAVE THOSE SECRET NAZI BEEN UP TO ALL THESE YEARS?!)"
3. "Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people's liberty, teeth and keystone under independence. The church, the plow, the prairie wagon and the citizen's firearms are indelibly related."
FALSELY ATTRIBUTED TO: George Washington.
TRUTH: "Prairie wagon"? Washington? Stop smoking crack. Misattributed to the original Dubya in 2011 by two hunters who write for a gun-fondling mag called Sporting Classics. Also printed in Playboy in 1995, and subsequently retracted by Playboy in 1996.
4. "The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."
FALSELY ATTRIBUTED TO: Jefferson, again.
TRUTH: If by Jefferson you mean "a conservative syndicated columnist and gun-loving Confederate sympathizer writing in the Orlando Sentinel in 1989 just before he endorsed a book titled Was Jefferson Davis Right?" then sure, it's Jefferson.
5. "The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state shall not be questioned."
FALSELY ATTRIBUTED TO: James Madison.
TRUTH: Actually comes from the 1790 Pennsylvania Constitution. And Madison was always all "fuck Pennsylvania."
6. "Arms in the hands of the citizens may be used at individual discretion for the defense of the country, the overthrow of tyranny or private self defense."
FALSELY ATTRIBUTED TO: John Adams.
TRUTH: A version of this was even used by the NRA for several years. Because what Adams—federalist, signer of the Sedition Acts, and perennial pessimist about human nature—really liked was armed mobs. In fact, this is a bastardization of a longer quote in defense of the Constitution, which says something very different—namely, that armed untrained citizens in mass posed a threat to liberty and constitutional government:
To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws.
7. "The best we can help for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed."
FALSELY ATTRIBUTED TO: Alexander Hamilton.
TRUTH: Besides being a grammatical pooch-screw, this one-liner is cited by gun fans as being in Article 184 of the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers have 85 articles. But it does appear to be a deceptive paraphrase of Federalist No. 29, "Concerning the Militia," in which Hamilton actually suggests that individual boobs are incompetent with guns, but hey, you go to war against England with the undisciplined makeshift militia you have:
The project of disciplining all the militia of the United States is as futile as it would be injurious, if it were capable of being carried into execution… Little more can reasonably be aimed at, with respect to the people at large, than to have them properly armed and equipped; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble them once or twice in the course of a year.
8. "Those who hammer their guns into plowshares will plow for those who do not."
FALSELY ATTRIBUTED TO: Jefferson, of course.
TRUTH: Monticello researchers, again: "We have not found any evidence that Thomas Jefferson said or wrote, 'Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.'" Hell, they couldn't even figure out who first made up this turd. Here's a tinfoil-hatter on Alex Jones' Infowars.com using it in a 2007 column.
9. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
FALSELY ATTRIBUTED TO: Jefferson, or Patrick Henry, or Junius.
TRUTH: About as American as potato pie. It probably first came from a longer quote by one of my alleged ancestors, the Irish jurist John Philpott Curran, in 1790.