Attributed to Thomas Jefferson on Twitter: “Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.”
Attributed to Benjamin Franklin on Twitter: “Never trust a government that doesn’t trust its own citizens with guns.”
A massacre at a Connecticut elementary school last week has led to a great deal of news about gun control proposals along with conservative opposition to those proposals. Conservatives posting to Twitter invoked a pair of the framers of the Constitution in emphasizing the importance of gun rights.
Sometimes the framers didn’t say what people claim they said. Hence this fact check.
It’s impossible to absolutely prove that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin never made these statements attributed to them, but the weight of the evidence indicates that both quotations are very probably spurious.
The quotation stands conspicuous in its absence from the “firearms” page at Monticello.org.
Evidence for the quotation also fails to appear in “The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia.”
Searches through the available volumes of the H. A. Washington series, “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private. Pub. by the Order of the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library, from the Original Manuscripts, Deposited in the Department of State” also produced no positive results.
Finally, a search of the digital archive of Jefferson’s papers hosted by the University of Virginia Press turned up no association of any kind between guns and plows.
As with the alleged Jefferson quotation, we failed to find the quotation in authoritative collections of Franklin’s works. It did not occur in “The Way to Wealth and Poor Richard’s Maxims: Financial and Personal Advice from One of America’s Founding Fathers.” It was likewise missing from the digital archive of Franklin’s works managed by Franklinpapers.org.
Analyzing the claim
Potentially bogus quotations present a special problem in fact checking. How does one definitively prove that a person was not responsible for the statement? The answer, unfortunately, is that absolute proof is functionally impossible. But that’s not to say we can’t use a set of evidences to draw a conclusion that is close to certain.
As noted above, the key quotations do not appear in primary sources where we should expect them to occur.
Where we do find the quotations on the Web, we find them without a traceable attribution. This indicates that those quoting the statements probably got them from dubious sources.
Does the quotation match the person and the period? The alleged Jefferson quotation uses the term “plows.” That word was more commonly spelled “ploughs” during Jefferson’s time. The change in spelling is not a definitive indicator of a spurious quotation, but it’s a relevant clue.
Those three lines of evidence add up to cast extreme doubt on the authenticity of these two quotations. Monticello.org, in fact, did its own investigation into the supposed Jefferson quotation about beating guns into ploughs:
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.”
The claims that Thomas Jefferson said “Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not” and that Benjamin Franklin said “Never trust a government that doesn’t trust its own citizens with guns” both carry the classic signs of spurious quotations.
There’s nothing tricky in the rhetoric from which to name a fallacy. Jefferson and Franklin very probably did not make the statements attributed to them.
We recommend doing some research before using a quotation where the certainty of the source is dubious. If the source is unknown, use the quotation but attribute it to “author unknown.”
“Firearms.” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Foley, John P. The Jefferson Cyclopedia: A Comprehensive Collection of the Views of Thomas Jefferson Classified and Arranged in Alphabetical Order under Nine Thousand Titles Relating to Government, Politics, Law, Education, Political Economy, Finance, Science, Art, Literature, Religious Freedom, Morals, Etc. New York: Russell and Russell, 1967. Print.
Jefferson, Thomas, and H. A. Washington. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private. Pub. by the Order of the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library, from the Original Manuscripts, Deposited in the Department of State. Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853. Print.
“The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. The University of Virginia Press, n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Jefferson, Thomas, and Thomas Jefferson. Randolph. Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. I-IV. Boston: Gray and Bowen [u.a., 1830. Print.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Way to Wealth and Poor Richard’s Maxims: Financial and Personal Advice from One of America’s Founding Fathers. Leavesden: Nayika, 2008. Print.
“What You Can Do.” Introduction. Franklinpapers.org, n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2012.
“Those Who Hammer Their Guns into Plows…(Quotation).” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.