It is the height of sophistry to support one’s position by misinterpreting, misquoting, or taking entirely out of context the words of credible people. That goes doubly when it is the Founders being abused.
Two U.S. senators and a television interviewer have been guilty of this sin against decent debate. The senators are Democratic Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and our own Harry Reid. Both were citing Founders as support for passage of the acronym torturing DISCLOSE Act — Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections. The bill would require any group spending more than $10,000 on political ads to file a report within 24 hours and reveal the names of those who donate more than $10,000.
Whitehouse took to the floor of the Senate to push the latest edition of the DISCLOSE Act proclaiming, “Madam president, in 1822 the Founding Father James Madison wrote: ‘A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.’ A vote for DISCLOSE is a vote to arm the people with the power that knowledge gives, to arm them with the popular information about elections — information necessary to prevent this great popular government of ours from becoming a special interest farce, information necessary to protect this democracy from the tragedy, as John McCain predicted, of scandal that will result.”
But Whitehouse left out the first sentence of Madison’s letter to W.T. Barry: “The liberal appropriations made by the Legislature of Kentucky for a general system of Education cannot be too much applauded.”
The man who was one of the three who wrote the Federalist Papers anonymously was talking about education, not the unbounded right of the people to know precisely who is backing which candidate or issue by spending their own money. He had no qualms citing the anonymous works of Thomas Paine or John Locke or Montesquieu.
A couple of days later, Sen. Reid descended to the well of the Senate and said, “Thomas Jefferson, one of our great presidents, once said, quote, ‘The end of democracy will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed corporations.’”
The problem is that authoritative research says the quote cannot be found in any of Jefferson’s writings and appeared nowhere until 1994, according to Monticello.org. It is apparently an amalgam of quotes and interpretations. It can be found in countless locations on the Internet, but never with any indication of when, where, or to whom.
But Reid managed to even take a misquote out of context. The rest of the invented passage talks not about corporate speech corrupting politics but about debt: “I sincerely believe that banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity is but swindling futurity [on the greatest possible scale].”
Reid would have difficulty heeding that warning no matter who said it.
The third act of Founder abuse came in an interview by CNN’s Piers Morgan with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Morgan said he thought super PACs funded by billionaires have been effectively buying elections. “And that cannot be what the founding fathers intended. Thomas Jefferson didn’t sit there constructing something which was going to be abused in that kind of way.”
Scalia replied, “No. I , I think Thomas Jefferson would have said the more speech, the better. That’s what the First Amendment is all about. So long as the people know where the speech is coming from.”
Many pundits interpreted that as Scalia saying Jefferson would be supportive of disclosure of political spending, though that is not exactly what he said.
What makes it difficult to believe Jefferson would back such a bill is that Jefferson, along with Madison by the way, was one of the anonymous backers of scandalmonger Philip Freneau and his National Gazette newspaper, which savaged President Washington while Jefferson was in his cabinet. Such a law would have forced Freneau to reveal his secret backers.
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