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Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of image memes featuring a quotation from a famous dead American — usually either a President or a “founding father” — that seems to speak directly to issues being raised in today’s Presidential election. I’m sure you’ve seen these too. Here is one:

That sounds like a totally “in your face” response to Romney’s position that corporations are people, until you go get more of the context:

Jefferson was saying that the US government, not banks, should be the only institution allowed to issue legal tender. And that is currently the case. Neither Presidential candidate disagrees with this position. It’s not even an issue anymore.

So your quotation looks silly.

I do not say this as a supporter of Romney. God no. I am a Democrat through and through, and a particular fan of Barack Obama, whom I will be voting for in November for a second time.

I’m just saying that cherry-picking quotes from great figures from the past can be a dangerous game. The above example is fairly tame in comparison to the worst case scenario. For example, there are plenty of times that Teddy Roosevelt said things that maybe support my political position in contemporary times, making the supporters of the modern version of his own party look bad in the process.

But Roosevelt also said that “while I don’t believe that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, I do believe that nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” And he railed against “hyphenated-Americans” in general and the Irish and German immigrants in particular, who didn’t seem to be as willing to assimilate as he imagined that the prior generations of immigrants had been, hanging onto the ways of their old country and even, in the case of the Germans, their homeland’s language. Sound familiar? Here’s another gem: “I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man’s hands.” Nobody’s passing that one around underneath a solemn portrait of the man.

Madison, both of the Adamses, and even Thomas Jefferson are all fonts of immense wisdom, and bizarre racist/classist/whateverist horribleness at the same time. Jefferson believed, for example, that all the slaves would ultimately have to be freed — and returned to Africa, since there was no way they could live freely among whites. That’s a really strange position. And it’s one that has absolutely zero bearing on today’s politics. You’d have to expect that to be the case, given that more than two hundred years of social progress — among them the eradication of slavery, which was the cornerstone of many of these gentlemen’s own personal wealth — have occurred between now and the time that they were active in politics.

So be careful before you pass on that out-of-context quote attached to an image. The very next sentence in the quotation — the one the person making the image neglected to include — might horrify you and counter the very point you were trying to make.

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