The Family Research Council is holding its annual Values Voters Summit in a couple weeks and when people sign up to attend the event they are sent an email from Tony Perkins. But as my friend Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State points out, most of that email consists of this pretty famous fake quote from James Madison:
But Madison never said this. In fact, he never said anything remotely like it. It has never been found anywhere in Madison’s speeches or writings and even David Barton admitted almost 20 years ago that it did not exist. In fact, this is an embellishment of the typical version of this fake quote that is found on hundreds of websites. Rob writes:
The AU press release notes that in 1993, the curators of the Madison Papers at the University of Virginia were asked if they could verify this quote. They could not.
“We did not find anything in our files remotely like the sentiment expressed in the extract you sent us,” curators John Stagg and David Mattern wrote. “In addition, the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison’s views on religion and government, views which he expressed time and time again in public and in private.”
I remember this incident well because I played a role (a modest one to be sure) in the final debunking of the quote that occurred later. The heavy lifting was done by Robert S. Alley, a professor of humanities at the University of Richmond. Alley, who died in 2006, was a legitimate Madison scholar and author of the excellent tome James Madison on Religious Liberty.
Bob was also an ally of Americans United who served on our Board of Trustees for several years. He was an erudite and engaging man, and I had the good fortune of being able to turn to him whenever I had a question about church-state history. In the early 1990s, Bob and I kept seeing the Madison Ten Commandments quote – but it was never sourced. That made us suspicious.
Bob always had a lot of irons in the fire, but I prodded him to take on the project of definitively debunking the quote. He jumped right in and published his findings in a paper titled “Public Education and the Public Good” in the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Summer 1995.
“Proving that a quotation does not exist is a daunting task,” Alley wrote. “If you cannot find it in any extant manuscripts or collections of Madison’s works, just how does one prove it will not turn up in someone’s attic tomorrow? Of course you cannot. That is why the Madison editors were careful in how they phrased their response. But, after all, it is incumbent solely upon the perpetrators of myth to prove it by at least one citation. This they cannot do. Their style is not revisionism, it is anti-historical.”
Quite right. That these quotes continue to circulate sometimes decades after they’ve been debunked is rather appalling.