On his Facebook page Tuesday (screenshot right), ALEC member Representative Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) shared a meme containing a quotation that's attributed to Ben Franklin:
"The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself."
Bluestem's editor--who once worked in the still-going Franklin-founded Library Company of Philadelphia--had a laugh at that. The "pursuit of happiness" isn't language from the United States Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence. Since Franklin attended both conventions that drafted that documents, we doubt he'd confuse the two.
Thomas Frank looked at Franklin's "unfounded father's" quote in Check It Yourself back in an article originally published in Harper's in 2011. It's quote faking: Franklin never said it. Here's the source, according to Frank:
The earliest instance I was able to find that associated the phrase with Franklin's name dates to 1944. Before that, jokes about pursuing-vs.-catching happiness cropped up in magazine wit columns from time to time, but without benefit of the philosopher's name. Literary Digestran a version of it in 1926 attributed not to Franklin but to the Detroit News. Southern Cultivator included an unattributed version in 1891, and from The Christian Advocate for November 1881 comes this simple, apolitical gem:"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is an American's inalienable birthright. He keeps up the pursuit of happiness, but very seldom catches him.
In The Economist, "E.G." took issue with Frank in Overinterpreting, disagreeing with Frank's assessment of bogus quotes as "a threat to the health of the republic." We tend to concur, as the threat is not to the Republic, but to the credibility of folks like Draz who call for a return to historical roots.
The Economist columnist writes:
One thing I appreciate about the tea-party movement is their occasionally clumsy embrace of American history. I know it strikes some people as an unsporting appropriation of America's common symbols for politicised ends, but they're not stopping anyone else from doing the same, and in an era when Thomas Jefferson is getting sacked from certain textbooks—by the tea partiers' parent party—it's a good counterbalance. But Thomas Frank, in the current issue of Harper's, argues that historical illiteracy, as manifested by the tea-party movement, is “a threat to the health of the republic.” At issue are two quotations incorrectly attributed to Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and popular among the tea-party sloganeers. “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself,” is said to be the comment from Franklin. From Jefferson: “The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite.”
Mr Frank, having rummaged through the primary sources, can find no evidence that either was ever said by the founding father in question. The Jefferson apocrypha, according to his research, may be sourced to a 1980 tract on regulation, in which a similar comment appears as the author's interpretation of Jefferson's argument in an 1813 letter to John Adams. The fake Franklin quote seems to be a witticism that was in use as early as 1881, though not attributed to Franklin.
The Economist writer also misses that authorship isn't the only problem with the quote; regardless of who first uttered the quip, the "pursuit of happiness" is found only in the Declaration of Independence.
Draz's Facebook friends comment
The four comments left by some of Draz's Facebook friends are also telling about the mindset:
Draz shared the meme via the American Center for Law and Justice's Facebook page; the group self-describes itself:
ACLJ and its globally affiliated organizations are committed to ensuring the ongoing viability of freedom and liberty in the United States and around the world.
By focusing on U.S. constitutional law, European Union law and human rights law, the ACLJ and its affiliated organizations are dedicated to the concept that freedom and liberty are universal, God-given and inalienable rights that must be protected. . . .
One would think that the organization would know the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Perhaps not.
Screenshot: Having worked in the library that Franklin founded(though not during Ben's lifetime), which was used as a reference library for both the Second Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, Bluestem's editor is pretty sure that Franklin knew what language was in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. We recommend both documents to our readers as well.
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