“America is great because America is good,” said Hillary Clinton during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Immediately, her critics went on social media to accuse her of plagiarizing Alexis deTocqueville, French author of the 19th-century classic, "Democracy in America." But Tocqueville never wrote any such thing.
Various forms of the spurious quotation (often including such purple prose as “pulpits aflame with righteousness”) have been circulating for decades. It is unclear where it all started, except that we do know that these words appear nowhere in Tocqueville’s works. Nevertheless, politicians of all stripes have long been fond of using the lines, usually with the false attribution. Indeed, one repeat offender was none other than President Bill Clinton. He credited Tocqueville with saying “America is great” on many occasions – including the video that preceded his own acceptance speech at the 1996 Democratic convention.
It’s purely a guess, but it seems plausible that Mrs. Clinton or her speechwriter heard the phrase in that video and decided to recycle it 20 years later. One cannot charge her with plagiarizing Tocqueville since the latter didn’t write it in the first place. But was she plagiarizing her husband? Maybe it doesn’t count if it’s all in the family, or perhaps the phrase is so short and familiar that it comes under the heading of “common knowledge.” I will leave such judgments to the experts in literary ethics.
The Tocqueville tussle – which coincidentally continued the next day on Tocqueville’s 211th birthday – was not the only such kerfuffle of recent days. At the GOP convention, Melania Trump gave a speech that echoed a bit of rhetoric from Michelle Obama. Whether intentional or not, it was the kind of “borrowing” that would have triggered disciplinary action if it had appeared in a college term paper.
Apparently stung by the criticism of his stepmom, Donald Trump Jr. tried to counterattack. After President Obama spoke on Wednesday night, the younger Trump tweeted: “I'm honored that POTUS would plagiarize a line from my speech last week. Where's the outrage?” Both speeches contained variations of the sentence “That’s not the America I know.” The problem for Mr. Trump, as Aaron Blake explained at The Washington Post, is that Obama has been using that saying for years. And it didn’t start with the president either: Mr. Blake traced it as far back as a federal official’s National Press Club speech in 1989.
Trump Jr. tweeted that he had just been kidding – as his father did after he seemed to invite Russian cyber-hacking.
Political cribbing and misattribution are hardly unique to the summer of 2016, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky got into trouble last year when he published a book containing a number of false quotations. (The book did accurately quote a passage from Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Evil Empire” speech – but that passage in turn contained the spurious Tocqueville quotation.) In remarks to Democratic members of Congress in 2010, Mr. Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln: “I am not bound to win, but I'm bound to be true. I'm not bound to succeed, but I'm bound to live up to what light I have.” As with so many Lincoln “quotations,” Honest Abe did not say it.
The World Wide Web deserves much of the blame. The ease of copying and pasting is an ever-present invitation to plagiarism. Because search engines deliver information so readily, writers might not take the time to double-check its accuracy, especially with quotations that seem so apt for the occasion.
An online meme puts it this way: “You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet – Abe Lincoln, 1868”