Rand Paul Credits Thomas Jefferson With Quote From Thoreau

November 03, 2010 1:56 pm ET — Kate Conway

Tea Party candidates already have a tradition.

In the course of co-opting the Founding Fathers in order to support an agenda that routinely misinterprets the intent and provisions of founding documents like the Constitution, Tea Partiers often manage to get not only the spirit of what they're quoting wrong, but also the words.

Last night, Time picked up on some misuse of Thomas Jefferson's name from Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul:

Just now, in a rousing victory speech, Kentucky's newest senator, Rand Paul, announced, "Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'That government is best that governs least.'"

Except, no. He didn't. Henry David Thoreau did. According to the official Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, kept by his estate at Monticello, "Although the saying 'That government is best which governs least' is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, we have not found this particular statement in his writings."

But hey, Jefferson, Thoreau; po-tay-to, po-tah-to. It doesn't really matter who, why or when as long as it was said sometime, right?

(But you do have to wonder what ardent abolitionist Thoreau would have thought when Paul expressed opposition to parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibited discrimination in private businesses.)

Time also notes that Christine O'Donnell, who lost the Delaware Senate race to Democrat Chris Coons, erroneously attributed a quip about liberty and tyranny to Jefferson in a speech following her victory in the Republican primary.

Defeated Nevada Tea Partier Sharron Angle made another Jefferson mistake when she defended her previous statement that separation of church and state is "unconstitutional" by insisting that Jefferson "has been misquoted, like I've been misquoted, out of context" on the topic.

But as Salon's Alex Pareene notes, "It's hard to argue that Thomas Jefferson was 'misquoted,' because he's pretty unambiguous on the point." Pareene points to a letter Jefferson wrote to a church in which he expressed unequivocal support for the First Amendment's creation of "a wall of separation between Church & State."