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No, Washington didn’t say ‘free people’ should be allowed to take up arms ‘against their government’

Memes of quotes by historical figures often go viral. Some of the quotes are motivational, but others serve a political agenda. And not all of them were actually said by the person they’re attributed to.

Because of this, Facebook users need to take care before sharing these memes.

A fake attribution may just use the image of a celebrated figure to give the quote credibility.

One such meme shared in South Africa contains a quote attributed to George Washington, the first president of the United States.

It reads: “A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.”

Two questions will help us sort fact from fiction here. Did Washington really say this? And if he did, in what context?

Only first 11 words are real

US-based fact-checking site Snopes has researched and rated the quote as false.

It includes only a portion of Washington’s address to the members of Senate and House of Representatives in 1790.

Here’s what he actually said: “A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.”

Washington only spoke the first 11 words of the quote in the meme. The rest is false.

But where does this kind of misinformation come from?

According to Snopes, the quote started to make the rounds on the internet in January 2016 when former president Barack Obama announced new measures for gun control in the US.

So it’s an attempt to set an agenda, to help support the argument for gun ownership and for taking up arms against a government. It’s not just a quote. It has an extra purpose.

The context of Washington’s quote

But what was the context of the words Washington actually spoke?

US historian Ron Chernow told Politifact that Washington was talking about national defence policy, not individuals arming themselves.

When quotes are exaggerated and taken out of context, they can become a form of misinformation.

Checking if a quote is accurate before sharing it can help slow the spread of harmful information, the aim of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking programme. – Africa Check (27/03/19)


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