In July 2022, readers asked us to look into the veracity of quotes that appeared in a meme titled, “Damn Those Pesky Facts.” The meme had been shared on Facebook and displayed several quotes about Christianity and religion that purportedly came from four men, three who were Founding Fathers. The names shown above the remarks included former U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison, as well as author Thomas Paine.
In our research, we were able to find plenty of websites that hosted all of the quotes that were included in the meme. However, websites that do nothing but collect famous quotes are not usually reliable sources for research. In order to establish definitive confirmation for each quote, we looked at centuries-old literature as well as other credible sources. In two cases, we reached out to researchers for more information. Our findings concluded with the fact that the meme was neither wholly true nor false.
Many books have been written about the lives and thoughts about religion regarding the four men featured in the meme. For the purpose of this story, we will primarily concentrate on fact-checking each individual quote.
The first quote, which was attributed to Jefferson, who served as the third U.S. president, read, “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.” This was a genuine quote that came from Jefferson’s work titled, “Reports of Cases Determined in the General Court of Virginia.” According to Encyclopedia Virginia, “common law” referred to “a tradition preserved by courts through precedent.” The full quote read as follows:
If, therefore, from the settlement of the Saxons, to the introduction of Christianity among them, that system of religion could not be a part of the common law, because they were not yet Christians; and if, having their laws from that period to the close of the common law, we are able to find among them no such act of adoption; we may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.
The second quote with Jefferson’s name next to it said, “Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.” According to Monticello.org, a website that is managed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., this was a paraphrase of something Jefferson wrote in 1801 to a clergyman, political theorist, and physical scientist” named Joseph Priestley. The quote was transcribed like this:
this was the real ground of all the attacks on you: those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy, the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man, endeavored to crush your well earnt, & well deserved fame.
The final quote that was attributed to Jefferson in the “Damn Those Pesky Facts” meme read, “Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies.” According to Monticello.org, there’s no known record of him ever saying these words.
The meme featured two quotes from Adams, who served as the country’s second president. The first quote read, “The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
This quote came from the Treaty of Peace and Friendship from 1796, also known as the Treaty with Tripoli. The treaty was “one of many made with the Barbary states around the turn of the century,” usconstitution.net published. At the time, U.S. ships had been the victim of costly attacks by the Barbary states for many years. The treaty in 1796 was part of an effort to put a stop to the piracy. After the agreement was negotiated, Joel Barlow, an American diplomat, translated the treaty from Arabic to English.
Article 11 of the treaty was translated as follows:
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
The document was initially signed by several parties in 1796. At the time, Washington was the president. In 1797, Adams signed it in his first year of his only presidential term. To sum it up, there’s no evidence that Adams wrote the words in the treaty. However, he did sign his approval of the document.
The second Adams’ quote in the “Damn Those Pesky Facts” meme read, “The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or Mohammedan nation.” We found that this quote has also been attributed to former U.S. President George Washington, not Adams. This felt a bit like a red flag to us that perhaps the quote did not really come from Adams, or maybe either of the men at all.
For example, we found that the following was published in the 1878 work titled, “The Shaker Manifesto”:
George Washington, “the father of the country,” publicly stated that — “The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish nor a Mohammedan nation; it has no religion established by law, and all religions are upon a perfect equality before the constitution and laws of the country.”
This was published in an 1878 periodical, so that makes it reliable, right? Not quite. We noticed that it was strangely difficult to find in any other literature at the time. This made us skeptical that there was enough evidence to definitively say the quote was genuine.
We reached out to the team with Washington’s estate at MountVernon.org to see if they had resources that could help establish if Washington truly said or wrote these words, as it appeared it did not come from Adams. In response, one of its staff told us that it appeared to be a “poorly paraphrased and modified text” from the same Treaty of Peace and Friendship from 1796 that was mentioned in the previous quote. (Separately, they pointed us to a different quote from 1790 that is believed to perhaps be Washington’s most important remarks regarding freedom of religion and “religious tolerance.”)
The third person shown in the “Damn Those Pesky Facts” meme was Thomas Paine. The writer is perhaps best known for his pamphlet titled, “Common Sense.”
The quote in the meme that was attributed to Paine read, “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent than we called it the word of a demon than the word of God. It has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.”
Madison‘s first quote in the meme read, “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” According to the National Archives, this was a genuine quote from a letter Madison wrote to Edward Livingston on July 10, 1822. The letter twice included the words “greater purity.” Here’s the context surrounding this real quote:
Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last Centuries in favor of this branch of liberty, and the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others, a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government & Religion, neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a Coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger can not be too carefully guarded against. And in a Government of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness & stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical & Civil matters is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that Religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. It was the belief of all Sects at one time that the establishment of Religion by law was right & necessary; that the true Religion ought to be established in exclusion of all others; and that the only question to be decided was, which was the true Religion. The example of Holland proved that a toleration of Sects dissenting from the established Sect, was safe and even useful. The example of the Colonies now States, which rejected Religious establishments altogether, proved that all Sects might be safely & advantageously put on a footing of equal & entire freedom. And a continuance of their example since the Declaration of Independence has shewn, that its success in Colonies was not to be ascribed to their connection with the parent Country. If a further confirmation of the truth could be wanted, it is to be found in the examples furnished by the States which have abolished their religious Establishments. I can not speak particularly of any of the cases excepting that of Virginia, where it is impossible to deny that Religion prevails with more zeal, and a more exemplary priesthood, than it ever did when established and patronized by Public authority. We are teaching the World the great truth, that Governments do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson, that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government.
The final quote in the “Damn Those Pesky Facts” meme claimed that Madison once said or wrote, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”
We found reason to doubt this quote’s authenticity. For example, a search of Google Books showed that the quote didn’t appear in any known literature before 1994.
We reached out to a researcher with the Montpelier historic site to receive further clarification. Montpelier is described on the organization’s website as “a memorial to James Madison and the Enslaved Community, a museum of American history, and a center for constitutional education that engages the public with the enduring legacy of Madison’s most powerful idea: government by the people.”
By email, Hilarie M. Hicks, Montpelier’s director of museum programs, said that the quote was believed to be “spurious,” which meant that it was likely fake. Hicks provided the following information:
While it’s always difficult to prove that Madison didn’t write something, here are a few considerations:
1. Searching in the online Papers of James Madison, for both the quote in its entirety and for individual phrases, yielded no results.
2. Madison didn’t tend to express himself in succinct, dramatic sentences as in that quote. His phrasing is characteristically indirect and understated. So as someone who reads a lot of Madison’s writings, I’d say that this quote doesn’t even sound like Madison’s usual style.
3. Madison’s reason for separating church and state had more to do with freedom of thought and Enlightenment ideals like free inquiry, rather than avoiding warfare. In 1785, Madison wrote a Memorial and Remonstrance to the Virginia General Assembly to protest a proposed tax assessment that was intended to pay teachers of the Christian religion. He laid out 15 points in opposition to the tax, noting “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”
One of Madison’s observations in the Memorial and Remonstrance (in the 11th point) has some similarity to the quote you asked about: “Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion.” But that was really a side point, contrasting Europe with Virginia’s existing situation. Madison wasn’t really giving the avoidance of bloodshed as the reason for separating church and state.
I can see where a careless author might have paraphrased the “Torrents of blood…” sentence to oversimplify Madison’s argument and break down his convoluted phrasing, which of course makes for a spurious quote.
In sum, we rated the claim that the “Damn Those Pesky Facts” meme was reliable with a rating of “Mixture.” The meme showed eight quotes, each of which was attributed to one of four men. The quotes were not collectively true or false.
“Avalon Project – The Barbary Treaties 1786-1816 – Treaty of Peace and Amity, Signed at Tripoli June 4, 1805.” Lillian Goldman Law Library via Yale Law School, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/bar1805t.asp.
Briney, Matt. MountVernon.org, Email, 6 July 2022.
“Christianity Is the Most Perverted System That Ever Shone on Man (Spurious Quotation).” Monticello.org, https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/christianity-most-perverted-system-ever-shone-man-spurious-quotation.
“Did Thomas Jefferson Really Say ‘Christianity Neither Is nor Ever Was a Part of the Common Law’?” Quora, https://www.quora.com/Did-Thomas-Jefferson-really-say-Christianity-neither-is-nor-ever-was-a-part-of-the-Common-Law.
Foner, Philip S. “Thomas Paine | Biography, Common Sense, Rights of Man, Religion, & Significance.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Paine.
Founders Online: From James Madison to Edward Livingston, 10 July 1822. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-02-02-0471.
“From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island – Wednesday, August 18, 1790.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, https://www.mountvernon.org/.
Hicks, Hilarie M. Montpelier.org, Email, 6 July 2022.
Jefferson, Thomas and the Practice of Law – Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/jefferson-thomas-and-the-practice-of-law/.
Jefferson, Thomas, and Virginia General Court. Reports of Cases Determined in the General Court of Virginia: From 1730, to 1740; and from 1768, to 1772. F. Carr, 1829.
Lomas, G. A., editor. The Shaker Manifesto. United Societies, 1878.
Madison, James. Founders Online: From James Madison to Edward Livingston, 10 July 1822. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-02-02-0471.
McEvoy, John G. “Joseph Priestley | Biography, Discoveries, & Facts.” Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Joseph-Priestley.
Mount, Steve, and Craig Walenta. “Treaty Between the United States and Tripoli – The U.S. Constitution Online.” USConstitution.net, https://www.usconstitution.net/tripoli.html.
Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. University of Colorado Boulder via Feedbooks, https://klymkowskylab.colorado.edu/Readings/Thomas%20Paine%20-%20The%20Age%20of%20Reason.pdf.
Somma, Ryan. Review of Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” | Ideonexus.com. 10 May 2007, https://ideonexus.com/2007/05/10/the-age-of-reason/.
“Superstition of Christianity (Spurious Quotation).” Monticello.org, https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/superstition-christianity-spurious-quotation.