On Jan. 31, 2023, the person behind the Wall Street Silver (@wallstreetsilv) Twitter account posted a meme that claimed former U.S. President John Adams once said or wrote, "There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country. One is by the sword. The other is by debt."
We also found a Facebook post from January 2013 that included the quote with Adams name attached. It received more than 55,000 shares.
However, there's no evidence that the nation's second president ever said or wrote these words.
Despite a complete lack of proof that this quote came from Adams, readers can easily find in a Google search a seemingly endless number of websites that give attribution to him for these words.
A search of the database on Google Books showed that the oldest printing of the quote in written literature appeared to be from 2009. Meanwhile, the earliest mention of the quote in newspaper archives on newspapers.com was from 2012. As for the earliest mention anywhere, CheckYourFact.com reported in 2019 that BarryPopik.com found an entry with the quote and Adams' name from as far back as 2002.
For a man who died in 1826, these findings weren't exactly reassuring.
Like many quotes published online, this one appeared to have been born on the internet, long after the person being named had died.
CheckYourFact.com also received word from Sara Martin, who was described as being the editor-in-chief of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Martin said, "While the sentiment of this quotation is in keeping with John Adams, we have found no direct evidence that Adams ever wrote it." This information showed up in Twitter's Community Notes under the tweet from @wallstreetsilv.
As for other debunkings, back in 2010, Gary North of the Gary North's Specific Answers website also published that Adams never said these words. North then issued a second article where he carefully explained why it wouldn't matter if a bunch of search results said that someone once said something. It's documentary evidence that matters, not search results, North contended.
And he was right.
Over the years, we've found that many websites that claim to collect quotes from famous people are extremely unreliable. They usually contain no attribution whatsoever. However, the quotes are perhaps still believed by some users.
Imagine a dinner with friends where a discussion is going on about whether a quote really came from a specific person. Someone at the table might perform a quick Google search, hold up their phone, and point to the top result from a quote-collecting website, even though such a website contains no sourced historical records.
Unreliable quote websites are kind of like the pages that claim to publish the net worths of various celebrities. Such figures often appear above Google search results as a snippet, as if that area at the top displays authoritative information. However, a quick review of the fine print on the websites where the net worth dollar figure was sourced will often say they're nothing more than estimates. In other words, it's not reliable.
We're not advocating for correcting friends at dinner about unimportant matters with an "actually ..." declaration. What we are saying, however, is that Adams never said the quote about conquering and enslaving a country by sword or debt.