US Rep. Madison Cawthorn Botches John Adams Quote About Facts

It's not the first time the first-term Republican Congressman has made an irony-laden mistake about American history.

Published Jun 25, 2021

Madison Cawthorn, the controversial first-term Republican Congressman from North Carolina, unwittingly injected a significant dose of irony into his speech on the floor of the House, on June 24, when he botched a famous quotation from one of the Founders. 

Speaking about expanded unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cawthorn remarked: "It was Thomas Jefferson that said 'Facts are stubborn things.'" Actually, it wasn't. It was John Adams.

Cawthorn, who has fabricated elements of his personal history and indirectly denied allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct made by several women, continued: "'And whatever may be our wishes, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.' Let's cast our eyes over the facts, shall we?"
The quotation, as presented by Cawthorn, actually originated in remarks Adams, not Jefferson, made during the trial of British soldiers for their roles in the Boston Massacre in 1770.

Adams, already a prominent leader in the independence movement, agreed to act as a defense lawyer for the soldiers, who had been charged with murder for shooting dead five members of a mob of patriots on March 5, 1770.

Records from the trial, posted on the website of the National Historical Publications Commission, a division of the National Archives, provide an official, reliable source for the now-famous quotation by Adams.

John Hodgson transcribed and took minutes from the proceedings, which took place at Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, and his entries from Dec. 4, 1770, included various arguments made by Adams, including his overarching contention that the soldiers were provoked into defending themselves, and thus could only be properly charged with manslaughter, at worst, rather than murder. Hodgson quoted Adams as saying, in conclusion:

I will enlarge no more on the evidence, but submit it to you.—Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: nor is the law less stable than the fact; if an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had a right to kill in their own defence; if it was not so severe as to endanger their lives, yet if they were assaulted at all, struck and abused by blows of any sort, by snow-balls, oyster-shells, cinders, clubs, or sticks of any kind; this was a provocation, for which the law reduces the offence of killing, down to manslaughter, in consideration of those passions in our nature, which cannot be eradicated. To your candour and justice I submit the prisoners and their cause.

The full record from that day's proceedings can be found here. Adams' defense strategy worked. Six of the soldiers were acquitted and released, while two were acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter, branded with a hot iron, and released. Adams, of course, became vice president to George Washington, and the second president of the United States. 

Cawthorn's "stubborn facts" error wasn't the first time he had made an irony-laden mistake about the achievements and utterances of the Founders. During his speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention, Cawthorn chastised those who derided his relative youth (at 25, Cawthorn is one of the youngest House members in history), saying they "just don't know American history."

To support his argument, he falsely claimed that "James Madison was just 25 when he signed the Declaration of Independence." In reality, Madison never signed that document, at 25 or at any age, but rather signed the U.S. Constitution.

Dan Mac Guill is a former writer for Snopes.

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