For years Christian writers have attributed the following quotation to James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth president of the United States, in hopes of supporting the often repeated claim that the Ten Commandments were the foundational law system of the early colonial constitutions, law codes, and Federal Constitution:
We have staked the whole future of American Civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.
While this is a great statement that can be supported without Madison’s endorsement, no one has been able to locate the original source documentation that would unequivocally tie the statement to him. My investigation led only as far back as the January 1958 issue of Progressive Calvinism where the source of the quotation is a 1958 calendar published by Spiritual Mobilization. What was Spiritual Mobilization’s source for the quotation? None was listed.
There is another possible source for the quotation. Bishop James Madison (1749-1812), a cousin of President Madison, served as president of William and Mary College and was the first Protestant Episcopal bishop of Virginia. It was this James Madison who said, "Good morals can spring only from the bosom of religion." It would not be difficult to confuse the two Madisons. In fact, in naming what is now James Madison University, "The Daily News-Record columnist wasn’t even convinced that Madison College honored President James Madison. ‘It is claimed by some,’ the columnist wrote, ‘that those who suggested Madison as the new name did not have the president in mind, but Bishop James Madison.’" Even so, there is no tangible evidence that even this James Madison said it.
Then there’s the attribution of the following citation to historian Alexander Fraser Tytler (or Tyler) (1747-1813). It reads, and it supports what many believe are important political observations, but is it authentic? Can it be found in the writers of Alexander Tytler?:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.
Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.
Like the dubious James Madison quotation, the Tytler extract is cited on a regular basis and often finds its way into published works. While there was an Alexander Tytler, there is no extant evidence that puts these words in his mouth or in any of his published works. Supposedly it can be found in a book supposedly written by Tytler that goes by the title The Fall of the Athenian Republic or The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic. There is no such book in circulation or attributed to him. Others claim that the quotation can be located in Tytler’s Elements of General History: Ancient and Modern, a book that does exist. The following response from the library of the University of Edinburgh states that their research has shown that the quotation does not appear in the library’s holdings of Tytler’s books:
Edinburgh University Library occasionally receives enquiries, particularly from North America, about this particular work. However, this title is not in our Library holdings, nor does it appear in the stocks of the other major research libraries in the United Kingdom. . . . Locally, the chapters of Tytler’s General History . . . (which we DO have) has been checked on the off-chance that The Decline and Fall [of the Athenian Republic] might have been a chapter title . . . but it is not. . . . We have scanned our holdings pretty thoroughly on different occasions, going back a few years now, but we have not found the quotation or anything similar to it, but we cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that we have missed it.
Even the United States Library of Congress has been called in on the search with no success in finding the much cited but elusive quotation. Even so, the Madison and Tytler quotations continue to circulate as authentic history. Here’s the lesson to be learned: If there are so many who are willing to accept the authenticity of historical citations with something less than a shred of evidence, then it shouldn’t surprise us when students accept historical accounts found in textbooks and scholarly journals that have about the same amount of evidentiary support. The difference, however, is that so much of what finds its way into textbooks and popular works of history affect the way Christianity and the Bible are portrayed. It’s one thing to be wrong about a few unsupported quotations; it’s another thing to reshape a school curriculum based on fabricated history that relegates the Bible to the dust bin of history.
The case has been made by William J. Federer, The Ten Commandments and Their Influence on American Law: A Study in History (St. Louis, MO: Amerisearch, Inc., 2003) and at http://www.eppc.org/docLib/20050204_decalogue.pdf
Bishop James Madison, The Virginia Gazette (September 18, 1779): http://www.loc.gov/loc/madison/hutson-paper.html
For example, W. David Stedman and LaVaughn G. Lewis, eds., Our Ageless Constitution (Asheboro, NC: W. David Stedman Associates, 1987), 263.