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Respectfully Quoted

February 2024
1min read

A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service

edited by Suzy Platt; Library of Congress; 520 pages.

Sooner or later almost everyone in Congress wants to remind almost everyone else that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And if they want to make sure they get the quote right, they check first with the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, which will tell them that although everyone thinks Jefferson said it, the closest the CRS can come is “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” from John Philpot Curran’s “Election of Lord Mayor of Dublin” speech before the Privy Council, July 10, 1790. The CRS will turn that citation up quickly, too, because the operation has had a lot of experience finding such things; for three-quarters of a century now, the CRS has been verifying quotations that members of Congress want to use in public debate.

“Through the years,” writes Charles A. Goodrum in the introduction to this useful and highly diverting reference work, “this matter of quotation verification became big business.” Most of the questions about quotations—and in time there came to be thousands every year—were fielded by a unit called the Congressional Reading Room, whose “staff began to detect three kinds of citations that seemed to stand apart from the routine traffic: the hard ones, the repetitive ones, and the impossible ones.” Fifty years ago the increasingly hard-pressed researchers created the CRR Quote File.

The simple fact that certain quotes found their way into the file is intriguing: “Remember, democracy never lasts long,” John Adams said. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Goodrum writes, “You wonder what was happening to the Member that he needed that John Adams quote—and indeed, what happened to Adams the day he said it!”

The file also contains statements whose authors have never been established. The one Mark Twain quote that everyone knows—“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years”—apparently had its genesis in the September 1937 issue of the Reader’s Digest . And “Politics is the art of the possible” was said not by Mr. Dooley but by an equally clear-eyed if somewhat sterner political theoretician, Otto von Bismarck.

The twenty-one hundred quotes that make up this book have all been culled from the CRR Quote File, and although the entries are cross-indexed as they are in any other such volume, this is a different sort of quotation book. Most books of quotations, says Goodrum with satisfaction, “are compiled by learned literateurs who sit in silent rooms reading the words of wise people and asking, ‘I wonder if that thought might be useful to somebody?’ These quotations have already answered that question. They have already been used by somebody, and others have already heard them, have already decided they want to use them again. …”

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