It’s fashionable in some circles today to quote America’s founders to justify a modern viewpoint, lend credence to a personal view, or simply trash someone you disagree with.

Ben Franklin’s remark “A republic – if you can keep it” is commonly deployed to criticize political views on the left and the right. Another quote, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, says one reason for people to own personal weapons is to protect themselves from the government. (For the record, Jefferson never said that.) A handful attributed to James Madison warn readers not to trust the federal system he helped create.

The images – typically following a predictable template of a quote superimposed on an oil painting of a colonial leader – seem to imply that the founders’ generation has a final-word opinion or dark warning that fits every issue modern society faces.

Lawrence Hatter.

But that’s the catch, says Washington State University’s Dr. Lawrence Hatter. The quotes you see on social media to justify everything from banning abortions, to anti-government views, to total freedom for firearms, are often taken out of context, and sometimes – as in the Jefferson example — apocryphal.

“If you had a question about what the founders thought about something, which I think is a perfectly legitimate thing,” Hatter said. “Then begin with a question. Don’t begin with a conclusion.”

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