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In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack yesterday a lot of people have been sharing this quote from Voltaire:

“I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Unfortunately, the quote isn’t real — or at least, it’s not really Voltaire. It comes from a 1906 biography by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in which it was intended to represent a summary of his thinking on free speech issues. “I did not mean to imply,” she wrote later, “that Voltaire used these words verbatim.”

Some have claimed that the quote is a paraphrase of a similar statement from a 1770 letter of Voltaire’s:

“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

I myself made this “correction” in a blogpost a few years ago, and again on Twitter yesterday. But it turns out it’s a fake too — the letter from which it’s supposedly taken includes no such sentence.

Scholars pretty much agree that the sentiments in both passages are Voltairean, even if the language isn’t. So is there a third option we can use in good conscience?

Well, not really. So far I’ve found two candidates. First, there’s this:

“Think for yourselves, and allow others the privilege to do so, too.”

Sadly, it has its doubters too, but it does appear in a 1901 published edition of Voltaire’s essays, so if it’s a fake it’s a fake of mistranslation. I’ve been trying to track down the French original to compare, but so far without success.

For a final option, we return to Hall, and to the page of her biography in which the original troublesome quote appeared. Its context was the burning of a book by a fellow French writer, to which Voltaire responded with the following:

“What a fuss about an omelette! How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that!”

These two sentences are what inspired Hall to her gloss, and while they don’t carry the punch of “defend to the death,” they do fit neatly into 140 characters — with room left over for attribution and a URL.

This summer I took my kids to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and while we were there I saw a clip from a television interview Otto Frank gave in 1967. In it he talked about his experience of reading the diary for the first time after his daughter’s death, and what it revealed to him about who she was.

The clip struck me powerfully when I first saw it, and it’s stayed with me. I mentioned it to a student activist I had lunch with earlier this week, and thought of it again today while talking with a friend on Facebook about the Carla Alcorn post I wrote this morning.

When I Googled it to quote it in that latter conversation, though, I discovered that no full transcript of it existed online. Snippets are quoted in various places, including John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, but the whole thing isn’t up anywhere.

That’s fixed now.

“I knew that Anne wrote a diary. She spoke about her diary. She left her diary with me at night in a briefcase next to my bed. I had promised her never to look in. I never did.

“When I returned, and after I had the news that my children would not come back, Miep gave me the diary, which had been saved by, I should say, a miracle. It took me a very long time to read it, and I must say I was very much surprised about the deep thoughts Anne had, her seriousness — especially her self-criticism.

“It was quite a different Anne [than] I had known as my daughter. She never really showed this kind of inner feeling. She talked about many things, we criticized many things, but what really her feelings were, I only could see from the diary.

“And my conclusion is, as I had been in very, very good terms with Anne, that most parents don’t know, really, their children.”

“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

—Raymond Chandler

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

—Fred Rogers

“I have no secret plan for peace.  I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day. There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North. And within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong. And then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.”

—George McGovern, 1972

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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