According to the Jefferson Library: "There are a number of quotes that we do not find in Thomas Jefferson's correspondence or other writings; in such cases, Jefferson should not be cited as the source. Among the most common of these spurious Jefferson quotes are: 'Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.' "While Jefferson may have well believed that dissent was a high form of patriotism when it was he protesting a Federalist policy that he disagreed with, he certainly wasn't filled with admiration for those who flooded him with letters criticizing the 1807 Embargo Act which crippled the American economy by saying that Americans couldn't trade with any other nation. As this law has the worst consequences for the New England states, stronghold of the Federalist Party which opposed Jefferson anyway, there were calls for secession from the Union. I doubt whether Jefferson appreciated that dissent as the highest form of patriotism.
Love of dissent only comes from those out of power. That's fine. We have a rich history of dissent in our country. However, as Steyn points out, dissent is not a policy.
What does it mean when so many senior Democrats take refuge in an obvious bit of hooey? Thomas Jefferson would never have said anything half so witless. There is no virtue in dissent per se. When John F. Kennedy said, "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty" -- and, believe it or not, that's a real quote, though it's hard to imagine any Massachusetts Democrat saying such a thing today -- I could have yelled out, "Hey, screw you, loser." It would have been "dissent," but it wouldn't have been patriotic, and it's certainly not a useful contribution to the debate, any more than that of the University of North Carolina students at Chapel Hill who recently scrawled on the doors of the ROTC armory "F--- OFF!" and "WE WON'T FIGHT YOUR WARS!"
But the high holiness of dissent for its own sake is now the core belief of the Democratic Party: It's not what you're for, it's what you're against. Their current denunciations of Big Oil have a crudely effective opportunism but say to them "OK, what's your energy policy?" and see what answers you get: More domestic oil? Ooh, no, we can't disturb the pristine ANWR breeding ground of the world's largest mosquito herd. More nuclear power, like the French? Ooh, no, might be another Three Mile Island. Er, OK, you're the mass transit guys; how about we go back to wood-fired steam trains? Ooh, no, we're opposed to logging, in case it causes global warming, or cooling, or both.
Dissent for its own sake is like the Democrats' energy policy: We're opposed to any kind of energy; we prefer to be mired in enervated passivity. If the right is full of armchair generals, the left is full of armchair generalities: Nothing can be done, any course is futile, everything's a quagmire. All we can say for certain is that saying so for certain is the highest form of patriotism.
It's truer to say that these days patriotism is the highest form of dissent -- against a culture where the media award each other Pulitzers for damaging national security, and the only way a soldier's mom can become a household name is if she's a Bush-is-the-real-terrorist kook like Cindy Sheehan, and our grade schools' claims to teach our children about America, "warts and all," has dwindled down into teaching them all the warts and nothing else. Or as the Capital Times of Madison, Wis., concluded its ringing editorial on the subject:
"Thomas Jefferson got it right: 'Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.' And teaching children how to be thoughtful and effective dissenters is the highest form of education."
Teaching them authentic Jefferson quotes would be a better approach.
UPDATE: It seems we have Howard Zinn to thank for tying this phony quote to the war on terror. It's no surprise to see this Zinn connection since Zinn has spent a very profitable career promulgating his Marxist view of history. Sadly, many teachers and professors have their students read his People's History of the United States and so brainwash them into thinking that American history is one long struggle by rich white men to oppress everyone else and expand their own wealth.