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From Thomas Jefferson to Melania Trump: Plagiarism in Politics is as Old as the Nation Itself

by David Yee, published

The Internet is buzzing with scandal, this time accusing Melania Trump of plagiarizing Michelle Obama's speech -- and then similar accusations against Donald Trump, Jr.'s speech as well.

Plagiarism is a serious thing in academia, even stealing a single idea from another person can get you academically expelled from many programs.

But in politics, we've got to realize that we have a long, long history of plagiarism -- and it seems to work for the best in the long run.

Thomas Jefferson's 'Borrowed' Ideas for the Declaration of Independence

It's well known that Jefferson drew heavily on the works of John Locke and others in his prose. The rewording of Locke's 'life, liberty, and pursuit of property,' is probably one of the best known examples.

But what isn't widely know is how much of George Mason's work, The Virginia Declaration of Rights, published just a few months before the Declaration of Independence is within the final text signed by the 56 Founding Fathers.

From the earliest of times in American history, scholars have suspected that Jefferson directly 'lifted' this passage from Mason's work:

That all Men are born equally free and independant, and have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity; among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursueing and obtaining Happiness and Safety. -- The Virginia Declaration of Rights

These ideas were popular ideas of the day; including them in the final text grounded the popular culture that fueled the Revolutionary 'Spirit.'

Jefferson even acknowledged this in a letter he wrote in 1825, in the final years of his life:

Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.

The bottom line was, everyone was already thinking in these terms -- there was no reason to be original.

2016: The Era of Immediate Fact Checking

In today's multimedia world, you can data-mine almost any statement made to see if someone had used the sentiment earlier -- all in less than a minute from the time the person says it.

We live in a rapidly paced world where 'debunking' political and social statements has become a pastime for many eager to drop the 'gotcha' bomb on others.

But we also live in a world where many of the sentiments are still held closely by all parties.

Both parties believe in hard work, both believe in families, and both parties at least like to believe in honesty.

If anything, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

But one question still remains, was this a purposeful tactic to get massive media coverage on what is typically an under-reported speech at the conventions?

If so, it was a brilliant tactic, the free airtime on this issue alone would have been in the millions of dollars -- and Trump's a firm believer in the principle that there is no such thing as bad press.

In the end, we just have to look at each candidate's real worth -- not the number of 'gotchas' landed by the other side -- to decide how we will vote.

In the grand scheme of things, rehashing a couple of paragraphs from Michelle Obama's speech is really nothing important -- and they are definitely sentiments that all sides can agree on.

The political 'gotchas' should be saved for the candidate's plans, presidential demeanor, and actions on the campaign trail.

Because that is where we'll disagree as a nation and perhaps very angrily disagree -- so let's save our outrage for something that really matters.

Photo Source: AP

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