Lincoln Never Said That
By Thomas F. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Anyone who has glanced at a cereal box, herbal tea package, inspirational
book, or restaurant place mat has probably encountered a Lincoln
quotation that rings hollow. Lincoln is often quoted and misquoted
by public officials and celebrities. Members of Congress have access
to researchers at the Library of Congress to keep right with Lincoln's
words. But even this resource cannot keep spurious Lincoln's quotations
from being uttered by members of Congress.
The authoritative reference work of Lincoln's letters and speeches
is the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, compiled and published
by the Abraham Lincoln Association. Fast approaching its golden
anniversary, the Collected Works reflects both the strengths and
weaknesses of documentary editing in its infancy. While new Lincoln
documents have been discovered, there has never been a serious attempt
to locate all the letters written to Lincoln. Moreover, technology
now allows for placing a color image of the original documents on
a database with the transcriptions, allowing for a comparison of
the original text with the transcribed text. All of these features
will comprise a new more comprehensive and authoritative edition,
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, being undertaken by the Illinois
Historic Preservation Agency.
One might well ask, "What difference does it make if he did
or didn't say this?" It makes a big difference to researchers
trying to understand the past. Separating authentic words, reflecting
a historical actor's thinking on a topic, from inauthentic or attributed
words, reflecting the thinking of someone other than the historical
actor, is significant in obtaining a clear understanding of the
past. Many of the spurious quotations are so modern in tone and
character that most people will recognize that the words were devised
to express and plead a special cause or interest. The idea of enlisting
famous and admired historical actors from the past to advance a
modern agenda is familiar. In tracking down when certain statements
appeared, one can often tie it to a modern controversy or debate.
A greater problem is dealing with attributions. Individuals recollecting
Lincoln's exact words began to appear immediately following his
death. Perhaps the most accessible source of these recollected statements
is found in Carl Sandburg's six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.
Recollected words cannot be dismissed out of hand because most of
the informants knew Lincoln or are part of an oral tradition going
back to Lincoln. Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher's Recollected Words
of Abraham Lincoln (Stanford, 1996) offer the most extensive and
informed discussion of the promise, problems and pitfalls in using
Finally, this list is only a beginning. It is incomplete and will
be updated. Some of the items listed have a link to a more thorough
discussion of the origins and evolution of the quote.
1. Allegedly written to Thomas Elkins on November 21, 1864:
"We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel
war, which has cost a vast treasure of blood and money, is almost
over. But I see in the future a crisis approaching which fills me
with anxiety. As a result of the war, corporations have become enthroned,
and an era of corruption in high places will follow. The money power
of the country will endeavor to prolong its rule by preying upon
the prejudice of the people, until all wealth is concentrated in
a few hands, and the republic destroyed. I feel at this time more
anxiety for the future of my country than at any time in the past,
even in the midst of war."
2. Quoted by Senator Trent Lott on Meet the Press, March 22, 1998
"I'm a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, the
people can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great
point is to bring them the real facts."
3. Allegedly written to Colonel Edmund "Dick" Taylor
sometime in December, 1864:
"I have long determined to make public the origins of the
greenback and tell the world that it is one of Dick Taylor's creations.
You had always been friendly to me, and when troublous times fell
on us, and my shoulders, though broad and willing, were weak, and
myself surrounded by such circumstances and such people that I knew
not whom to trust, then I said in my extremity, 'I will send for
Col. Taylor; he will know what to do.' I think it was in January
1862, on or about the 16th, that I did so. You came, and I said
to you, 'What can we do?' Said you, 'Why, issue Treasury notes bearing
no interest, printed on the best banking paper. Issue enough to
pay off the Army expenses, and declare it legal tender.' Chase thought
it a hazardous thing, but we finally accomplished it, and gave to
the people of this Republic the greatest blessing they ever had-their
own paper to pay their own debts, and I take great pleasure in making
it known. How many times have I laughed at you telling me plainly
that I was too lazy to be anything but a lawyer."
4. A popular undated letter found on internet sites that allegedly
was written to the headmaster of a school in which one of Lincoln's
sons was studying:
"My son will have to learn, I know, that all men are not
just, all men are not true. But teach him also that for every scoundrel
there is a hero; that for every selfish politician, there is a dedicated
leader. Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend.
It will take time, I know; but teach him if you can, that a dollar
earned is of far more value than five found.
Teach him to learn to lose and also to enjoy winning, steer him
away from envy, if you can.
Teach him the secret of quiet laughter. Let him learn early that
bullies are easiest to lick.
Teach him, if you can, the wonder of books…but also give him
quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees
in the sun and flowers on a green hillside.
In school, teach him it is far more honorable to fail than to cheat…
[Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if everyone tells
him they are wrong.]
Teach him to be gentle with [gentle] people and tough with the tough.
Try to give my son the strength not to follow the crowd when everyone
is getting on the bandwagon.
Teach him to listen to all men; but teach him also to filter all
he hears on a screen of truth and take only the good that comes
Teach him, if you can, how to laugh when he is sad.
Teach him there is no shame in tears. Teach him to scoff at cynics
and to be beware of too much sweetness.
Teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidders, but
never to put a price on his heart and soul.
Teach him to close his ears to a howling mob…and to stand
and fight if he thinks he's right.
Treat him gently; but do not cuddle him, because only the test of
fire makes fine steel.
Let him have the courage to be impatient, let him have the patience
to be brave. Teach him always to have sublime faith in humankind.
This is a big order, but see what you can do. He is such a fine
little fellow my son!"
5. Allegedly uttered by Lincoln although the occasion and the
informant source remain undetermined:
"I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives.
I like to see a man live in it so that his place will be proud of
6. The "Ten Points" appear every February 12 in newspaper
ads honoring Abraham Lincoln. In fact, these aphorisms are from
the pen of Reverend William John Henry Boetcker (1873-1962).
* You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
* You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
* You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.
* You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
* You cannot lift the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer.
* You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.
* You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
* You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money.
* You cannot build character and courage by taking away a man's
initiative and independence.
* You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could
and should do for themselves.
7. Unknown source:
"Well, for those who like that sort of thing, I should think
it is just about the sort of thing they would like."
8. Cited by Douglas MacArthur in 1950 speech after his release
as commander of the United Nations forces in Korea. It is actually
from a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
" To sin by silence, when they should protest, makes cowards
9. Attributed to Lincoln in a Lutheran temperance pamphlet circa
1948. It is actually from a temperance address of the Reverend James
Smith, Abraham Lincoln's friend and minister at the First Presbyterian
Church in Springfield, Illinois.
"The liquor traffic is a cancer in society, eating out its
vitals and threatening destruction, and all attempts to regulate
it will aggravate the evil. There must be no attempt to regulate
the cancer; it must be eradicated, not a root must be left behind,
for until this is done, all classes must continue in danger of becoming
victims of strong drink."
10. Undoubtedly the most famous questioned utterance of Abraham
Lincoln allegedly part of a speech delivered in Clinton, Illinois,
"You can fool all the people some of the time and some of
the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all