One of my favorite avocations is spotting phony quotations that are falsely attributed to one or another of our Founding Fathers or, as is more commonly the case, to Abraham Lincoln.
Hardly a day goes by that some political ideologue — usually a conservative – doesn’t try to reinforce an argument, either by spoken or written word, with a reference to some bogus Lincoln quotation.
Some of these are just passing fashions that suddenly gain widespread currency and then quickly fade away as word gets around that Lincoln never said any such thing.
An example of this arose a few years ago when more than a few conservatives tried to besmirch congressional critics of the war in Iraq with this counterfeit Lincoln quotation:
“Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged.”
That one made the rounds among right-wing bloggers and conservative congressional orators — until the truth of the matter came to light.
Not only did Lincoln never utter those words, but he was famously a congressional critic of American military policy himself during the Mexican War. And it prompted his political enemies to impugn his patriotism — not unlike what happened to critics of the war in Iraq.
Another counterfeit Lincoln passage has been more enduring among conservatives despite a wealth of scholarship proving its misattribution. It’s something called “Lincoln’s Ten Cannots,” and it reads as follows (although some popular versions vary a bit):
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 hatreds.
You cannot establish 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.
Those words were written not by Lincoln but rather by a preacher and pamphleteer, the Rev. William Boetcker — 51 years after Lincoln’s death.
Perhaps the most popular of the bogus Lincoln quotations is one that can suit any political purpose, conservative or liberal, depending upon the context in which it’s offered. It reads as follows:
“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 the time.”
There’s no reliable record of Lincoln actually having said that, but it’s attributed to him all the time.
This subject of fake Lincoln quotations came to mind the other day when I ran across a real beauty in an essay in some liberal magazine and then subsequently found that it’s been widely touted in the lefty blogosphere. The theory is that Lincoln said this in a letter to some Army colonel in 1864:
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.”
Some versions of this so-called Lincoln quotation are shorter than the foregoing, but all of them are bogus, as we see in THIS REFUTATION from Snopes.com.
The moral of all this is that we should maintain at least a little skepticism when we hear some purported Lincoln quotation used to support a political argument, whether its offered by liberals or conservatives.