Warm Southern Breeze

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Quoting Lincoln: Did he REALLY say that?

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Thursday, March 25, 2021

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.

That statement is almost always misattributed to Abraham Lincoln, but there is NO EVIDENCE to support any claim that he ever said such a thing.

President Abraham Lincoln, albumen silver print photograph made February 1865 by Alexander Gardner

Think of it as “fake history.”

It is perhaps the most famous of apparently apocryphal remarks which are widely misattributed to the late, former President.

Despite the various citations as being from:
Lincoln’s “Lost Speech” as a Republican candidate for the party’s Presidential nomination at the Bloomington Convention in Bloomington, Illinois on May 29, 1856, or;
On September 8, 1858 in Clinton, Illinois, an account of which was published in “Report in the Bloomington “Pantograph,” September 9, 1858, which is also extant as ‘Speech at Clinton, Illinois, September 8, 1858’ in ‘The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln, v. 3,’ or;
As being from the 4th Lincoln/Douglas debate September 18, 1858 in Charleston, Illinois – there are NO contemporary accounts or records that substantiate any claim that he ever made any such remark.

The earliest known appearance of any remotely similar statement is found in the Milwaukee Daily Journal, October 29, 1886, which also appeared very nearly one year later in the New York Times on August 26, and August 27, 1887.

Various newspaper editorials also repeated that saying several times in 1887, in 1888, and by 1889, the saying had become part of the contemporary American vernacular, and was so commonplace that it was found in speeches, advertisements, and on portraits of Lincoln, much as memes are today.

Some claims are made that by 1905, and in later years, toward that effort to determine the origin, or authenticity of the remark, some efforts were made among Lincoln’s contemporaries to determine if any of them had ever heard him say it, or any similar remark. However, none could. Modern historians, however, do not find the claims about such attempts convincing.

It’s much the same as a saying widely misattributed to Benjamin Franklin about liberty and freedom.

Benjamin Franklin, portrait by Joseph Siffred Duplessis made c.1785

The remark was neither original to Benjamin Franklin, but instead, like the remark widely misattributed to Lincoln, was in popular widespread use in the era.

In a March 2, 2015 interview with Robert Siegel on NPR, Benjamin Wittes, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Editor of the website Lawfare said that the remark was from a letter presumed to have written by Franklin in 1755 on behalf of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to the Colonial Governor, and in pertinent part reads, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

As Mr. Wittes explained the remark’s context in the letter,

“He was writing about a tax dispute between the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the family of the Penns, the proprietary family of the Pennsylvania colony who ruled it from afar. And the legislature was trying to tax the Penn family lands to pay for frontier defense during the French and Indian War. And the Penn family kept instructing the governor to veto. Franklin felt that this was a great affront to the ability of the legislature to govern. And so he actually meant purchase a little temporary safety very literally. The Penn family was trying to give a lump sum of money in exchange for the General Assembly’s acknowledging that it did not have the authority to tax it. It is a quotation that defends the authority of a legislature to govern in the interests of collective security. It means, in context, not quite the opposite of what it’s almost always quoted as saying but much closer to the opposite than to the thing that people think it means.”

Mr. Wittes also said something which bears repeating, because it’s apropos in this context, which is, “You know, there are all of these quotations. Think of “kill all the lawyers” – right? – from Shakespeare. Nobody really remembers what the characters in question were saying at that time.”

Lincoln Day by Day: A Chronology, 1809-1865, Volume I: 1809-1848

Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858

Speech at Clinton, Illinois


Fourth Debate: Charleston, Illinois

Sangamo Journal / Illinois State Journal, Volume 11, Number 64, 7 September 1858 IIIF Collection Link

Abraham Lincoln’s Speech at Springfield, Illinois, June 10, 1856

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