By Michael Lynch
Since I started blogging about history a few years ago, I’ve spent quite a bit of time perusing news feeds, looking for history-related items that might make for suitable posting fodder. Because of the way search engines operate, they’ll often pull up irrelevant articles simply because the articles in question contain a particular word or set of words.
I’m often struck by how many news stories reference “Abraham Lincoln” even though they have little to do with him, just because the reporter who wrote the article decided that a Lincoln quote would spice things up, or because the subject of the article decided that invoking the Great Emancipator would be a good idea. To illustrate the ubiquity of Lincoln quotes—both authentic and spurious—here are a few examples taken from items I stumbled across in the last couple of days.
In a news story about husbands and wives supporting different candidates in South Carolina’s Republican primary, one reporter invoked Lincoln’s famous “house divided” metaphor, which in turn was a quotation taken from the New Testament.
The governor of Colorado, in promoting a public opinion initiative earlier this month, quoted a passage from Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas.
A state senator adapted a well-known phrase from the Gettysburg Address to describe a Rhode Island town that has gone into receivership in the wake of economic trouble, quipping that the town’s government is now “of the receiver, by the receiver and for the receiver.”
A recent story about a Kiwanis club’s efforts to aid children included this nugget: “Lincoln said, ‘No Man Stands So Tall as When He Stoops to Help a Child.'” A number of websites attribute the statement to Lincoln, but as far as I know, he never said or wrote any such thing.
A Nigerian newspaper issued a story on petroleum subsidies, opening with the quote, “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” I’m not sure what this has to do with petroleum subsidies, but at least that quote is authentic; it comes from a speech Lincoln delivered to a temperance group in 1842.
Comedian Stephen Colbert told fans at a rally, “As Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, ‘Give me some money.'” Needless to say, you won’t find that statement in the published Lincoln corpus.
I can’t think of any other historical figure who is quoted and misquoted so often, and in so many different contexts. I suppose this has to do with Lincoln’s reputation as a wordsmith and the high regard in which he’s held as a paragon of wisdom and prudence. A Lincoln quote is an automatic appeal to authority; if the man who wrote the Gettysburg Address, won the Civil War, and freed the slaves can help bolster you’re argument, then you’re already more than halfway there.
This need to get Lincoln on one’s side has led to so many misattributions that you can find websites devoted to debunking them. If even the current President of the United States is not safe from this phenomenon, then maybe the safest bet is to stick with the well-worn examples from Lincoln’s undisputed published writings, or perhaps to rely on our own rhetoric and stop trying desperately to get Lincoln on our side.
—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.