John J. Pitney, Jr.: As Lincoln Never Said, And Other Famous Quotes

Roundup: Talking About History

[John J. Pitney, Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College. With Joseph M. Bessette, he is the author of American Government: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship.]

In his remarks to Democratic lawmakers the day before they passed the health care bill, President Obama said: "And I was tooling through some of the writings of some previous Presidents and I came upon this quote by Abraham Lincoln: 'I am not bound to win, but I'm bound to be true. I'm not bound to succeed, but I'm bound to live up to what light I have.'"

The Lincoln quotation was stirring. It was also bogus. There is no documentary evidence that Lincoln ever said any such thing.

President Obama was hardly the first speaker to pass counterfeit prose. A couple of entertaining reference books — They Never Said It, by Paul Boller and John George, and The Quote Verifier, by Ralph Keyes — are full of fake quotations and mis-attributions that have come into common usage. The process starts when an honest mistake or flight of fancy leads to the publication of a spurious passage. Seeing it in print, writers and speakers assume it to be genuine and repeat it. Then they copy one another, and the dubious words spread like a computer virus.

It is understandable that many of these cases involve Lincoln. By quoting the Great Emancipator's words, public figures try to capture some of his magic for themselves. The temptation to touch the hem of his garment is so great that they sometimes get sloppy about fact-checking and grab for a knockoff....

Accuracy is important, and we should take note when presidents use fake quotations. In the end, though, we may be confident that the truth will come out. As President Clinton put it in 1994: "The greatest Republican President, some of us think the greatest President we ever had, Mr. Lincoln, once said that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time."

Then again, Lincoln didn't say that, either.

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