Popular Quotes Misattributed to Abe Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is known for inspiring things during his life and presidency. From the “House Divided” speech to his lesser-known letters and writings, plenty of motivational phrases are found. However, in the decades and centuries following his death, many quotes have been wrongly attributed and disseminated in various publications, with the Internet spurring it all on. Prepare to be disappointed: Here are quotes believed to be by Lincoln but actually aren’t.

1. “Most folks are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”

This quote was first attributed to Lincoln in 1914—50 years after his death—as part of a column in the Syracuse Herald written by Dr. Frank Crane about New Year’s resolutions. Following that instance, it appeared in many other publications attributed to the president, but no evidence suggests those attributions are correct.

2. “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

Laurence Hutton wrote a memoir in 1897. He described meeting William Makepeace Thackeray, during which Thackeray is quoted as saying, “Whatever you are, try to be a good one.” First attributed to Lincoln about 80 years following his death in a compendium of inspiring quotations, credit for this quote should actually go elsewhere. However, the accuracy of even that attribution depends on the accuracy of Hutton’s memory while penning his memoir.

3. “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

This quote is often attributed to Winston Churchill as well as Lincoln. Similarly, quotes referring to “In short they go from failure to failure, but always on the up-grade” were found in articles as early as 1913, and it was wrongly being ascribed to Churchill by the 1980s. The phrase was first attributed to Lincoln in a newspaper in New Orleans in 2001.

The earliest close match to the quote appeared in a 1953 book about public speaking titled “How to Say a Few Words” by David Guy Powers. The author did not claim credit, and the ascription was anonymous:

Success has been defined as the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.

4. “Great things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”

Despite many references on the Internet to Lincoln saying this quote, there is no evidence to support it. Within The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, he says the phrase “things may” only three times and never says “things may come,” “things left,” or the word “hustle.” Furthermore, in Lincoln’s era, “hustle” meant obtaining something rather than putting in an energetic effort.

5. “You can’t fool all the people all the time.”

A similar quote, "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.'' has long been attributed to Abraham Lincoln. In the September 3, 1858 issue of the Bloomington Pantagraph, a writer stated that Lincoln had used the phrase in a speech given in Clinton, Illinois, in 1858. However, the transcript of the speech does not include the phrase, nor do any other transcripts of Lincoln's speeches.

In 1905 testimony was gathered by the Chicago Tribune and Brooklyn Eagle attempted to prove that Lincoln used the epigram at Clinton. However, the testimony was conflicting and dubious in some particulars, but the quote has remained a favorite in popular usage. Neither the report in the Pantagraph, which provides the text of the Clinton speeches nor any other contemporary Lincoln references, references the quote.

Its earliest use of the phrase was in French in 1684 in Traité de la Vérité de la Religion Chrétienne, a work of apologetics by Jacques Abbadie, a French Protestant.

6. “Here I stand—warts and all.”

The quote was first attributed to Lincoln by George H.W. Bush in a speech given in 1988. However, it was a combination of two famous phrases: “Here I stand,” was part of Martin Luther’s popular phrase, “Here I stand. I can do no other,” and “warts and all,” attributed to Oliver Cromwell who is said to have said something to that effect to a painter when commissioning a portrait.

7. “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

There is a biblical proverb that is similar to this phrase, Proverbs 17:28:

"Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent and discerning if he holds his tongue."

The Yale Book of Quotations attributed the phrase to Lincoln in 1931, which turned out to be the first instance where it appeared as credited to the president. The quote is also attributed to Mark Twain, though there is no evidence of this. In fact, in the 2001 Ken Burns documentary on the author, a companion book was released in which this phrase was listed in a section titled “What Twain Didn’t Say.” Maurice Switzer's book, "Mrs. Goose, Her Book" from 1907, included a similar phrase. So he is usually credited with coining the phrase.

8. “You can’t build a little guy up by tearing a big guy down.”

Most recently misquoted by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, this quote was originally written by Rev. William J. H. Boetcker, published in a pamphlet alongside Lincoln's quotations in 1916. The quote was confused as one of Lincoln’s sayings.

9. "You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves.”

Like the quote about the inability to build someone up by bringing someone else down, this quote should also be attributed to Rev. William J. H. Boetcker, in the same pamphlet mentioned above.

By |September 9th, 2021|Articles|0 Comments

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