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© 2009 WNET.ORG, Kunhardt McGee Productions, Inc., and Inkwell Films Inc.
This film is a production of WNET.ORG, Kunhardt McGee Productions and Inkwell Films in association with Ark Media.
The eloquence of Abraham Lincoln’s many writings and public speeches have made him a primary source of homespun wisdom that for many embodies the best of the American character. Unsurprisingly, ever since Lincoln’s assassination politicians have sought to burnish their own public profiles by quoting him in their own speeches—often incorrectly.
As he prepared to sign his 2010 health care reform bill into law, for instance, President Barack Obama employed a supposed Lincoln quote previously cited several times by President Ronald Reagan:
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.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Lincoln had ever uttered or written such words. In 1994, President Bill Clinton claimed to quote Lincoln using a somewhat hoary commonplace:
You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.
Although the true origins of this quote are somewhat obscured by cliché, it is more likely attributable to P.T. Barnum. Although it is debatable whether or not these misquotations constituted serious political offenses, many liberals were outraged at what they perceived to be a more ideologically slanted misappropriation of Lincoln’s legacy when President Ronald Reagan received cheers at the 1992 Republican National Convention by citing an anti-taxation quotation he attributed to Lincoln:
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.
This was in fact a statement made by 19th century minister William Boetcker.
In Lincoln’s day it was generally expected that a politician’s statements would be his own, and Lincoln in particular took great pains fashioning the precise language he used to express his positions. In our own time, however, contemporary political speechwriting has become a complex, collaborative, and largely confidential process in which misquotes, mistakes, and half truths are often incorporated—wittingly or otherwise. In any case, the almost universal adoption of the often fact-challenged internet as a research tool has made it easier than ever for politicians (and their staffs) to find just the right quote for any occasion—and perhaps harder than ever to confirm its authenticity.
- Under what circumstances instances might you be inclined to forgive a presidential misquote of Lincoln? When would you consider it a more serious offense?
- What potential problems might there be with politicians today quoting politicians from long ago—even if they do so accurately?
- What other famous presidential quotes can you think of? Who said them?