If you’ve visited Ford’s Theatre, you’ve likely seen the 34-foot tower of books on Abraham Lincoln. The tower, designed to symbolize that the final word on America’s 16th president will never be written, was constructed with some 6,800 books – just a fraction of the 15,000 titles written on Lincoln. (An admitted Lincolnphile, my personal library on the Great Emancipator at times seems to rival that of Ford’s Theatre.)
One of the paradoxes of the pursuit of history is that the more one pursues it, the more one realizes how little we know of our vast human story. Sometimes the revelation is almost comical.
In the world’s noble pursuit to explain Lincoln, for example, we’ve put a great many words into the mouth of the 16th president he likely never said. In fact, it's likely that many people reading this article will discover that one or two of their favorite “Lincoln quotes” cannot be sourced to the president.
So without further ado, five “Lincoln quotes” Old Abe probably never said:
1) “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky!”
Lincoln’s desire to keep the key border state from joining the Confederacy was well known. Early texts cite a reverend saying something along these lines, but no quote can be sourced to Lincoln himself.
2) “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
A fine quote to be sure, especially to freedom-loving Americans. Alas, there is no indication Lincoln ever said this. I’ve heard some contend that Lincoln said something along these lines during his 1838 Lyceum Address, but if you look at the actual text you will see it’s more than a bit of a stretch.
3) “It is better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
This one broke my heart. It does sound very much like something Lincoln would say, no? In actuality, this quote (or a close variation of it) had already been attributed to thinkers from Socrates to Benjamin Franklin and beyond. A variation of it can also be found in the Bible (Proverbs 17:28).
4) “If you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.”
Pithy. Clever. Sounds like something Lincoln might have said. And he did – according to Disney’s adorable feature film Pollyanna. Beyond that, there is no evidence Lincoln said this.
5)“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”
I still chuckle whenever I read this quote. It’s clever and fits the personality of the man I imagine Lincoln to be. Proper attribution, however, appears to go to a Congressman from Virginia named John Randolph, a contemporary of Lincoln. The quote appeared in numerous publications, according to Quote Investigator, so it’s possible Lincoln was familiar with the witticism. But there is no evidence he ever said it.
Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has appeared in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and the Washington Times.