Fake Quotations

Fake quotations from famous people, no matter how often discredited, take on new life in campaign seasons. Get ready for the best line Lincoln never said: 'You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.'

By , Decoder contributor

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    Dr. Ben Carson greets a supporter during a book signing event in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Saturday. A few months ago, Dr. Carson falsely attributed this remark to French writer Alexis de Tocqueville: 'If America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.' He's not alone: Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton also got it wrong.
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At Buzzfeed, Andrew Kaczynski has an amusing piece pointing out that House candidate Jody Hice (R) of Georgia frequently quotes historical figures, but that nearly all the lines are fake.

Mr. Hice is not alone.  Counterfeit quotations pervade American political rhetoric.

A few months ago, for instance, Dr. Ben Carson, a potential presidential candidate, quoted a famed French author of the 19th century: “Tocqueville was impressed by the fiery sermons that emphasized the word of God and not the social mores of the day. He concluded his American analysis by saying, `America is great, because America is good. If America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.’ "

Recommended: Know your US presidents? See if D.C. Decoder can stump you!

No, Tocqueville never wrote any such thing. The false quotation may have originated in a 1940 speech by Senator Henry Ashurst of Arizona or a 1941 book on religion and the American dream. In these cases, the writer may have mistaken a scribbled summary of Tocqueville’s thought for a verbatim quotation. But nobody has ever found the words in any of Tocqueville’s writings.

Nevertheless, public figures have been using the bogus words for decades. Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton also repeated it.  More recently, we have heard it on air from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

Fake Lincoln quotations are especially popular. Here are just a few.

Bound to be true: “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.”  One of President Obama's speechwriters apparently fell for this one in March of 2010. Allen Guelzo, a top Civil War historian, told me in an e-mail: “This one is not only bogus, but so bogus that it doesn't even appear in that great compendium of Lincoln `sayings,’ Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher.”

Fooling the people: “It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you may even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” Lincoln was clever and folksy but never said these words.

The "cannot" list:  One purported Lincoln quotation consists of a list of 10 maxims starting, “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.” In his last major speech, at the 1992 GOP convention, President Reagan cited it – as have many others on the right.  But as Snopes.com explains, the list originated with minister William John Henry Boetcker in 1916.

Enthroned corporations:  If the “cannot” list is a favorite of the right, as we note in the textbook, this one is a favorite of the left: 

"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless."

Populists concocted this one in the late 19th century, and Lincoln's private aide called it a “bald, unblushing forgery." Not only did Lincoln never say these words, they were at odds with his thinking, as Andrew Ferguson explained a few years ago: “A corporate lawyer whose long and cunning labor on behalf of the railroads earned him a comfortable income, Lincoln was a vigorous champion of market capitalism, even when it drifted (as it tends to do) toward large concentrations of wealth.”

Alas, as the election approaches, harried speechwriters will turn to the Internet for nifty lines that their bosses can quote. Much of what they find will be wrong.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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