Great American History

Did Lincoln Really Say That?

By Gordon Leidner — Great American History

“Do you think we choose to be born? Or are we fitted to the times we are born into?” Daniel Day-Lewis, playing Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” asked this question. Did Lincoln say that?

The answer is “no.” Although it makes for interesting dialogue in an excellent movie, it has absolutely no basis in historical fact.

Lincoln was “religious in nature,” according to his wife, Mary–even though he never officially joined a church. But Lincoln’s religious beliefs were Christian-Calvinistic in nature rather than spiritualistic or paranormal.

By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln had demonstrated sincere faith in the guidance and judgement of the God of the Bible. In his brilliant Second Inaugural Address, which Lincoln delivered six weeks before his death, he demonstrated mature contemplation of Divine Providence. In this peroration, which theologian Mark A. Noll describes as a “theological statement of rare depth,” Lincoln displayed little doubt that it was God that controls man’s destiny, not man. More on Lincoln’s faith here.

Other Things Lincoln Did NOT Say

Listed below are some of the more popular quotes attributed to Lincoln that are, in fact, spurious:

The Ten “Cannots:”

  • You cannot bring prosperity by discouraging thrift.
  • You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.
  • 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.
  • You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.
  • You cannot further brotherhood of men by inciting class hatred. You cannot establish security on borrowed money.
  • You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence.
  • You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.
  • It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

I am a slow walker but I never walk back.

In the end it is not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.

Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.

If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.

If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?

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

A nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.

He only has the right to criticize who has the heart to help.

I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky!

My earlier views on the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. He actually DID say something close to this, which was: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time or die by suicide.”

There is no room for two distinct races of white men in America, much less for two distinct races of whites and blacks. I can conceive of no greater calamity than the assimilation of the Negro into our social and political life as an equal… Within twenty years we can peacefully colonize the Negro in the tropics and give him our language, literature, religion, and system of government under conditions in which he can rise to the full measure of manhood. This he can never do here. We can never attain the ideal Union our fathers dreamed, with millions of an alien, inferior race among us, whose assimilation is neither possible nor desirable.

Marriage is neither heaven nor hell, it is simply purgatory.

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

He only has the right to criticize who has the heart to help.

Whatever you are, be a good one.

Disputed Lincoln Quotes

Listed below are a few of the popular quotes that have been disputed, but not conclusively disproven, by historians:

“You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Lincoln allegedly said this in a speech in Clinton, Illinois, on September 2, 1858. There has been a serious effort by historians to determine whether or not it is genuine. For more information on this quote, see two articles in For the People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association, “You Can Fool All of the People, Lincoln Never Said That,”by Thomas F. Schwartz (V. 5, #4, Winter 2003, p. 1) and “A New Look at ‘You Can Fool All of the people'” by David B. Parker (V. 7, #3, Autumn 2005, p. 1).

“A child is a person who is going to carry on what you have started. He is going to sit where you are sitting, and when you are gone; attend to those things, which you think are important. You may adopt all policies you please, but how they are carried out depends on him. He will assume control of your cities, states and nations. All your books are going to be judged, praised or condemned by him. The fate of humanity is in his hands. So it might be well to pay him some attention.”

The earliest source for this quote is traced back to 1940. A possible source is the poem “What is a Boy?” by an unknown author. This quote cannot be positively attributed to Lincoln.
Want a book of reliable Lincoln quotes? Consider the Web Author’s Abraham Lincoln: Quotes, Quips, and Speeches. Every quote in the book is sourced in the End Notes.
How to verify Lincoln quotes —

An excellent place to begin verification of Lincoln quotes is at The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln

The following websites have a more complete list of spurious Lincoln quotes:

Wikiquote: Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln Research Site

Last, but not least, you can go to the definitive work by famous Lincoln scholar Don E. Fehrenbacher:

Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln