Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Not from Lincoln

There’s a passage attributed to Abraham Lincoln, widely distributed, which goes as follows:

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.
I encountered this passage for the first time in a television commercial paid for by a union local. As you might guess, I am sympathetic to what this passage says. But I know that apocryphal quotations are, as Thomas Jefferson said, “a dime a dozen,” so I wanted to check on the source, which the commercial identified as a November 21, 1864 letter from Lincoln to Colonel William F. Elkins.

A quick search for lincoln elkins corporations brought up a page at snopes.com. Uh-oh. If Snopes was correct, this passage could not be attributed to Lincoln. I e-mailed the union local and was told that the local consulted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer before running the commercial and that Mr. Holzer confirmed that the passage comes from Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1861. And I felt like an idiot.

But then I noticed that the source being cited was not the source cited in the commercial. And when I looked up the December 3, 1861 Message to Congress, I found that it doesn’t contain the passage in question. I then e-mailed Mr. Holzer, who replied that this passage is not Lincoln’s. I am grateful for Mr. Holzer for his reply: he has better things to do than answer questions about apocryphal quotations.

I don’t know how to explain the union local’s response to my query. It would be simple enough to say “We goofed”: plenty of people have taken these words to be Lincoln’s. But the words aren’t Lincoln’s. Here though are words from another president, John Adams, as quoted in David McCullough’s 2001 biography: “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Related posts (on another apocryphal quotation)
From Eliot to Woolf to Montaigne
It is the correction that matters

[I don’t like explaining a joke, but in case there is any doubt: Thomas Jefferson didn’t say that apocryphal quotations are a dime a dozen. He did though, with Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and David Rittenhouse, propose a decimal-based coinage system.]

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