By Frank Herron
Independence Day brings with it a celebration of this country’s Founding Fathers and other giants of American history.
The reputation of these famous people is often based on the words they said.
But sometimes the famous words were never spoken by the famous mouth.
Enter Ralph Keyes – a self-styled “quotographer.”
His latest book, “The Quote Verifier” (St. Martin’s Griffin, $15.95), serves as a handbook for finding out who really said what – and when they said it.
Within its pages, readers can discover – if they can bear it – that some of the most treasured words need a new home. His book presents a mouthful of examples of quotes that have been incorrectly attributed to famous people.
Keyes calls some of these people “flypaper figures” because words tend to stick to them. Among these are Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and some lesser-known wits, such as Dorothy Parker.
For example, that’s what happened to the phrase, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
Although that statement is widely attributed to Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, Keyes shows that credit should go to football coach Red Sanders, who used the phrase as long ago as the 1930s.
Keyes acknowledges that many people are unwilling to accept the fact that Marie Antoinette didn’t really say, “Let them eat cake” or that baseball coach Leo Durocher didn’t say, “Nice guys finish last.”
Many people react by saying things like, “Leave us with our myths. Leave us with our, legends,” says Keyes, an Ohioan whose last name, he explains, rhymes with “buckeyes.”
That kind of reaction is OK, up to a point, he said. He doesn’t mind that someone in casual conversation says that George Washington said, “I cannot tell a lie”—even if that is, well, a lie.
“That’s like the parking ticket of literary crimes, if that,” he says in a recent phone interview. “I think that’s close to meaningless. Better to keep the conversation going with a misattribution than to stop and look it up in ‘The Quote Verifier.’”
But others need to be more careful, says Keyes, who has learned not to trust his own memory when it comes to quotations.
“If you’re writing a work of scholarship or a book or a serious magazine article, you owe it to the reader not to pass off apocrypha as fact,” says Keyes, who gives a verdict for the source of each of the more than 400 sayings covered in the book.
Included among those quotations are some of the most famous statements of American history.
Here’s a look at some of them, as presented in “The Quote Verifier”:
George Washington: “I cannot tell a lie.”
This hallowed quote supposedly illustrates the from-the-cradle honesty of the first president. It’s the key part of the story from Washington’s youth, as told by biographer Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825). In it, a young, hatchet‑holding George nobly confesses to chopping down a cherry tree. Keyes quotes from the biography: “Looking at his father with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, ‘I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.’”
Keyes’ verdict: “More Weems than Washington.”
Not everything you’ve heard about famous sayings in American history is wrong. Ralph Keyes writes that Ben Franklin really should be credited with this: “Those who can give up essential Liberty to obtain a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time; you can fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
Keyes says this statement is traditionally linked to an 1858 speech given by Lincoln in Clinton, Ill. There’s no evidence of the statement in Lincoln’s writings. Nor is it included in any known press account of his speeches Long after the fact, people recalled hearing Lincoln give a speech that dealt with the topic of how people are fooled. This maxim became part of Lincoln lore thanks mostly to a book published in 1904, “Abe Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories.” In it, the author said Lincoln made the remark to a visitor. Keyes says Lincoln scholars give little credence to the Civil War president having made the statement.
Keyes’s verdict: “Author unknown; probably not Lincoln.”
Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
Supposedly, Henry made this famous statement at the end of a speech he made at the second Virginia Convention in March 1775. Instead, it is likely from the pen of Henry’s biographer William Wirt, who based his attribution to Henry on the memory of two of Henry’s contemporaries. Wirt apparently put, together the speech that now appears in published collections. The phrase is similar to a passage from “Cato,’” a play Joseph Addison wrote in 1713.
Keyes’s verdict: Credit William Wirt, with an assist from Joseph Addison.
Ben Franklin: “We must all hang together, or most as suredly we shall all hang separately.”
Supposedly, Franklin said this as he signed the Declaration of Independence. But no contemporary accounts mention it. Evidence points, instead, to Richard Penn, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. A joke book printed in 1839 and a Franklin biography of 1840 put the statement in Franklin’s mouth, and “there it has stayed,” Keyes writes.
Keyes’ s verdict: If it can be attributed to anybody, credit should go to Richard Penn.