By Sam Venable
I’ve been planning this for weeks, ever since I happened upon a copy of “The Quote Verifier” by Ralph Keyes in the reference department of Lawson McGhee Library.
(Well, no; that’s not wholly accurate. I didn’t “happen upon” Keyes’ book. I went to the reference department with the express purpose of looking it up, after having read a delightful review. If you’re going to split historical hairs, it’s important to do so in complete candor.)
We’ll start with what Keyes calls “America’s bedrock parable of honesty.” That would, of course, be George Washington’s “I cannot tell a lie.”
Except good ol’ George never uttered it, certainly not in the context of a downed cherry tree.
Keyes says the quote, preached by parents to their wayward offspring for multiple generations, was the contrivance of biographer Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825).
Not only was Weems’ book “more fiction than fact,” Keyes says Weems’ claim of being the “rector of Mount Vernon parish” also was bunkum: “There was no such church.”
In much the same fashion, “honest” Abe Lincoln wasn’t quite so trustworthy when it came to lifting a nifty quote here or there.
According to Keyes:
” ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’ drew on similar expressions by Daniel Webster and Theodore Parker, among others.
” ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all’ – John Quincy Adams said essentially the same thing decades before Lincoln did.”
In addition, Keyes lists a string of famous quotes that, though popularly attributed to Lincoln, likely were put into his mouth by others. To wit:
” ‘If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard.’ This is what we’d like Lincoln to have said about slavery, but there is no reliable evidence that he did.
” ‘Tell me what brand of whiskey Grant drinks. I’ll send a barrel to my other generals.’ No one who has taken a serious look at this amusing remark thinks it originated with Lincoln, or that he said it at all.”
Modern presidents aren’t spared, either.
“John F. Kennedy loved to pepper his speeches and public statements with quotations,” Keyes writes. “This not only perked up his prose but improved his press by giving him an air of erudition …
“(But) even though JFK routinely got his quotations wrong, it took years for us to figure this out. Meanwhile, the young president launched any number of misworded, misattributed or completely mystifying quotations into the public conversation, where they’ve stuck around to this day.”
Most notable is his “ask not” appeal that “echoed similar exhortations by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Warren Harding and the headmaster of Kennedy’s prep school, among others.”
There’s much more fun from presidents recent and distant. Go check the details for yourself.
Keyes’ research proves you can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.
Which, by the way, Abe didn’t say either.