As he rolled out the first official Republican Party congressional platform in years, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy fittingly invoked the revered father of the GOP: Abraham Lincoln.
At the top of a letter to Republican lawmakers thanking them for their contributions to the “Commitment To America”—the policy agenda they are launching near Pittsburgh on Friday—McCarthy included a quote attributed to Lincoln.
“Commitment,” reads the quote, “is what transforms a promise into reality.”
For McCarthy’s purposes, it’s a pitch-perfect message. There’s just one problem: there’s no record of Lincoln actually saying it.
The quote appears often on social media or inspirational websites, attributed to Lincoln. But a review of historical records by The Daily Beast turned up no proof of when or where the beloved president said these words.
Christian McWhirter, a historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, said he could find "no reliable evidence" that Lincoln ever said those words. "They do not appear in his writings and I cannot find them recollected by any of his contemporaries," McWhirter told The Daily Beast.
McCarthy’s office did not immediately respond to questions about how they sourced the quote.
What may have injected this phrase into the public’s bloodstream was not Lincoln but Lehman Brothers, the Wall Street titan that collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis.
In 1986, Lehman Brothers placed a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal thanking its longest-tenured employees. At the top of the page is the full quote that is attributed in some places online to Lincoln.
“Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality. It is the words that speak boldly of your intentions. And the actions which speak louder than words. It is making the time when there is none. Coming through time after time after time, year after year after year.”
“Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to change things. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism.”
Although McWhirter found the quote himself in 1984 not attributed to Lincoln, the Lehman ad seems to have been a main source for the proliferation of the quote, with witnesses in congressional hearings referencing it—while sourcing it to Lehman Brothers—and business journals quoting it. At some point, Honest Abe was likely given credit for thinking it up.
“It appears to have been unattributed until the internet came along and people began attributing it to Lincoln, which is common with some of these false Lincoln quotes,” McWhirter said
On the internet, there is a small epidemic of sage quotes falsely attributed to leaders and U.S. presidents. Although there is no shortage of wise words Lincoln actually said, he is one of the most frequent victims of the trend.
The rollout of the “Commitment to America” is a big moment for McCarthy, a distant heir to Lincoln’s leadership of the GOP. The California Republican, who has led the House minority conference since 2019, is the overwhelming favorite to be Speaker of the House next year should the GOP take control of the chamber, as is expected.
The platform is meant to be an updated statement of priorities and a message to voters about what a Republican majority would do. It partially contains decades-old GOP boilerplate on issues like the economy and energy production. Reflecting the party’s midterm priorities, it’s also heavy on border security and pro-law enforcement rhetoric, and nods heavily to cultural wedge topics like trans athletes in schools.
On Friday, McCarthy gathered a select group of GOP leaders and rank-and-file members in Pittsburgh to roll out the platform—including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). The entire House GOP apparatus spent the week gearing up for the well-coordinated launch.
The fake Lincoln quote, of course, is a minor speedbump. McCarthy would not be the first prominent Republican to flub a Lincoln quote. In 2017, the Republican National Committee tweeted words they attributed to Lincoln: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.” (“It didn’t sound very Lincolnesque,” NPR charitably noted in an article at the time.)
And in 2020, Lara Trump, wife of the former president’s son Eric, gave a speech at the GOP convention in which she invoked Lincoln.
“Abraham Lincoln once famously said, ’America will never be destroyed from the outside,’” Lara Trump said. “If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Fact-checkers quickly found that it was not a real quote.
Memes have now sprouted up warning eager Lincoln admirers to think twice. In one, a black-and-white photo of Abe is paired with the message: “‘Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it’—Abraham Lincoln.”