No, Abraham Lincoln never uttered the words of the headline to this piece—at least not for certain, although two of his contemporaries insisted that he had. Most scholars dismiss them as fake history—the natural successor of fake news that gets old without becoming true.
Yet the sentiments have returned to the public mind, now that the Republican National Committee elected to besmirch Lincoln’s Birthday by tweeting another spurious quote to mark the Great Emancipator’s 208th birthday on February 12: “It’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years.”
Now, assuming that it is easy enough to mistake Lincoln for Charlemagne, or Mae West, just two of the sources to whom the quote is often attributed—still, one must wonder what precisely the “Party of Lincoln” was trying to communicate by choosing this quotation (not “malice toward none” or “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”) as the Lincolnian sentiment that seemed most “fitting and proper” to recall on the anniversary of his birth.
The party eventually removed the quote, but not before President Trump posted it to his Instagram account, where it remains up as of this writing.
Nor is this the first time prominent Republicans have undertaken to circulate Fake Lincoln History. On an earlier and far more consequential occasion, the fakery came from a much more lovable figure, but with an even more insidious intent. And it’s well worth remembering.
The year was 1992. The scene was the Republican National Convention in Houston. Republicans were about to re-nominate President George H. W. Bush for a second term. The odds against a Bush second term were growing wider, but the future must have seemed bright on the evening the party’s much-loved former president, Ronald Reagan, arrived at the speaker’s rostrum to rouse the faithful to a renewed dedication to modern Republican ideals.
He did so by invoking the name of Lincoln—by reminding the delegates of a set of principles Reagan declared had been “eloquently stated” by Lincoln generations earlier. The 40th president went on to quote what he described as the 16th president’s most enduring maxims.
Here was a hallowed set of principles, said Reagan, that had stood the test of time and deserved to be repeated to fortify America against a resurgent liberalism—in the person of another unknown, dark-horse Southerner who had just unexpectedly won his party’s nomination: Bill Clinton. Here are the maxims Reagan reintroduced that memorable evening:
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.
To no one’s surprise, the convention floor erupted in delirium. TV cameras captured the faces of emotional delegates, some in tears. Lincoln still mattered—especially as channeled by Reagan.
The former President had brilliantly resurrected a tablet of political commandments more eloquent than any arid party platform or windy acceptance speech. No one had ever said it better than the Great Emancipator as revivified by the Great Communicator—a truly magical combination. As politics and performance, even liberal Democrats admitted it was good.
As it turned out, it was too good to be true. The fact is, Lincoln had never uttered a word of it. The lines turned out to be the work of an obscure German-born minister from Brooklyn— by the name of William Boetcker—and they dated back to only 1916, 51 long years after Lincoln’s death.
That year, Boetcker published a tract entitled “Lincoln on Private Property.” The pamphlet featured a unique but honest format: the true words of Lincoln on one page followed by interpretive quotations from Boetcker on the next.
The ideas quickly found an appreciative audience among conservatives. Republican clubs clamored for copies, and the booklet went into new editions in 1917, 1938, and 1945.
Unfortunately, in each subsequent reprint, Boetcker receded into the background until Lincoln was receiving sole and undeserved credit for aphorisms he had never uttered. One edition boasted that the words appeared merely at the “inspiration of Boetcker.” By the time Reagan got around to quoting these lines, their true source had faded into the shadows.
When the truth finally surfaced, a Reagan spokesman, scrambling for an explanation, pointed out that the former president had done all his own research. As sole author of the speech, he had found the so-called “Lincoln” quotations in a book called The Toastmaster’s Treasure Chest by Herbert V. Prochnow. It was passed off as a forgivable mistake.
Few of the millions who heard Reagan that summer night ever read the explanations or the corrections published in newspapers during the days following his remarks. Nor did they learn that Reagan had wisely omitted two of those bogus, Boetcker-authored quotes—two that did not seem to fit his call for fealty to Republican principles, 1992-style. After all, how could a chief executive who had presided over the accumulation of the largest federal deficit in the nation’s history possibly say the following?
You cannot keep out of trouble spending more than your income.
You cannot establish security on borrowed money
But while Reagan wisely removed those two from his recitation, he had said enough to lay indelible, if spurious, claim to Lincoln’s political blessings. It took a veteran New York Times writer who also happened to be a Lincoln scholar—my old colleague, Herbert Mitgang—to burst the balloon the following day.
Yet three full years after Mitgang had discredited Reagan’s Lincoln references, the most widely read newspaper columnist in the nation blithely published the Boetcker quotes once again—as Lincoln’s. The words Reagan had quoted still seemed genuine—at least to Ann Landers, who published them as authentic Lincoln advice on July 26, 1995.
Needless to say, many of Lincoln’s authentic words rank as truly timeless. And they deserve to be reiterated and recollected as we endure another “Fiery Trial,” as the 16th president described the harrowing Civil War. Binding up the nation’s wounds might be a good way to honor Lincoln’s example, his sacrifice, and his gift for composing what amounts to American scripture—that was his recommendation at the Second Inaugural Address that one listener, Frederick Douglass (who’s still doing a great job, according to the current White House) called “a sacred effort.” On an earlier occasion, Lincoln aptly warned—are we still listening—“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
But of all the great words Lincoln wrote and spoke, I don’t think any resonate as powerfully at this particular moment as those he uttered—spontaneously, it might be added, never Lincoln’s strong suit, and thus far from the crystalline perfection of his carefully prepared prose—when he spoke before a crowd of American citizens and American immigrants at Chicago near Independence Day, 1858. The approaching Lincoln-Douglas debates would focus almost exclusively on the national sin of slavery, but on this particular day, Lincoln boldly confronted another American shortcoming: intolerance for foreigners who sought refuge and opportunity in the embrace of our free country, and in turn provided honest labor, and eventually, brave service in the fight to preserve the Union and destroy slavery.
Then, as now, extreme Nativisits argued that America was for Americans only—those born and bred here, though so many of those, of course, traced their origins to foreign shores as well. What, precisely, had the founders intended when they considered inclusiveness in crafting the documents that created our democracy? That was the issue Lincoln pondered on that summer afternoon in 1858.
And it was meant not just for its Chicago audience, but for the journalists—who sent stenographers to transcribe Lincoln’s long, off the cuff remarks so they could be widely published.
Appearing just a week after Independence Day, Lincoln rambled nostalgically about the “iron men” who had established the country four score years earlier.
But he had his eye on foreign men, too, perhaps because so many filled the audience that day, maybe because he sought once and for all to expunge his own Know-Nothing stigma, but certainly as well because he did believe the foreign-born could become full participants in the American dream. Though in the hands of the stenographers, his thoughts seemed uncharacteristically garbled, the effect was magical.
Aside from the men “descended by blood from our ancestors,” Lincoln acknowledged, “we have…among us perhaps half our people, who are not … [T]hey are…men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find none. [T]hey cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves…part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that…it is the father of all moral principle, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration, and so they are.”
To cheers from the polyglot crowd, Lincoln concluded majestically: “That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” During the 21 hours of debating that would begin in a few Lincoln never stretched the four corners of the Declaration of Independence more generously or more eloquently. For the rest of his life—right up to his last annual message to Congress, when he not only reiterated his support for immigration, but actually offered to have the federal government pay for transatlantic voyages so more immigrants could journey here—Lincoln remained committed not to building walls, but to opening doors.
Perhaps that is the legacy worth remembering in his 208th birthday week—rather than the ridiculous notion that what Lincoln really cared about were such anodyne notions as the life in our years.
Unless, as Lincoln may well have thought, but never wrote, you really can fool not only all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time—but, sadly, all the people all of the time. Let’s hope not.
Harold Holzer, Jonathan F. Fanton Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York, is the author, coauthor, or editor of 52 books on Lincoln and the Civil War era, and won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize and four other awards for his 2015 book, “Lincoln and the Power of the Press.” Appointed to chair the 2009 national Lincoln Bicentennial Commission by President Clinton, he received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush, and wrote an essay on Lincoln in the inaugural program for President Obama. Holzer previously wrote about the Reagan-Lincoln incident in an essay coauthored with the late Governor Mario M. Cuomo in 2000.