Something Lincoln never said

Robert Merry begins his interesting National Interest commentary on Obama’s shrinking credibility with a famous quote frequently attributed to Lincoln:

Of all of Abraham Lincoln’s profound observations about politics and life, one in particular, uttered on September 2, 1858, in Clinton, Illinois, captures the essence of representative democracy: “You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” This sprightly aphorism distills to its essence Lincoln’s belief that the collective judgment of the electorate is essentially sound—perhaps not in every instance or in whole, but over time it is sufficiently sound to protect the foundations of the nation. Democracy works because it is in the hands of the people.

Less well known is the statement uttered by Lincoln to introduce his famous dictum: “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.” Put the two together, as Lincoln did, and you get a sense not only of the futility of trying to fool the American people but also the danger posed to any politician who tries it.

Which brings us to Barack Obama…

Don’t be fooled! Despite the fame of the quotation and the precision of Merry’s attribution of the quotation to Lincoln, Lincoln probably never said it. See Thomas F. Schwartz, “‘You can fool all of the people’: Lincoln never said that.” See also Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (1996) and, most recently, Edward Steers, Jr., Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes and Confabulations Associated With Our Greatest President (2007).

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