9 Popular Quotes Commonly Misattributed to Abe Lincoln

Public Domain
Public Domain / Public Domain

Known widely as a great orator, Abraham Lincoln said (and wrote) many inspiring things during his life and presidency. From the “House Divided” speech to his lesser-known letters and writings, there are plenty of motivational phrases to be found. However, in the decades and centuries following his death, many quotes have been wrongly attributed and disseminated in various publications, with the Internet spurring it all on. Prepare to be disappointed: Here are nine quotes you thought were by Honest Abe, but actually aren’t.

1. “Most folks are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”

This quote was first attributed to Lincoln in 1914—50 years after his death—as part of a column in the Syracuse Herald written by Dr. Frank Crane about New Year’s resolutions. Following that instance, it appeared in many other publications attributed to the president, but no evidence exists to suggest those attributions are correct.

2. “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

First attributed to Lincoln about 80 years following his death in a compendium of inspiring quotations, credit for this quote should actually go elsewhere. Laurence Hutton wrote a memoir in 1897 in which he described meeting William Makepeace Thackeray, during which meeting Thackeray is quoted as saying, “Whatever you are, try to be a good one.” The accuracy of even that attribution, however, depends on the accuracy of Hutton’s memory while penning his memoir.

3. “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

This quote is often attributed to Winston Churchill as well as Lincoln, but was first found in a 1953 book on public speaking, where it wasn’t credited at all. Similarly phrased quotes (“In short they go from failure to failure, but always on the up-grade”) were found in articles as early as 1913, but by the 1980s it was wrongly being ascribed to Churchill. In 2001, a newspaper in New Orleans attributed it to Lincoln, the first association of his name with the quote.

More Articles About Famous Quotes:


4. “Great things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”

Despite many references on the Internet to Lincoln saying this quote, there is no evidence to support it. Within The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, he says the phrase “things may” only three times, and never says “things may come,” “things left,” or the word “hustle.” Furthermore, in Lincoln’s era, “hustle” meant to obtain something rather than to put in an energetic effort.

5. “You can’t fool all the people all the time.”

While first used by politicians in relatively the same era as Abraham Lincoln, no evidence exists that suggests Lincoln said this quote himself. Its earliest use was in French in 1684 in Traité de la Vérité de la Religion Chrétienne, a work of apologetics by Jacques Abbadie, a French Protestant. The quote wasn’t attributed to Lincoln until 1886 in an article in the Springfield Globe-Republic, and was widely disseminated after that.

6. “Here I stand—warts and all.”

George H.W. Bush attributed this quote to Abraham Lincoln in 1988. In reality, it was a mash-up of two other famous people’s phrases: “Here I stand,” part of Martin Luther’s popular phrase, “Here I stand. I can do no other,” and, “warts and all,” attributed to Oliver Cromwell who is said to have said something to that effect to a painter when commissioning a portrait.

7. “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

There is a biblical proverb that is similar to this phrase, Proverbs 17:28:

"Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue."

In 1931, this quote was attributed to Lincoln in The Yale Book of Quotations, which turned out to be the first (and very late) instance where it appeared as credited to the president. The quote is also widely attributed to Mark Twain, though there is little evidence of this, either. In fact, in the 2001 Ken Burns documentary on the author, a companion book was released in which this phrase was listed in a section titled “What Twain Didn’t Say.” A similar quote was included in 1907 in Mrs. Goose, Her Book, by Maurice Switzer, so he is usually credited with coining the phrase.

8. “You can’t build a little guy up by tearing a big guy down.”

Most recently misquoted by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, this quote was originally written by Rev. William J. H. Boetcker, who was published in a pamphlet alongside Lincoln quotations in 1916, and the quote was confused as one of Lincoln’s sayings.

9. "You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves.”

Like the quote about the inability to build someone up by bringing someone else down, this quote should also be attributed to Rev. Boetcker, thanks to that same pamphlet confusion.