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ARTICLE

Lincoln Didn't Say It

FEBRUARY 01, 1970 by DEAN RUSSELL

Dr. Russell, a member of the staff of The Foundation for Economic Education when this article originally was published in 1954, currently heads the Department of Economics at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Next to Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln is probably the most quoted—and quotable—President we ever had. And as is the case with all famous persons, Lincoln is sometimes credited with words he didn’t utter. Probably the most famous example is this:

1.                  You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.

2.                  You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.

3.                  You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.

4.                  You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.

5.                  You cannot lift the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer.

6.                  You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.

7.                  You cannot further the brotherhood of man by incit­ing class hatred.

8.                  You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money.

9.                  You cannot build character and courage by taking away a man’s initiative.

10.              You cannot really help men by having the govern­ment tax them to do for them what they can and should do for themselves.

Lincoln didn’t say that—at least, not in those exact words. The author is William J. H. Boetcker, a retired Pres­byterian minister. Yet the words were credited to Lincoln in a national magazine, in the Congressional Record, and in many house organs, newspapers, and radio programs.

The confusion began when an excellent quotation on property by Lincoln was printed on one side of a leaflet which contained the above 10 points, unsigned, on the other side. Several prominent persons who received the leaflet jumped to the conclusion that Lincoln was the author of both quotations, and they said so. As a result, we will prob­ably continue to read this "Lincoln quotation" in various places and from time to time.

Many of us are overly impressed by whose name is actu­ally signed to a statement rather than by what the statement says. Because of this, unfortunately, there will probably be some who will tend to discount the merit of these 10 princi­ples when they find that they were phrased by a compara­tively unknown minister rather than by Abraham Lincoln. If so, they should know that Lincoln certainly endorsed these same general ideas in different words. There is no doubt that they represent his fundamental beliefs. For example, here is Lincoln himself along the same line:

"Property is the fruit of labor. Property is desirable, is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently to build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence…. I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good." 

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February 1970

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