Today is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s greatest presidents and one of the all-time great orators in English-language politics.
So it’s a bit odd that the Republican Party’s official Twitter account chose to honor him with what I believe is a fake quote:
If you search online, you will find plenty of places quoting these lines and attributing them to Lincoln. But they curiously tend to lack specific citations of where he said this. That’s because, according to Quote Investigator, there is “no substantive evidence that Lincoln used this expression.”
Instead, the line appears to come from newspaper advertisements for Edward Stieglitz’s 1946 book on aging, The Second Forty Years. As is often the case when an appealing turn of phrase pops up in a random place, the culture over time found a more distinguished lineage for it — in this case, a great American president. It is also sometimes attributed to Adlai Stevenson, a Democratic Party governor and presidential candidate in the 1950s.
I’ve been thinking today about a couple of non-fake Lincoln quotes that seem to me to speak to the present moment. One is a letter to Joshua Speed written at a time of confusion in the American party system, in which Lincoln disavows the concepts of the American Party, disparagingly known as the Know-Nothings, who struck a chord with voters by offering an anti-immigration, anti-Catholic platform (there’s even a bit about Russia here):
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
And here, from Lincoln’s eulogy for his political idol, the great Sen. Henry Clay, is his take on American patriotism:
Mr. Clay's predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty — a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent wish for their elevation. With him, this was a primary and all controlling passion. Subsidiary to this was the conduct of his whole life. He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.
In terms of trade policy, Donald Trump’s version of GOP politics has a certain back-to-the-future quality to it — bringing the party back to its 19th-century roots. But as you can see from reading some of Lincoln’s non-fake thoughts on the relationship between American patriotism, ethnic and sectarian identity, and human freedom and equality, Trump is offering a pretty different value scheme from what we heard from Lincoln.