On Lincoln’s Birthday this year Tiffany & Co., the fastidious New York jewelry store, ran an advertisement in the equally fastidious New York Times under the heading “Abraham Lincoln said more than 100 years ago.” There followed ten quotes that presumably Tiffany thought would appeal to its clientele. Among them were “You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich,” “You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer,” and “You cannot really help men by having the government tax them to do for them what they can and should do for themselves.”
When the ad appeared, a number of people complained that the quotes sounded like nothing Lincoln had ever said. And they were right. A few days later Tiffany’s ran a short statement admitting that “President Lincoln did not pen these words” and apologizing for the mistake.
But where did the quotes come from? In fact, they have been around for years, having originated in the epigrammatic mind of one William J. H. Boetcker, a former Brooklyn clergyman who abandoned the pulpit in favor of delivering lectures on industrial relations. In 1916 he published a booklet called “Inside Maxims” that contained a series of “gold nuggets.” These nuggets, an early form of the “Lincoln quotes,” were refined in subsequent pamphlets. In 1942 they turned up, along with some authentic Lincoln statements, in a leaflet distributed by the Committee for Constitutional Government, a conservative Washington lobby backed by the newspaper publisher Frank Gannett.
Seven years later Congresswoman Frances P. Bolton of Ohio, attempting to invoke Lincoln as an opponent of the welfare state, read Boetcker’s maxims—now firmly attributed to Lincoln—into the Congressional Record. Look magazine, delighted by the quotes, promptly ran them across a full page, along with a portrait of Lincoln and the stern exhortation that “it’s about time for the country to remember . .”
A cry of protest was raised that time, too, but we can see that these false Lincolnisms are with us yet. Of course, Lincoln is the object of many tenacious misattributions (for instance, he never said “I don’t know who my grandfather was, and I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be”), but few of them serve his memory so poorly as those spurious musings on the prerogatives of wealth.
Here, to set things straight, are some things he really did say about wage earners and wage payers:
I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England under which laborers can strike when they want to, where they are not obliged to work under all circumstances, and are not tied down and obliged to labor whether you pay them or not! I like the system which lets a man quit when he wants to, and wish it might prevail everywhere. …
Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.