Ten Misquotations and
Misattributions From History

By Harold Frost

HistoryAccess.com, 2010

Some of history’s famous quotations are misquotations. Here is background on 10 misquoted and misattributed remarks.


“I see in the near future a crisis that unnerves me, and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the republic destroyed.” – Abraham Lincoln

fIf you Google the first 10 or 12 words of this quotation along with “Lincoln” you will likely find an array of Internet sources that report the statement as authentic, including material from writers who chronicle their efforts to verify its authenticity. Lincoln never said it or wrote it. The quotation is a flat-out fraud, “the most notorious of the widely used and still current but false (Lincoln) quotations,” writes quote maven George Seldes. The statement first emerged in the 1880s, Seldes writes, many years after Lincoln’s death, during the Populist movement, when there was “Greenback agitation for ‘paper’ money as a panacea against ‘Wall Street’ monopoly.” (See “Encyclopedia of the Great Quotations” by George Seldes [1960, p.22], “Lincoln, Labor, and Slavery” by Hermann Schluter [1913, p.170], and analyses by W.J. Ghent in Collier’s Weekly [April 1, 1905], and Reinhard H. Luthin in Saturday Review [February 14, 1959]. See here for Lincoln pieces here at HistoryAccess.com. See here for an article on this quote from Snopes.com, the excellent squelcher of false rumors and flat-out falsehoods.)


“Let them eat cake.” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”) – Marie Antoinette

There is no evidence the queen of France said this. The author Rousseau used the phrase circa 1770 in a critique of the ancien regime and it became associated with the hated queen. In a letter to the Times of London in 1959, reader John Ward stated that the gist of the remark is “many centuries older than Marie Antoinette or Rousseau. It is to be found in the Latin letters of Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the thirteenth century. It is not there attributed to any particular person, but it is referred to as a proverbial example of the ignorance of the rich concerning the lives of the poor.”

A precise evocaton of this theme – a perfect update of the slander of poor Marie – came in the 1990s and ’00s with a remark attributed to singer Mariah Carey: “When I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean, I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.” Carey did not say it. But a Web publication called Cupcake put the words in her mouth in a satirical piece, Vox magazine repeated the satire and labeled it true, and the remark soon hit the mainstream press – the Independent in Britain picked it up, as did Ms. magazine and Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2010 the “quote” was still popping up regularly on the Internet. (For the full story on the Mariah Carey “quote” see Snopes.com. Exegesis of the Marie Antoinette “quote” was available on the Web in 2008, during the writing of the bulk of this article, but is now deleted.)


“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” – The Duke of Wellington

What the Iron Duke actually said during a visit to Eton in his old age was, “It is here that the battle of Waterloo was won.” He was apparently not referring to organized sports, which is how the remark is generally interpreted by coaches who want more money for their Pee Wee football teams. Rather, he referenced an Etonian tradition circa 1800 – unorganized, bloody, after-hours fistfights and pummelings on the playing fields, that, on one occasion, killed a boy. Gerald Wellesley, seventh Duke of Wellington (1885-1972), said in 1951 that it’s “entirely unwarranted” to depict his ancestor as an admirer of organized games (however, he had no problem with brutal pummelings). (See Time magazine, 8/27/1951; a letter to the editor by David Callaway, New York Times, 8/16/1995; and Daniel W. Graf’s review of “Tannenberg: Clash of Empires” by Dennis E. Showalter, The Journal of Military History, January, 1992.)


“I have not yet begun to fight!” – Capt. John Paul Jones

In 1779, during the American Revolutionary War, as the U.S. ship The Bonhomme Richard, captained by Jones, absorbed a pounding from the Royal Navy’s Serapis, the British captain shouted to Jones an invitation to strike his colors – to surrender. Jones reply was, roughly, “No! I’ll sink (or, “I may sink”) but I’m damned if I’ll strike!” Not bad, actually, but not good enough for Jones’ first lieutenant, Richard Dale, who, more than 40 years later, transformed the reply into “I have not yet begun to fight!” Perhaps Dale felt that landlubbers wouldn’t know what “strike” meant. His version was published in an 1825 biography of Jones by John Henry Sherburne. (Dr. Benjamin Rush also contributed to the re-working of the Jones statement.) The testimony of Dale and Rush is not convincing to historians, who are guided by records of the incident made closer, chronologically, to the moment. Jones went on to win the battle, the first major triumph of the American Navy. (See “John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography” by Samuel Eliot Morison [1959] and “Sea Raiders of the American Revolution: The Continental Navy in European Waters” by E. Gordon Bowen-Hassell, Dennis M. Conrad, and Mark L. Hayes [2004].)


“War is hell.” – Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman

Sherman said something close to this, but not exactly this, in a speech on August 11, 1880, in Columbus, Ohio, to several thousand veterans of the Civil War’s Grand Army of the Republic. (Some sources, apparently inaccurate, say the speech was delivered in Michigan in 1879.) The most solid version of his remarks, according to historian and journalist Lloyd Lewis, is this: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell. You can bear this warning voice to generations yet to come. I look upon war with horror, but if it has to come I am here.” Lewis writes, “….His words, shortened to ‘War is hell,’ gradually spread over the world to become one of the most widely known statements by an American. Where or when he had said it was forgotten. Years later, he could never remember having said it at all; he supposed he might have. It was certainly what he thought; but he guessed it was just a popularization of the phrase he had written during the Civil War struggle: ‘War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.'” (See “Sherman: Fighting Prophet” by Lloyd Lewis [1932; 1993 new edition]. See Wikiquote for all versions.)


“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

This much-quoted sentiment should be attributed to author Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who used the phrase as a description of Voltaire’s attitude in her book “The Friends of Voltaire” (1906). Hall wrote under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre. She said, in later years, that the quote is “a paraphrase of Voltaire’s words in the Essay on Tolerance – ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.'” (See “The Friends of Voltaire” by S.G. Tallentyre [1906; 2003 new edition].)


“A chicken in every pot; a car in every garage.”– Herbert Hoover

Hoover denied saying any such thing. A version of this quotation appeared in a political ad in the New York World in 1928 when Hoover was running for president. The comment has deep roots: Henry IV of France (1553-1610) once said, “I wish that there would not be a peasant so poor in all my realm who would not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” As William Safire notes of political discourse, “Most of the seemingly ‘new’ language is surprisingly old.”


“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” – Lord Acton

Acton (1834-1902), born John E.E. Dalberg, an English historian and statesman, actually wrote in 1887 in a letter to Mandell Creighton, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The “tends,” often left out today, is crucial; with it, Acton seems to salute the handful of historical leaders who walked away from power, or put strict internal limits on their love of it, such as George Washington, Marcus Aurelius, and Cincinnatus, contrasting them with such figures as Julius Caesar and Napoleon. With his use of “tends” Acton is saying the walk away from power can be made. The founders of the U.S.A., led by Washington, focused intently on the fact that the walk must be made if the republic is to thrive, and that, down the road, people might be tempted to cling to power illegally. 

This statement by Acton may be the wisest one-sentence observation about power since Jesus announced, “You cannot serve both God and money.” Acton uses “corrupts” not in the sense of accepting bribes but to describe a coarsening of the heart – a crimping of one’s ability to see, sense, and gauge what’s really going on with people, situations, and opportunities – the unfolding of a gauzy veil between oneself and reality – the forging of internal armor against openness and its attendant vulnerability – a succumbing to the “dark bloom of entitlement,” to use a phrase of writer and editor Charles Monagan, that can affect anyone who gives orders and/or gets accustomed to seeing people jump, from emperors to presidents to money managers to office managers to parents. The 19th century theorist and revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin wrote, “There is nothing more dangerous for personal morality than the habit of giving orders.”

There is a corrolary to Acton’s Law called Prichard’s Law: “Absence of power corrupts, and total absence of power corrupts totally.”

(See “Encyclopedia of the Great Quotations” by George Seldes [1960, p.36]. Acton is a fascinating figure; see his page on Wikiquote. See here for a description of a famous psychological study of the corrupting effects of power. For a mention of Prichard’s Law see “Journals 1952-2000” by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. [2007, p.480].)


“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

The accurate quote is, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana, a poet as well as a philosopher, surely paid attention to creating a crisp bite in the sentence by using the twin “k” sounds, “cannot” and “condemned.” Slightly inaccurate versions abound, including “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” and “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The latter was offered as accurate in the Wall Street Journal on December 11, 2009. (See “The Life of Reason” by George Santayana [1905] and Wikiquote.org.)


“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

Armstrong’s book “First on the Moon,” published in 1970, renders his famous words as noted here – “a man” – but he’s misquoting himself in the book in order to look good, according to Snopes.com. Armstrong actually said, on July 21, 1969, what everyone thinks he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – he forgot the “a.” In the most-watched moment of human history, he choked. (Except, of course, for that part about landing the spacecraft safely.) In his book he tries to re-write history by including the missing “a.” NASA agreed to lie on his behalf, says Snopes.com – the agency “obligingly provided the cover story that ‘static’ had obscured the missing word.” There’s no good evidence for this, says the website: “….the word ‘man’ follows immediately on the heels of ‘for,’ with no gap between them into which Armstrong could conceivably have inserted the word ‘a.'” In the fullness of time, Armstrong admitted his mistake, saying “I blew the first words on the moon….” (See Snopes.com.)