Getting Wrong With Lincoln

One of the occupational hazards of my job is that people ask me questions about history and historical figures. After all, I’m the supposed expert, and I’m supposed to know.

Sometimes this becomes a bit ridiculous. I get questions inquiring about the value of a Civil War sword, or someone thinks I might be interested in buying their ancestor’s letters. It appears that I cost myself a recurring role on Pawn Stars because I freely admitted that I was not qualified to appraise the monetary value of artifacts, leaving me to endure the rather superficial explanations offered on the show from people, including folks who might think about being a little more modest about their qualifications.

And then there’s the media inquiries about news events and public figures. Want to know about the history of presidential impeachment? Need a comment on presidential addresses? Want to understand the workings of the electoral college? Care to explore historical parallels to current events? I’m a phone call or an e-mail away. It’s part of the job, and if one takes it seriously, one can get fairly good at it.

A check of the internet shows that there are many versions of this popular "quote."
A check of the internet shows that there are many versions of this popular “quote.”

Thus it was no surprise when I learned last week that a reporter was interested in contacting me about what Arizona state senator Al Melvin (R-Tucson) was tweeting. Melvin is considering running for governor: he’s fond of quoting Abraham Lincoln.

One problem: he’s not quoting Abraham Lincoln. He’s quoting William J. H. Boetcker, whose nearly century-old declarations espousing hard work and decrying government’s role mentioned Lincoln. Over time people assumed that Boetcker was in fact quoting Lincoln: Lincoln scholars and experts are quite familiar with the misattributed quotes, which conservative spokespeople like to recite every once in a while. After all, if Lincoln said it, it must be right.

Sure enough, the reporter contacted me, asking whether Lincoln spoke the words in question. I replied as follows:

I can tell you that these quotes are spurious. They do not appear in Lincoln’s writings or in his recollected words.
The candidate in question (or a speech writer/pr person) may have gotten these quotes off the internet, but they are not from Lincoln.
I’m on the board of directors of the Abraham Lincoln Association, and by now we are used to hearing quotes attributed to Lincoln by people who have not taken the time to verify them. 
Hope this helps.

Having done my scholarly duty, I promptly forgot about the business. After all, someone who knew how to operate a search engine could easily ascertain the same information, and the reporter in question had already done so.

Imagine my surprise when I found my name plastered all over the place yesterday as discrediting Mr. Melvin’s efforts at invoking Lincoln.

Here it is at Or the Arizona Capitol Times. I’ve now appeared in the Verde Independent.  In Tuscon, read The Arizona Daily Star. In Flagstaff, you can consult the public radio station or the local paper. Word’s also out in Ahwatukee. And so on.

Some notes:

Melvin said:  “It seemed like it was something that he would say,” he said, adding that the misattribution was “news to me.”

Really? He was caught making the same mistake in 2011.

Melvin also said “he got the quotes from a Republican club newsletter.”

“It sounded good,” he said. “It seemed like it was something that he would say.”


But here’s my favorite. Unhappy at being exposed, Melvin tried to recover in a most peculiar way:

“The school of journalism at ASU is named after Cronkite. And to me, he’s no American hero,” Melvin said. “So I wouldn’t know. I don’t know the background of this professor that you’re quoting. I have no idea who he is or what his political leanings are or anything.”

A confession of ignorance joined to a shot at the journalism school followed by the implication that one’s findings would be shaped by one’s “political leanings.” I guess he’s not all that different from some people we know.

I confess I hadn’t heard of Mr. Melvin, either.

Finally, Twitter took the story and ran with it, as these samples will suggest:

Twitter melvin four

Twitter melvin one Twitter Melvin three Twitter Melvin two


Such a performance should tell Arizona voters a great deal, if they choose to listen. Then again, this candidate won reelection after this memorable debate performance:

Her opponent once tried to impress me with his knowledge of Lincoln …

… but he lost.

Oh well.