12 Famous Presidential ‘Quotes’ That Are Actually Completely Fake

No: George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree, and Lincoln did not make up his mind to be happy.

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Washington and lying

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

We’re sorry to report that the most famous anecdote about our first president’s boyhood virtue probably never happened. According to historians at MountVernon.org, the whole story of six-year-old George chopping down a cherry tree and then owning up to it comes from a fictionalized biography written by minister and bookseller Parson Weems in 1800. With his fable-like The Life of Washington, Weems endeavored both to inspire good behavior in young Americans via inspiring,  largely made-up anecdotes, and to turn a tidy profit in the popular history market—which he did; his book was an instant bestseller. The now-famous cherry tree story didn’t even appear until the book’s fifth edition, published in 1806.

Jefferson and patriotism

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

As much as we love to imagine TJ thumbing his nose at King George III with this zinger, the first known usage did not appear until 1961—in a piece of anti-war propaganda. The full line as it appears in the 46-page The Use of Force in International Affairs gives the hawkish line a new spin: "If what your country is doing seems to you practically and morally wrong, is dissent the highest form of patriotism?" The line remained popular through the Vietnam era, and was used again in a 1969 speech by New York Mayor John Lindsay at Columbia University, defending nonviolent protesters.

Lincoln and speaking up

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Abraham Lincoln was undeniably funny (see some of his best quips here) but sadly, he is not this classic zinger’s founding father. The quote’s first attribution to Lincoln comes in a 1931 edition of Golden Book magazine, leaving a suspiciously long gap from his 1865 death. Many variations of this line exist going back to the Bible (Proverbs 17:28 advises, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue”), but the first appearance of this exact phrasing comes from a 1907 book of nonsense verse by author Maurice Switzer.

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FDR and the end of the rope

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

You may have seen this inspiring quote attributed to FDR. Or maybe Thomas Jefferson. Or maybe Lincoln, or Washington, or Franklin, or any number of inspiring men who never said it. According to researcher Barry Popik, the first time this quote appeared in print was 1920, when Admore, Oklahoma’s Daily Admoreite ran it unattributed. It was first attributed to FDR in a 1958 edition of the Evening World-Herald, though no evidence shows he ever said this. To put it in more accurate FDR terms: This quote may live in infamy, but the true author never will.

Lincoln and happiness

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Remember how in the Gettysburg Address Lincoln said, “Four score and a good while ago, some folks brought on this continent a new nation”? No, you don’t—because the great orator didn’t talk like that. The above quote was likely made up by columnist Dr. Frank Crane in 1914, who first attributed the line to Lincoln in an essay about New Year’s resolutions: “Resolve to be happy. Remember Lincoln’s saying that 'folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.'" A few years later, Crane repeated the quote in another essay, though changed the phrasing and added the line “in this world.” We suspect that some folks are as full of BS as they make up their minds to be.

Jefferson and silence

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

An Oxford Dictionary of Quotations poll called this the most popular quote of modern times. It is great—but it isn’t Jefferson who said it. Anna Berkes, a research librarian at Monticello, proved as much after combing TJ’s writings and finding no trace of the infamous line (ditto for British-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who is often cited when Jefferson isn’t). So, where did the quote-to-end-all-quotes come from? A good guess would be philosopher John Stuart Mill, who in an 1867 speech at University of St. Andrews said: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing."

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Washington and religion

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

This quote about the importance of religion in government is often misattributed to Washington’s farewell speech of 1796, but there is no record of him ever saying this. Per Mount Vernon historians, the misquote likely originated in an 1835 biography, which has Washington saying, “It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being.” This quote, however, is also unproven, and Washington’s religious beliefs remain a topic of serious debate among historians. Here are more mind-blowing facts about George Washington.

Lincoln and the axe

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

First of all, Abe must be swinging the wrong side of the axe, because it only takes a few minutes to fell an average tree. Second, according to quote researcher Garson O’Toole, the first variation on this adage didn’t appear until 1956, when an agricultural education paper attributed it to an anonymous woodsman. Lincoln’s first attribution came in 1960. The original quote, for those who wish to use it: “A woodsman was once asked, ‘What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?’ He answered, ‘I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.’ Let us take a few minutes to sharpen our perspective.

Jefferson and eternal vigilance

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Again, Jefferson experts find no record of this line in Jefferson’s writings, but do point out its rampant use in the 19th century by figures such as Frederick Douglass, James Buchanan, and William Henry Harrison. But the real credit goes to Irish politician John Philpot Curran, who said it longest if not best: "The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

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Washington and quitters

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

George Washington actually did say this… on an episode of The Simpsons.

Lincoln and the 'life in your years'

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Again: not Lincoln. Former Governor of Illinois Adlai Stevenson did use this line in several speeches throughout the 1950s, but the expression dates back to a 1947 advertisement for a health book by Edward J. Stieglitz, MD, called The Second Forty Years. Atop a picture of the book’s cover, the ad opines, “The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!”

Jefferson and too much government

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

In a classic game of historical telephone, this quote originated in a 1913 speech about Thomas Jefferson by politician John Sharp Williams, and by 1950 was being passed around as a quote by Jefferson. To be fair, TJ did write a simpler, funnier version of the idea in an 1807 letter to Senator John Norvell: "History, in general, only informs us what bad government is."


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