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David Emery

Did Palin Misquote Lincoln?

By September 12, 2008

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Much has been made of the widespread misrepresentation of Sarah Palin's remark about U.S. troops being in Iraq "on a task that is from God," and rightly so. It was taken out of context. Her full statement, recorded on videotape at the Wasilla Assembly of God church, went as follows:
Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do also what is right for this country -- that our leaders, our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan.
"The crucial point," notes Bill Poser on Language Log, "is that she didn't assert that the Iraq War is a 'task that is from God'; rather, she prayed that it would turn out that it is. Expressing the hope that something will turn out to be true is entirely different from asserting it."

Quite right.

Still, it looks as though Palin may have done herself a disservice by claiming in her TV interview with Charlie Gibson that she was paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln:
[T]he reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln's words when he said -- first, he suggested never presume to know what God's will is, and I would never presume to know God's will or to speak God's words. But what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that's a repeat in my comments, was let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God's side. That's what that comment was all about, Charlie.
Patrick Buchanan used the same defense when Palin's remark came up for discussion on The Rachel Maddow Show: "No, no. She did not say this war is God's plan," Buchanan said. "Look at it again . . . Just like Lincoln said, 'Look, let us pray that we are on God's side.'"

But some observers, including author Caleb Crain and historians Harold Holzer and Jim Oakes, question whether Lincoln ever really said such a thing. Crain writes:
There is a bit of a mystery here. Either Buchanan is a mind-reader, or he and the Palin-McCain campaign have been in touch. Further Googling reveals that Buchanan and/or the Palin-McCain backup team seem to be thinking of an unsourced anecdote that circulates on the Internet in a dozen versions, about a supposed encounter between a Northerner, who hopes God is on his side, and Lincoln, who hopes the North is on God's side. Maybe a source for the anecdote will turn up, but I don't recall having read of it before today.
I checked, and one can indeed find a passel of different versions of the quote by plugging keywords into Google, e.g.:
  • "I don't want to claim that God is on our side, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side."
  • "We trust, sir, that God is on our side. It is more important to know that we are on God's side."
  • "Pray not that God be on our side, but pray instead that we be found on God's side."
  • "I know God is with me, yet I am more concerned whether in all my doings am I on God's side."
Crain reports that he tried and failed to locate a match in the Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln. The earliest one he did find turned up in a book published in 1943: "I care not if God is on my side. My constant hope and prayer is that I may be found upon God's side."

He suspects it to be a twentieth-century fabrication.

Apocryphal though it may well be, I've found references to yet another variant dating back some sixty-odd years earlier. Consider this anecdote that appeared in the minutes of the Connecticut Temperance Union, dated January 19, 1881:
One of the best of the many good stories that are told of our Martyr President, runs as follows: At the close of a scientific convention in Washington, the members called upon the President. One of them said: "Mr. President, we trust during this time of trial in which the nation is engaged, God is on our side, and will give us victory." The noble Lincoln replied: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God's side. For God is always right!"
Could it have been a nineteenth-century fabrication? The jury is still out.

At the very least, say historians Jim Oakes and Harold Holzer, Palin (and Buchanan) misinterpreted Lincoln's known views on the subject. Citing two authenticated passages representing the 16th President's rather tortuous ruminations on God and war, Oakes told the Guardian: "Lincoln isn't just saying we can't know which side God is on. He's saying God doesn't take sides in battles like this, in wars like this. The only thing we can know is that He sent this war, because He could stop this war whenever He wants."

Holzer, addressing Palin's comments in the Boston Globe, said, "I think there is no computing the precise Lincoln quote with her own quote. Lincoln sought guidance from God, he didn't tell people that God was guiding him. It is just different."

To be fair, Sarah Palin hasn't been the only politician in the race to call out the ghost of Abraham Lincoln in this regard. Look what Barack Obama said in response to a question from CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien on June 8, 2007:
O'BRIEN: Do you think that God takes sides in a war? For example, in the war on terror, is God on the side of U.S. troops, would you say?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I always remember Abraham Lincoln, when, during the Civil War, he said, "We shouldn't be asking whose side God is on, but whether we're on his side." And I think that's the question that all of us have to ask ourselves during any battle that's taking place, whether it's political or military, is, are we following his dictates?
I've spent the better part of a morning trying to nail down the precise origin of this variegated story myself, to no avail. Are there any Lincoln aficionados out there who can cite a specific text, or a specific speech at a specific time and place, in which the contested passage can be found? Please send it here.

In the meantime, the final word goes to Bob Dylan.

Update: Reader Geoff Wickersham questions the plausibility of the variant closing with the tagline, "For God is always right," which, he notes, "does NOT sound like Lincoln at all. Later generations have ascribed to him more of a religiosity than had been apparent before his death, and it accelerated around the centennial of his birth in 1909."

But we also have Geoff to thank for digging up the oldest version we've seen so far. This telling, in fact, dates back to within three weeks of Lincoln's death. It's from a sermon delivered at Lincoln's funeral by Rev. Matthew Simpson on May 4, 1865:
To a minister who said he hoped the Lord was on our side, he replied that it gave him no concern whether the Lord was on our side or not "For," he added, "I know the Lord is always on the side of right;" and with deep feeling added, "But God is my witness that it is my constant anxiety and prayer that both myself and this nation should be on the Lord's side."
Caleb Crain responds: "I have to admit, this begins to sound plausible. The anecdote is coming from someone who knew Lincoln, and knew him so well that he was chosen to give the elegy at his funeral. . . . I think I have to concede that the anecdote itself could be authentic."

Update: Politifact.com characterizes Sarah Palin's paraphrase as "not far from Lincoln's sentiment," which the website traces back to Francis B. Carpenter's 1867 book, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln, page 282:
No nobler reply ever fell from the lips of a ruler, than that uttered by President Lincoln in response to the clergyman who ventured to say, in his presence, that he hoped "the Lord was on our side."

"I am not at all concerned about that," replied Mr. Lincoln, "for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side."

Comments

September 12, 2008 at 4:37 pm
(1) Losercuda says:

I think that the real question is far more obvious….does anybody REALLY think that Sarah Palin has ever read a book about Abraham Lincoln?

September 12, 2008 at 4:54 pm
(2) Freebird says:

It is not wise to underestimate the opposition.

September 12, 2008 at 6:13 pm
(3) Carol says:

Sarah Palin is old enough to have been a student in U.S. schools when American history was still a required course of study. I heard the Lincoln “quote” when I was in Jr. High school. Obama has referred to it during this campaign. One does not have to “read a book” about Lincoln to know this supposed quote. Quesstion: unless you think you are smarter than you are, why would you be interested in what books she has or has not read? Do you think you are “elite” because you are from the east or west coast and think of your area as booksends to hold up the sweating masses in fly-over country? You’re probably quite shocked to find that we don’t like you, either.

September 12, 2008 at 6:15 pm
(4) Mary says:

Sarah Palin did say the following:

“I think God’s will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built. So pray for that. . . . We can work together to make sure God’s will be done here.”

See it for yourself at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPJQgkdVt8g

September 12, 2008 at 10:27 pm
(5) Bemused says:

Carol,

Who are you talking to? Or, ranting at. Nobody ever said they didn’t like you. Your entire post is just you projecting your own fears of what other people are thinking of you. Nobody actually said it. How delusional are you this morning?

September 13, 2008 at 2:40 am
(6) chris says:

While interesting, I’m not sure if your investigations into the origen of the quote are relevant. Whether or not the quote is a fabrication, it is widely attributed to Licoln. Is it reasonable to expect presidential candidates to exercise the scrutiny of a Lincoln scholar? In my view, no.

On the other hand, this scenario reminds me of a Theodore Adorno quote that I like very much. From Minima Moralia:

“It can be observed time and time again how something once uttered, no matter how absurd, accidental or incorrect, precisely because it was once said, tyrannizes the speaker like a possession they cannot break away from. Words, numbers, and meetings, once concocted and expressed, become independent and bring all manner of calamity to those in their vicinity. They form a zone of paranoid infection, and it requires the maximum reason to break their baleful spell. The magicalization of the great and inconsequential political slogans is repeated privately, in the seemingly most neutral of objects: the rigor mortis of society is overtaking even the cells of intimacy, which thought themselves protected from it. Nothing is being done to humanity from the outside only: dumbness is the objective Spirit”

September 13, 2008 at 5:36 pm
(7) Bruce Canfield says:

In other words, mountains are being constructed out of molehills by the detractors of both candidates…What a surprise! I will personally never accuse any politician of being anything other than what they are…politicians! Not many of them seem to be much in the way of historians, at least not considering that we make the same mistakes over and over and never learn!

September 13, 2008 at 6:14 pm
(8) Harold says:

…..YAWN…..

September 14, 2008 at 7:59 am
(9) Robert says:

They both said it and Sarah is getting the flack. Does it take genius to understand why?

November 7, 2011 at 2:25 pm
(10) Greg says:

Because she didn’t actually say it, she said something really poorly worded and stupid and then tried to justify it after the fact by linking it to Lincoln, whereas he gave attribution beforehand and got it sorta-rightish-close-enough? Is that it? do I get a cookie?

September 21, 2008 at 12:25 am
(11) Jeff says:

Bemused, you deliberately obtuse twit,

The first poster is clearly implying that Palin is uneducated and ignorant.

September 24, 2008 at 3:16 am
(12) Webber says:

Leaders of great nations as the US throughout history had always had that delusion of God taking sides in a war that they in the first place had started. It’s just sad to think we still have such leaders.

November 13, 2008 at 10:39 am
(13) Scott says:

Lincoln did say, “It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God . . . and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.

October 1, 2009 at 11:48 am
(14) Tim says:

I can’t understand how people on line can ramble on about a quote and not simply look it up. The quote everyone seems to be quessing at was;

“In every conflict between human beings both sides claim God is on their side. One side must be, and both sides may be wrong. I only pray we are on his side. ALincoln

January 20, 2013 at 11:33 am
(15) ATL Doug says:

Politifact had this: Meanwhile, we tracked down Abraham Lincoln’s words on God’s will. The original source appears to be a book titled Six Months in the White House with Abraham Lincoln , written by Francis B. Carpenter and published in 1867, not long after Lincoln’s death.

The following is from Page 282 of Carpenter’s account:

“No nobler reply ever fell from the lips of a ruler, than that uttered by President Lincoln in response to the clergyman who ventured to say, in his presence, that he hoped ‘the Lord was on our side.’

“‘I am not at all concerned about that,’ replied Mr. Lincoln, ‘for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.’”

July 5, 2013 at 8:11 pm
(16) Tan says:

Unless someone has a reference to an actual letter or text that Lincoln, himself, drafted, I believe nothing; for I give no legitimacy to the minds of men who speak for those who’ve come before them.

September 26, 2013 at 9:39 am
(17) Randall Updegraff says:

I realize this is 5 years after the original post but I thought I’d give a reference to the Lincoln quote from a book titled “The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House” by F B Carpenter published in 1868 and according to some first published in 1866 but I haven’t found a copy of that one so far.

The quote can be found on page 282. Here’s the link
http://archive.org/stream/innerlifeofabrah00carp#page/n285/mode/2up

For anyone who stumbles on this and is still interested.

February 1, 2014 at 1:33 pm
(18) Tony Naplkes says:

The final quote and link to F.B Carpenter’s book provided by Randall Updegraff is absolutely correct. As an amateur Lincoln Historian, this quote has been used in numerous biographies including Carl’s Sandbergs’ 6 volume Pulitzer prize winner .

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