10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed

Larry Holzwarth - April 25, 2018

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
The phrase “warts and all’ came not from Abraham Lincoln but possibly Oliver Cromwell. Wikimedia

George H. W. Bush on Abraham Lincoln

In 1988 George H. W. Bush, while running for President, quoted Abraham Lincoln saying “Here I stand, warts and all.” It was an admission of human imperfection in which the imperfections were lessened by linking them to the man often considered to be America’s greatest President. Thus it was a good political utterance, particularly in the context of an election campaign. Bush was not the first nor the last to misattribute a quote to Abraham Lincoln, nor even to do so with that particular quote. But it was and is bogus, Lincoln never said those words, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century his own personal secretary, John Hay, denied that the President had uttered them.

The quote itself is a portmanteau of sorts, combining quotes from two very different individuals from times long past even when Lincoln was alive. Warts and all came from a phrase long in English usage which originated with Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell commissioned an artist to paint his portrait, admonishing him to paint, “…my picture truly like me, and flatter me not at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me…” In English common usage this was reduced to “Paint me as you see me – warts and all.” Warts and all came to be a phrase used to describe candor.

The first part of Bush’s misquoting of Lincoln came from another source, Martin Luther. In 1521 Luther was called to appear before the Diet of Worms and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to answer charges over his teachings and to defend himself against accusations of heresy. Charles V meant to extract a complete recanting from Luther regarding his teachings and writings which had done so much to alter the view of the Church in the eyes of many, especially Germans. Luther delivered a reasoned and complete defense of his views rather than recant, at the end of which he said, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”

Thus the inaccurate attribution from Bush was actually a compilation of quotes from historical figures, but Bush did not do the compilation himself. Several others on the campaign trail had used the misattribution before him, and he undoubtedly obtained the quote from review of one of those predecessors. An interesting aside to the issue is that there is significant doubt that either Cromwell or Luther ever used the words themselves. Cromwell’s story came from a fawning biographer and Luther’s remarks before the Diet of Worms were not recorded on paper until much later.

Inaccurate attribution of quotes to Abraham Lincoln is common among politicians of both of America’s political parties and has been since the President was killed in 1865. Lincoln’s name has been used to give added philosophical weight to phrases which he would have been in complete disagreement with, based on his political and legal careers. Politicians especially like to quote Lincoln as saying, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”, forgetting or perhaps ignoring the fact that Abraham Lincoln never said that either.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
Queen Victoria claimed she never said “We are not amused”, according to her granddaughter Princess Alice. Wikimedia

Queen Victoria on amusement

Possibly the most famous remark ever allegedly uttered by a British monarch was attributed to Her Majesty Queen Victoria when she primly stated, “We are not amused.” The problem is there are so many examples attesting to when she said it, where she said it, and under what circumstances she said it, all of them conflicting, that the likelihood she ever said it at all is remote. Of course, it is possible that there were many different instances in which Her Majesty found little for amusement and she said so, but she denied ever having made the famous comment.

One of the more famous circumstances cited as being the occasion for the remark was following her attending a performance of HMS Pinafore. If that were true it would qualify as one of the shortest and most devastating theatrical reviews of all time. Another version linked to the theatre has Her Majesty made the remark following the performance of a production by her groom-in-waiting, Alexander Grantham Yorke. In another version, the Queen hears a guest laughing loudly but having not heard the witticism that triggered it asked that it be repeated, with her comment following.

The editor and novelist James Payn included the quote in his novel The Talk of the Town in 1885, its first known appearance in print. He did not attribute the quote directly to Queen Victoria. In 1887 the quote was for the first time directly attributed to the Queen in the book Royal Girls and Royal Courts, written by Mary Sherwood. She describes her source for the quote as Sir Arthur Helps. Newspaper stories reported the quote beginning around 1887, following its publication in the fictional The Talk of the Town, so their sources seem dubious at best.

In recent years some scholars have suggested that the true source of the quote was actually Queen Elizabeth I. There has been speculation that the remark was addressed to Essex in response to a remark made about Sir Walter Raleigh, but nothing in the way of proof has been produced. As with the case of the novel by James Payn, the remark in the case of Elizabeth is traced to a fictional source, rather than historical documentation.

In the case of Queen Victoria, there is clear denial that she ever made the remark, though the source for the denial is hearsay. In 1977 the BBC ran a documentary entitled Royal Heritage: Victoria, Queen and Empress. For this program, they interviewed Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, in 1976. Princess Alice was Victoria’s granddaughter, and in the interview, she recounted that she had asked Victoria directly about the quote to be told by her grandmother that she had never said, “We are not amused.” The clip can be seen online. So while there were undoubtedly many times during her long reign that her Majesty Queen Victoria was not amused, she apparently did not so express herself.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“A Terrible Resolve”, by Lawrence H. Suid, Proceedings, December 1964

“What Are Those Traditions? Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash”, by James Fallows, The Atlantic, December 12, 2011

“More than a cigar”, by Evan J. Elkin, Cigar Aficionado, Winter, 1994-95

“Marie Antoinette: The Journey”, by Antonia Frasier, 2002

“Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber”, by W. Sutton and E. Linn, 1976

“Life of Napoleon Bonaparte”, by John Abbott, 2005

“They Never Said It”, by John H. George and Paul Boller, 1989

“John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography”, by Samuel Eliot Morrison, 1959

“Honest Mr. President, Abe Never Said It”, by John J. Pitney Jr, NPR, March 25, 2010

“35 Times the Queen was not Amused”, by Sally Holmes, Elle Magazine, April 21, 2010

“Don’t Give Up the Ship”, by Roy and Lesley Adkins, History Net.

“ON LANGUAGE; Here I Sit, No Warts at All”, by William Safire, NY Times Magazine, March 6, 1988

“Did Queen Victoria really say “We are not amused?”, by Huw Fullerton, Radio Times.