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.