Getting Wrong with Lincoln
by Matthew Pinsker on Oct 15, 1999
Say what you want concerning Warren Beatty’s pseudo-presidential campaign, he’s already done something that most candidates can only dream about. He’s rewritten a part of American history.
The Hollywood actor recently capped a bizarre speech to Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) with a dramatic quotation from Abraham Lincoln about the greed of corporations and the danger of the “money power.”
The trouble is that Lincoln never said any such thing. Yet instead of pouncing on this presumably innocent mistake, some of our more prominent pundits have actually repeated, and thus compounded, the movie star’s error.
The bogus quotation reads as follows:
“The money power preys upon the nation in times of peace, and it conspires against it in times of adversity. It’s more despotic than monarchy. It’s more insolent than autocracy. It’s more selfish than bureaucracy. . . . Corporations have been enthroned, and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working on the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the republic is destroyed.”
That’s a powerful indictment, but you won’t find it anywhere in Lincoln’s collected works or certified recollected words. His official biographer called the statement, which began appearing during the Populist era and played a minor role in the 1896 campaign, “a bold, unblushing forgery.”
Historian Merrill Peterson, in his 1994 study of Lincoln’s image in the American public memory, devotes considerable attention to exploding the myth of this “prophesy.”
Anyone familiar with Lincoln’s professional career and economic views would understand immediately how preposterous it is to attribute such an anti-business screed to him. After all, Lincoln had been a prominent corporate attorney in the years before he became president. He represented, among other clients, the Illinois Central Railroad, one of the largest and most “insolent” commercial interests of the era.
As a devoted member of the Whig and then Republican parties, Lincoln was a thoroughly committed advocate for the development of industrial capitalism and the northern free market. Although he expressed sympathy for the working man on several occasions, not once in his published writings did Lincoln refer to, let alone attack, the so-called “money power.”
At one level, none of this should affect Beatty’s analysis of our current problems. With or without Lincoln, he can still make the case that corporate CEOs earn too much money or that special interest contributions choke the political system. But if anything, an actor knows a good line when he hears one — and Beatty must have understood that his audience would respond better with an appeal to Lincoln’s moral authority.
Actually, those who paid attention to Beatty’s remarks have responded all too well. Syndicated columnist Donald Kaul followed the ADA speech with a supportive review of Beatty’s performance and a “pop quiz” for his readers that repeated the “money power” lines verbatim. Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter pointed out that Beatty’s “harshest attacks were actually quotes from a speech by Abraham Lincoln” and told cable TV’s Geraldo Rivera “that Lincoln stuff just amazed me.”
By now, several million Americans must believe that Honest Abe was mad as hell and much feistier about the class struggle than our history books have suggested. Like a nagging flu bug, this strain of misinformation has been passed along to infect yet another generation. Admittedly, nobody dies from a bad quotation, but without question the historical record suffers still more damage during an era when credibility is already hard enough to come by.
In fairness to Beatty, he’s not the first actor-politician to be confused by unscrupulous Lincoln script doctors. During the 1992 Republican national convention, former President Ronald Reagan mistakenly attributed to Lincoln statements such as: “You cannot help the weak by weakening the strong” and “You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich” ? nice conservative sentiments that he had reportedly culled from his perennial favorite, “The Toastmaster’s Treasure Chest.”
For now at least, the score is even. Both liberals and conservatives have phony Lincoln quotations to call their own. Yet one can only imagine what lurks within the Reform Party corner, where Jesse Ventura has recently told reporters that he sees himself as “closest to Lincoln,” because they’re both “six-foot-four” and both “wrestlers.” If only it were that easy.
Matthew Pinsker occupies the Brian Pohanka Chair of Civil War History at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and is a writer for the History News Service.