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The Most Famous Quotes U.S. Presidents Never Actually Said

Many fine and noble words have been spoken by U.S. Presidents — words that heal wounds, speak to a better future, and strive for a more perfect Union. These speeches have been etched into the history books, such as George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” John F. Kennedy’s “Race for Space” speech, and Ronald Reagan’s impassioned urging for Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”

And then there’s the second category of presidential quotes: the jumbled, mumbled, and simply silly ones — the words history will remember for all the wrong reasons. “Facts are stupid things,” said outgoing President Reagan in 1988, horribly misquoting John Adams’ “facts are stubborn things.”

Then there’s Vice President Dan Quayle mistakenly advising an adolescent spelling bee contestant to add an "e" to the end of his correctly spelled "potato." And, of course, there's George W. Bush, a master of gaffes whose many quotes include, “They misunderestimated me,” and, “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”

A third category also exists: that particular, peculiar type of presidential quote notable for never having been said by any President of the United States. Even so, these quotes persist and in some cases are widely accepted as genuine words spoken by U.S. Presidents. They even occasionally make the rounds on social media, with filtered photos of noble-looking Presidents accompanied by an artistic script proclaiming “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” or “I cannot tell a lie.”

While the sentiments are typically just and fair, the attributions are not always correct — and sometimes what we think is a genuine presidential quote is actually just a line from The Simpsons. So while the following presidential non-quotes sound great, they're not quite what they seem.

I cannot tell a lie.
George Washington

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The story goes that when a 6-year-old George Washington received a hatchet as a gift, he went out and used it to damage his father’s prized cherry tree. When confronted by his father, Washington supposedly said, “I cannot tell a lie … I did cut it with my hatchet," and his father was delighted by his honesty.

It’s a famous story and a famous quote, but there is zero evidence to support it, and it was most likely invented by one of Washington’s first biographers, Mason Locke Weems.

We had quitters in the Revolution too … we called them Kentuckians.
George Washington

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We can blame internet memes for propagating this quote, which came not from the mouth of Washington but from an episode of The Simpsons.

It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.
George Washington

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No evidence exists that connects Washington with this quote. Scholars also tend to agree that it doesn’t sound like something the President would have said. Talking to PolitiFact, David Sewell, the manager of digital initiatives at the University of Virginia Press for Founders Online, said, “George Washington almost never mentioned the Bible in his diary or correspondence with others.”

There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation. One is by sword. The other is by debt.
John Adams

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Many unverifiable quotes have been attributed to the Founding Fathers, and John Adams is no exception. There is no evidence that Adams ever said or wrote these words.

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.
Thomas Jefferson

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Despite this quote often being attributed to Jefferson, there is no evidence that he ever said or wrote it. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the earliest use of the phrase comes from a 1961 Quaker publication called The Use of Force in International Affairs, which contains the line, “If what your country is doing seems to you practically and morally wrong, is dissent the highest form of patriotism?”

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Thomas Jefferson

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In 1790, John Philpot Curran, an Irish orator, politician and judge, gave a speech in which he said, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” It seems Curran’s words were somehow later adapted and misattributed to one of his contemporaries, Thomas Jefferson.

All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.
Thomas Jefferson

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How this quote attached itself to Jefferson remains a mystery. He never said it or wrote it, and many variations of the saying exist. The same quote is often attributed to Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish statesman and philosopher. It’s also very similar to the famous quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” which is also of debatable origin.

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.
Abraham Lincoln

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This famous quote along with its variations are often attributed to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. But there’s no evidence to support either of them ever having written or said it. Its origins may extend back as far as the Bible and Proverbs 17:28, which says, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.”

Most folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.
Abraham Lincoln

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Lincoln is frequently cited as the source for this quote, thanks primarily to the writings of the columnist Dr. Frank Crane, beginning in 1914 (50 years after Lincoln’s death). Crane attributed the saying to Lincoln on a number of occasions, with slight variations in the wording. Despite its popularity, there’s no evidence that Lincoln ever said it.

If I knew that I had eight hours to chop a tree down, I would spend the first six sharpening my axe.
Abraham Lincoln

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This quote and its variations first appeared in the 1950s, about 90 years after Lincoln’s death. It was originally attributed to an anonymous woodsman, who had five minutes to chop down a tree and spent the first two and a half minutes sharpening his axe. It’s not clear why it was later attributed to Lincoln, or why the act of chopping down a tree went from five minutes to eight hours.

It’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.
Abraham Lincoln

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You’ve probably seen this quote on motivational posters and social media posts, and it’s often attributed to Lincoln. But it most likely comes from a 1947 advertisement for a book about aging written by Edward J. Stieglitz.

It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?
Rutherford B. Hayes

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President Hayes supposedly said this about the telephone, but there’s no evidence to support the quote. President Obama received some flak in 2012 when he used the unverifiable Hayes quote in a speech. (Though in his defense, Obama did say that Hayes “reportedly said” the line.)

When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.
Various Presidents

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If you search for this quote online, you’ll find it attributed to various Presidents and Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin. So, there’s an immediate red flag in terms of authenticity.

According to the American etymologist Barry Popik, the saying was first cited in print in 1919. While a President may have once quoted the line, it’s unlikely any of them said it first.

Featured image credit: Raymond Boyd/ Contributor/ Getty Image

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About the Author
Tony Dunnell
Tony is an English writer of non-fiction and fiction living on the edge of the Amazon jungle.
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