A Cautionary Tale About Getting Your History Lessons From Internet Memes

Please don't believe everything you read on the Internet.

A Cautionary Tale About Getting Your History From Internet Memes
Something else Abraham Lincoln never said. 'Don't believe everything you read on the Internet just because there's a picture with a quote next to it.'

Something else Abraham Lincoln never said.

During her Republican National Convention speech earlier this week, Lara Trump declared that “Abraham Lincoln once famously said, ‘America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.’”

The trouble is, he didn’t.

Fact checkers at a number of newspapers have pointed this out.

Many think the misattributed quote came from — you guess it — an Internet meme that’s been pinging around social media for years.

But scholars say Lincoln did make a similar statement in a 1838 speech.

Here’s what he actually said:

“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia & Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a 1000 years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?

I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”

Later in the speech, Lincoln provides more detail on this danger lurking within:

“Is it unreasonable, then, to expect that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs. Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm, yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”

Prof. Michael Burlingame, the head of the Lincoln studies program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, told Politifact in 2019 that Lincoln “was denouncing mob violence which would lead to chaos, provoking the public to demand law and order, which would be provided by an ambitious leader who would rule tyrannically.”

Let that sink in.

Theresa Riley

Theresa Riley is a digital content specialist and freelance writer. She creates content and oversees Bill Moyers’ social media strategy. She is an award-winning web producer and editor whose work has been featured on PBS Online, BillMoyers.com and TIME.com. She wants you to vote in November. Follow her on Twitter @delvina