You Cannot Fool All the People All the Time

Abraham Lincoln? Jacques Abbadie? Denis Diderot? Anonymous?

diderot02Dear Quote Investigator: One of the most famous sayings attributed to Abraham Lincoln is about deception:

You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

I was astounded to learn that there is no solid evidence that Lincoln actually used this adage. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Abraham Lincoln died in 1865. Two decades later in September 1885 a version of the adage was used in a speech by a Prohibition Party politician named William J. Groo who provided no attribution for the remark. In March 1886 another Prohibitionist politician employed the saying, and this time the words were credited to Lincoln. These citations constitute the earliest evidence of closely matching statements located by QI. Details are presented further below.

An intriguing precursor appeared in a popular 1684 work of apologetics titled: “Traité de la Vérité de la Religion Chrétienne” by Jacques Abbadie who was a French Protestant based in Germany, England, and Ireland. The following passage appeared in chapter two: 1

… ont pû tromper quelques hommes, ou les tromper tous dans certains lieux & en certains tems, mais non pas tous les hommes, dans tous les lieux & dans tous les siécles.

The spelling “tems” was used in the original text instead of “temps”. Here is one possible translation into English: 2

One can fool some men, or fool all men in some places and times, but one cannot fool all men in all places and ages.

Abbadie’s treatise was published in many editions for many years. The same statement appeared during the next century in the landmark “Encyclopédie: ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers” edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. The fourth volume of the encyclopedia was released in 1754, and it included a passage that was nearly identical to the one above with “peut” instead of “pû” in a philosophical section discussing metaphysics and God. 3

On September 9, 1885 the “Syracuse Daily Standard” of Syracuse, New York published an article about a convention of Prohibitionists during which a speech was delivered by a judge named William. J. Groo who complained about the actions of state politicians. He spoke a version of the adage without attribution, and this was the earliest strong match located by QI: 4

You can fool all the people part of the time, or you can fool some people all the time, but you cannot fool all people all the time.

On March 8, 1886 “The Albany Times” of Albany, New York published an interview with Fred. F. Wheeler who was the chairman of a state committee for Prohibitionists. Wheeler employed a version of the adage while criticizing politicians for blocking a referendum, and this citation was the earliest ascription to Lincoln located by QI: 5

They should remember Abraham Lincoln’s famous saying: “You can fool part of the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time,” and take their stand boldly and fearlessly on this question and abide the result at the ballot box.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On May 4, 1886 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of Brooklyn, New York published an extended excerpt from a periodical called “The Voice” which was operated by prohibitionists. This version of the expression ascribed to Lincoln used a somewhat different wording. It did not include the word “part” which was present in the instances given previously: 6

But, as Lincoln used to say, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time.

On May 5, 1886 “The Genesee Valley Post” of Belmont, New York also published an excerpt from “The Voice”. But the expression attributed to Lincoln was slightly different. The word “of” was deleted to yield the sub-phrase “you can fool all the people”. 7

On July 5, 1886 an article in the “Springfield Globe-Republic” of Ohio described a speech given by Reverend J. S. Hughes of Richmond, Indiana during a July 4 gathering of prohibitionists. Hughes ascribed the saying to Lincoln: 8

Their attempts to suppress the prohibition party cause are short-sighted, foolish and futile, for, as Lincoln said, you can fool all the people some time, you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can not fool all the people all the time.

The attribution to Lincoln was wide-spread and oft-repeated, but other names were occasionally mentioned. For example, in 1899 a writer in “The Engineering Times” of London noted that the popular maxim had been credited to the famous promoter P. T. Barnum in an unnamed magazine: 9

The same well-known magazine credits Barnum, the showman, with the authorship of the truism, “You can fool some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

We really would have thought that our contemporary, of all others, would have known that this was a famous utterance of a late President of the United States Republic.

In 2003 and 2005 the history of the quotation was analyzed in articles printed in the Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association of Springfield, Illinois. The 2003 article noted that by 1904 some individuals began to claim that Lincoln had used the expression in a speech in 1858. In 1905 two newspapers, “The Chicago Tribune” and “The Brooklyn Eagle” gathered and reviewed information, but the question remained unsettled. Over time other witnesses came forward; however, no contemporaneous written evidence from the 1850s has ever been discovered. Human memories of events that transpired forty years in the past are notably unreliable. 10 11

In conclusion, Jacques Abbadie should be credited with the interesting precursor statement in French. QI believes based on current evidence that Abraham Lincoln probably did not employ this well-known adage.

QI speculates that someone in the prohibitionist movement was exposed directly or indirectly to the works of Jacques Abbadie or Denis Diderot. He or she began to use the expression on or before 1885, and by 1886 the words were reassigned to Lincoln who was revered by many as a moral paragon.

Image notes: The image of Diderot is cropped version of a portrait by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767 from Wikipedia. The image of Lincoln is a cropped version of a painting by George Peter Alexander Healy in 1869 from Wikipedia. Jester graphic from Openclips at Pixabay. All images are public domain.

(Thanks to the participants on the ADS mailing list, especially Jonathan Lighter, Victor Steinbok, and James A. Landau for introducing this topic. Special thanks to Stephen Goranson for his effort locating an early citation.)

Notes:

  1. Year: 1684 (MDCLXXXIV), Title: Traité de la Vérité de la Religion Chrétienne, Edition: Author: Jacques Abbadie, Quote Page 11, Publisher: Chez Reinier Leers, Rotterdam, (The original text used “tems” instead of “temps”) (Google Books Full View) link
  2. The English translation used for Jacques Abbadie’s French statement is the same as the one listed in The Yale Book of Quotations for Denis Diderot’s nearly identical French statement; see 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Denis Diderot, Quote Page 204, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. Year: 1754 (MDCCLIV), Title: Encyclopédie: ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, Authors and editors: Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Volume: 4 (Tome Quatrieme), Quote Page 978, Published in Paris with approval of the King: “avec approbation et privilege du Roy”, (The original text used “tems” instead of “temps”)(Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1885 September 9, The Syracuse Daily Standard, Prohibitionists in Arms: The Third Party Declare War to the Knife on Democrats and Republicans, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Syracuse, New York. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1886 March 8, The Albany Times (Albany Evening Times), Prohibitionists Not Fooled: By Advances of the Republican Party – Interesting Interview with Chairman Wheeler, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton)
  6. 1886 May 4, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Coquetting with Prohibitionists, (Acknowledgement “From the Voice, the Prohibition Organ”), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Brooklyn, New York. (Old Fulton)
  7. 1886 May 5, The Genesee Valley Post (Belmont Genesee Valley Post), The Prohibitionists Ask No Favors But Demand Their Rights, (Acknowledgement to the Voice), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Belmont, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1886 July 05, Springfield Globe-Republic, Cold Water, (Speech by Rev J. S. Hughes of Richmond, Indiana), Quote Page 1, Column 4, Springfield, Ohio. (Thanks to Stephen Goranson who found this citation)(Chronicling America: Library of Congress)
  9. 1899 January, The Engineering Times: An Illustrated Non-Technical Magazine, Edited by Ben H. Morgan, Volume 1, Number 2, Advertising ‘Freaks’, Quote Page 63, Column 1 and 2, The Engineering Times Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. Winter 2003, For the People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 5, Number 4, “You Can Fool All of the People”: Lincoln Never Said That by Thomas F. Schwartz, Start Page 1, Published by The Abraham Lincoln Association, Springfield, Illinois. (Accessed at abrahamlincolnassociation.org on Dec 10, 2013) link
  11. Autumn 2005, For the People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 7, Number 3, A New Look at “You Can Fool All of the People” by David B. Parker (Professor of history at Kennesaw State University), Start Page 1, Published by The Abraham Lincoln Association, Springfield, Illinois. (Accessed at abrahamlincolnassociation.org on Dec 10, 2013) link