Abraham Lincoln? Thomas Carlyle? Robert G. Ingersoll? Horatio Alger Jr.? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the following quotation on the website of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum:
Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.
Lincoln was credited, but I have seen skepticism expressed on other websites. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that this statement was spoken or written by Abraham Lincoln. The famous orator and free thinker Robert G. Ingersoll employed similar phrases when he was describing Lincoln. QI conjectures that this was the primary nexus of confusion: something that was said about Lincoln was transformed into something that was said by Lincoln.
The overall history and evolution of the saying is long and complex. Part of the semantics can be traced back to a remark by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle in 1841. An exact match for the modern instance with an ascription to Lincoln appeared by 1931.
Here are selected citations in chronological order.