Abraham Lincoln? Jacques Abbadie? Denis Diderot? Anonymous?
Dear 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.
- 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 ↩
- 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) ↩
- 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 ↩
- 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) ↩
- 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) ↩