InfoWar and Abraham Lincoln quote

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I often receive email asking about this Abraham Lincoln quote:

"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."

     -- U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864
Some discussion of that quote is posted here:
http://www.ratical.org/corporations/Lincoln.html
That page is a copy of an email I sent way back in 1996.   (I had tried to resolve an early Internet InfoWar by taking the then-unheard-of step of going to the university library and examining a form of ancien' regime media known as "books" ;-)   In keeping with typical human bias, I quit as soon as I found "credible" confirmation evidence. I didn't realize that I'd found only one temporary "victory" in a 100-year InfoWar.   (Since "History is written by the Winners", those who want to win have always fought battles over who gets to "publish" History -- in the form of books, monuments, churches, etc. -- and who gets to "erase" History -- by censoring or burning books, razing monuments and churches, and bulldozing-over mass graves and massacre sites).

But the central question remains: Is that Lincoln quote authentic?

The only certainty is controversy. Authenticity depends on your Burden/Standards of "Proof". But proof in what Social Context? And which Authority do you trust to apply standards "objectively"?

I'm neither a professional historian nor an independent Lincoln scholar. But FWIW, my provisional conclusion is that the quote does not meet standards of proof used by most current American History Authorities. (Even though it might qualify as proven according to current standards of proof in Math and Computer Science. See: "Social Processes and Proofs of Theorems and Programs" )

Why not Historical Proof? Because I believe no such piece of paper currently exists in any climate-controlled historical archive. Whether it did exist at one time is another matter ... and another social context.

So if Absence of Evidence == Evidence of Absence, then one might argue the quote must be a "slam-dunk" fraud.

(By which proof criterion, Israel is a nuclear-free state, our NSA is not engaged in unconstitutional surveillance ... and many other "Historically Proven" Lincoln quotes are probably "proven", only by virtue of violating exactly this same standard.)

Even though the "Absent Evidence" supposedly includes that quote being chiseled in stone on the wall of some federal building in DC. Which may or may not be the same building referenced in a 1999 email I received from a stranger, who wrote:

"People can read the Lincoln quote in one of the basement rooms of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, as I did 2 years ago."

OTOH, I have seen many attempts to disprove the quote's authenticity, yet I was not persuaded by any of them.

E.g, supposedly Lincoln's son wrote this letter exposing the quote as fraudulent ... then never sent that letter:

I'm persuaded only that Robert Todd Lincoln (an attorney for the "Robber Barons") so wanted to falsify the quote, that he was willing to engage in social engineering by fabricating the quote's origin in a Spiritualist Seance -- which at the time was experiencing a social backlash by the more skeptical and rational segments of society.

A quick search of Books.google.com (in August 2010) found several instances of Lincoln's "corporations have been enthroned" quote dating back (at least) to 1890. An 1894 U.S. Senate speech cites it as genuine. The "1888" Peterson's Magazine article actually seems to be 1904.

This definitely proves one thing:

        ===> The quote's authenticity has been disputed for over 100 years!

And while this InfoWar has simmered for a century, it periodically flares into hot wars:

E.g, this quote was considered sufficiently potent that it appears in the 1906 "Campaign Book" of the Democratic Congressional Committee. 1913 and 1917 books by "Lucky" Lindbergh's father -- who was a Republican Congressman -- also cite the quote as genuine -- so there was Bipartisan agreement on its authenticity.

(Bipartisan agreement should never be mistaken for "Truth". Both parties often find it politically advantageous to use the same InfoWar tool to deceive the public. Bipartisan agreement to not bring Ethics Committee charges against corrupt members of Congress was only one minor example.)

"They Never Said It" is a modern book that attempts to debunk many spurious quotes. Supposedly its authors, Boller and George, have no political agenda. Their book's title implies their criterion is disproof -- i.e, they imply they will show positive Evidence of Absence -- or fraud. But -- contrary to their title -- at least in this case, the standard they use is, instead, the far-weaker Absence of Evidence.

Boller and George claim the quote is bogus, and first appeared in 1873. But they convince me only that it dates back at least that far. They cite a 1931 re-eruption of this dispute in dueling speeches to the House of Reps, and they write:

"He also noted that Lincoln had lived and died before big corporations came into existence, and it would never have occurred to him to make such a statement."

It's unclear whether "He" above refers to Congressman Morton D. Hull or to H.H.B. Meyers, Director of the Legislative Reference Section of the Library of Congress. But their statement is historically absurd:

Resentment against the power of big corporations -- the British East India Company -- loomed large in the birth of the US.   (The Boston Tea Party -- throwing corporate tea into Boston harbor -- was triggered by the East India Company's power to effectively write its own laws, and have them enforced by the British government.)   Lincoln was keenly aware of power relations, and could hardly have been unaware of the massive profiteering during the Civil War, and of the vast increase in corporate scale generally; and specifically, e.g, of the implications of the Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864, which granted to private corporations enormous monetary subsidies and public land (100 million acres even before the War's end) for the construction of a transcontinental railroad system.

The (unsent) letter by Robert Todd Lincoln makes the same, historically absurd argument that neither Abe nor anyone else was concerned about corporate scale and power at the time of the war.

This despite corporate power and liability having been used as a political football by the parties for decades. E.g, in Maine between 1823 and 1857, state law on corporate liability was fully reversed 9 times (i.e, between zero and full liability), whenever the Democrats or the Whigs won state elections.

So what's your take on all this? In adjudicating a 100+ year old InfoWar, should the burden of proof be the same as that for disproof? Is preponderance of (surviving) evidence our standard? What meta-evidence do we consider reliable? (Neither Tarski nor Lakatos are helpful here ;-)

Are we doomed to have our historical vision blinded by the afterimages of a 125 year old disinformation duel?

It seems the concept of "Objective, Historical Truth" was problematic, even in the Good Old Days ;-)

I believe "reasonable people" can disagree about the authenticity of the "corporations enthroned" quote. And I believe reasonable people should disagree about what "Standards of Proof" to apply, to which historical situations. Because that's how -- together -- we can develop our collective "Critical Thinking" skills, and "Check-and-Balance" the natural human biases we detect in each other. (Actually, I'd prefer we generally avoid the term "Proof", and instead talk about "Standards of Evidence".)



BTW, although the pedigree of the "corporations enthroned" quote is disputed, a different Lincoln quote -- at least as relevant in the context of today's Political Economy -- can trace its lineage to the historian's (tarnished) "gold standard" of Lincoln authenticity:

"These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people, and now that they have got into a quarrel with themselves, we are called upon to appropriate the people's money to settle the quarrel."

     -- Abraham Lincoln, speech to Illinois legislature, Jan. 1837.
See Vol. 1, p. 24 of "Complete works of Abraham Lincoln", (1905) by Lincoln, Nicolay, Hay, and Fish.

That 1905 edition sources the quote to "Sangamon Journal" of Jan. 28, 1837, which newspaper supposedly copied it from the "Vandalia Free Press". So already -- in the self-proclaimed "complete and definitive" Lincoln compendium of 1905 -- we have hearsay about hearsay presented as "proof"!     (Sorry folks -- history is inherently uncertain.)

But even this historian's "gold standard" of authenticity is further tarnished. In many cases, it's unclear whether Lincoln physically wrote a particular letter (or even whether Lincoln dictated it), since his personal secretary, John Hay, demonstrated that he had learned how to forge Lincoln's handwriting, and privately claimed to have composed some letters "from" Lincoln.

The famed "Bixby letter" is one such case, whose authorship -- both physical and intellectual -- may derive from John Hay, without Lincoln ever having read it. Nevertheless, the 1905 "Complete Works" offers it as authentic.   (And if we were to rigorously apply the "Absence of Evidence" standard, anything missing from that 1905 self-proclaimed "complete and definitive" Lincoln compendium would not be authentic -- thereby invalidating numerous other Lincoln memorabilia discovered in the past 100 years.)


Lincoln was not the first President whose words became a political football after his death. George Washington's famous 1796 Presidential Farewell Address was mostly written by Alexander Hamilton. By 1810, InfoWars over authorship -- and the extent to which Hamilton had inserted his own "agenda" or applied his own "spin" to Washington's thoughts -- led to lawsuits involving Hamilton's widow.

The controversy enveloped James Madison (who was primary ghostwriter for the 1792 first draft), Thomas Jefferson, and many others whose posthumous reputation, personal power, or favored policies might hinge on whether Hamilton had "slanted" Washington's true thinking.

In modern times, John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, "Profiles in Courage" -- a book written primarily by ghostwriter Ted Sorensen. Indeed, ghostwriters often influence both policy and politics as much as presidents.

For example, NASA might never have landed a man on the moon, if President Lyndon Johnson's ghostwriter hadn't been desperate for publicity, and announced a moon-landing initiative that Johnson knew nothing about!   See this book review of "White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters", by Robert Schlesinger.


I'm sure modern polarized partisans will selectively quote from Lincoln's "capitalists generally ... fleece the people" speech to "prove" that Lincoln was pro- or anti-corporate, and pro- or anti-bank. But if you actually read the entire speech, what it "proves" is that -- by the time of his first reported public speech -- Lincoln already had thought deeply about the inherently problematic relations between Politics, Economics, and Corporate Charters, and that he was keenly aware of the human cognitive flaws that seek simplistic "answers" via knee-jerk political polarization, rather than doing the hard work of nuanced critical thinking.

This Lincoln quote also "proves" another Unfortunate Truth:   We continue to degrade Lincoln's standards of intellectual honesty and moral courage in our own political discourse!

Uncertainty -- the indeterminacy of Truth -- is a fundamental part of Reality, and of the human condition. Physicists have learned to live with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Mathematicians long ago were forced (by Kurt Godel's Incompleteness Theorems) to accept that basic logics and arithmetics have Truths that can never be proven (or worse, that logic contradicts itself).

Doubt is the beginning of wisdom. Recall Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's famous "Unknown unknowns"! As Socrates warned in Plato's Phaedrus, the development of writing has caused people to rely on,

"external signs instead of their own internal resources [of critical thinking] ... And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society."