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How Historians Say Abraham Lincoln Is Quoted and Misquoted

As Presidents' Day approaches, historians look back at the most notable recent uses and misuses of "the Great Emancipator's" words.

Whenever there is a time of crisis and uncertainty in America, one thing is certain: Abraham Lincoln is going to get quoted—a lot.

In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and lawmakers debating on impeaching Donald Trump for a second time during his last days in office, politicos on both sides of the aisle have claimed that the Civil War President would be on their side. When asked at a Feb. 4 press conference “why bother” going through with a second impeachment trial for the former President, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “Ask Abraham Lincoln…You cannot go forward until you have justice.” Before Trump’s second impeachment trial started, Republican National Committee chair and Trump supporter Ronna McDaniel urged Biden and Senate Democrats to “heed Lincoln’s words” and forego the trial to “bringing our badly divided country together.” In Dec. 2019, a group of Republicans announced the founding of The Lincoln Project in the last year of the 2020 presidential campaign as an effort to defeat incumbent President Donald Trump and restore the Republican party’s reputation as the party of Lincoln.

As Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12 and Presidents’ Day on Feb. 15 approaches, historians look back at the most notable recent uses and misuses of “the Great Emancipator’s” words. According to these historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Lincoln might not have been saying what people think.

“You cannot freeze him at any moment. He was evolving during the whole course of his career,” says Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University. “To try to hold him immobile, you miss the essence of Lincoln.”

Lincoln delivered his often-quoted first inaugural address during a chaotic transition of power similar to 2021’s, right after the secession of seven U.S. states that feared he would abolish slavery. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said on Mar. 4, 1861. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

While many have used this last line as a plea for unity— as quoted by Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy who argued, “our place in history depends on whether we call on our better angels” in a statement against impeaching Trump again—it might not have been the whole of Lincoln’s intention. Back then, Lincoln was appealing to people in southern states that hadn’t yet joined the Confederacy.

“This is not a speech that’s all about conciliation,” says Kate Masur, a historian at Northwestern University. “This is a speech that delineates what the sources of the conflict are and says that he believes one side is in the right and one side is in the wrong and he sure hopes that more people won’t join the wrong side.”