Did Palin Misquote Lincoln?

"Our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God"

Sarah Palin
Sara D. Davis/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Sep. 12, 2008
Much has been made of the widespread media misrepresentation of Sarah Palin's remark about U.S. troops being in Iraq "on a task that is from God," and rightly so. It was taken out of context. Her full statement, recorded on videotape at the Wasilla Assembly of God church, went as follows:

Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do also what is right for this country -- that our leaders, our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan.

"The crucial point," notes Bill Poser on Language Log, "is that she didn't assert that the Iraq War is a 'task that is from God'; rather, she prayed that it would turn out that it is. Expressing the hope that something will turn out to be true is entirely different from asserting it."

Quite right.

Still, it's possible Palin did herself a disservice by claiming in a TV interview with Charlie Gibson that she was paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln:

[T]he reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln's words when he said -- first, he suggested never presume to know what God's will is, and I would never presume to know God's will or to speak God's words. But what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that's a repeat in my comments, was let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God's side. That's what that comment was all about, Charlie.

Patrick Buchanan mounted the same defense when Palin's remark came up for discussion on The Rachel Maddow Show: "No, no.

She did not say this war is God's plan," Buchanan said. "Look at it again . . . Just like Lincoln said, 'Look, let us pray that we are on God's side.'"

Some observers, including author Caleb Crain and historians Harold Holzer and Jim Oakes, question whether Lincoln ever really said such a thing.

Crain writes:

There is a bit of a mystery here. Either Buchanan is a mind-reader, or he and the Palin-McCain campaign have been in touch. Further Googling reveals that Buchanan and/or the Palin-McCain backup team seem to be thinking of an unsourced anecdote that circulates on the Internet in a dozen versions, about a supposed encounter between a Northerner, who hopes God is on his side, and Lincoln, who hopes the North is on God's side. Maybe a source for the anecdote will turn up, but I don't recall having read of it before today.

I checked, and one can indeed find a passel of versions by plugging appropriate keywords into Google, e.g.:

  • "I don't want to claim that God is on our side, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side."
  • "We trust, sir, that God is on our side. It is more important to know that we are on God's side."
  • "Pray not that God be on our side, but pray instead that we be found on God's side."
  • "I know God is with me, yet I am more concerned whether in all my doings am I on God's side."

Crain reports trying and failing to locate a match in the Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln. The earliest one he did find turned up in a book published in 1943: "I care not if God is on my side. My constant hope and prayer is that I may be found upon God's side." He suspects it's a twentieth-century fabrication.

Apocryphal though it may well be, I've found references to yet another variant dating back some sixty-odd years earlier. Consider this anecdote from the Minutes of the Connecticut Temperance Union, dated January 19, 1881:

One of the best of the many good stories that are told of our Martyr President, runs as follows: At the close of a scientific convention in Washington, the members called upon the President. One of them said: "Mr. President, we trust during this time of trial in which the nation is engaged, God is on our side, and will give us victory." The noble Lincoln replied: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God's side. For God is always right!"

Could it have been a nineteenth-century fabrication? The jury is still out.

At the very least, say historians Oakes and Holzer, Palin (and Buchanan) misinterpreted Lincoln's known views on the subject.

Citing two authenticated passages representing the 16th President's rather tortuous ruminations on God and war, Oakes told the Guardian: "Lincoln isn't just saying we can't know which side God is on. He's saying God doesn't take sides in battles like this, in wars like this. The only thing we can know is that He sent this war, because He could stop this war whenever He wants."

Addressing Palin's comments in a statement to the Boston Globe, Holzer said, "I think there is no computing the precise Lincoln quote with her own quote. Lincoln sought guidance from God, he didn't tell people that God was guiding him. It is just different."

To be fair, Sarah Palin hasn't been the only politician in the race to call out the ghost of Abraham Lincoln in this regard. Look what Barack Obama said in response to a question from CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien on June 8, 2007:

O'BRIEN: Do you think that God takes sides in a war? For example, in the war on terror, is God on the side of U.S. troops, would you say?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I always remember Abraham Lincoln, when, during the Civil War, he said, "We shouldn't be asking whose side God is on, but whether we're on his side." And I think that's the question that all of us have to ask ourselves during any battle that's taking place, whether it's political or military, is, are we following his dictates?

I've spent the better part of a morning trying to nail down the origin of this variegated story myself, so far to no avail. Are there any Lincoln aficionados out there who can cite a specific text, or a specific speech at a specific time and place, in which the contested passage can be found?

Please send it here.

In the meantime, the final word goes to Bob Dylan.

Update: Reader Geoff Wickersham questions the plausibility of the variant closing with the tagline, "For God is always right," which, he notes, "does NOT sound like Lincoln at all. Later generations have ascribed to him more of a religiosity than had been apparent before his death, and it accelerated around the centennial of his birth in 1909."

But we also have Geoff to thank for digging up the oldest version we've seen so far. This telling, in fact, dates back to within three weeks of Lincoln's death. It's from a sermon delivered at Lincoln's funeral by Rev. Matthew Simpson on May 4, 1865:

To a minister who said he hoped the Lord was on our side, he replied that it gave him no concern whether the Lord was on our side or not "For," he added, "I know the Lord is always on the side of right;" and with deep feeling added, "But God is my witness that it is my constant anxiety and prayer that both myself and this nation should be on the Lord's side."

Caleb Crain responds: "I have to admit, this begins to sound plausible. The anecdote is coming from someone who knew Lincoln, and knew him so well that he was chosen to give the elegy at his funeral. . . . I think I have to concede that the anecdote itself could be authentic."

Update: Politifact.com characterizes Sarah Palin's paraphrase as "not far from Lincoln's sentiment," which the website traces back to Francis B. Carpenter's 1867 book, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln, page 282:

No nobler reply ever fell from the lips of a ruler, than that uttered by President Lincoln in response to the clergyman who ventured to say, in his presence, that he hoped "the Lord was on our side."

"I am not at all concerned about that," replied Mr. Lincoln, "for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side."