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They Didn't Quite Say That
(But They May Have Come Close)

Abraham Lincoln Speaking

"If a quote on the Internet seems too modern, if it fits too much with the line of some particular political group, and if it's from someone universally admired, you can bet it's bogus."

- Abraham Lincoln, 1863,
  Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Today it's a popular pastime to point out that many of the famous quotes you read - such as George Washington's "I cannot tell a lie" quote or Freud's "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" - are totally bogus. The phony quotes, though, are pretty easy to recognize, as Abraham assures us above.

A bit more problematical are quotes that seem to be real, but sound too good to be true. In that case, you may have a close-but-not-quite-a-cigar quote.

Such quotes - and what makes them difficult to trace down - is that they aren't really what was said. But on the other hand, they aren't actually bogus. A contradiction? Well, not quite.

There are some quotes that are "reconstructed". That is, the historian reads a letter or a diary which summarizes a conversation the writer heard. The historian then makes a guess as to what the actual words were and puts them in quotes. The truth is that notwithstanding the appearance of shorthand stenographers in the mid-19th century, true verbatim quotes before the advent of recordings were few and far between. So to make the books more readable, the authors resort to the reconstructions.

Oddly enough, it's the Fount of All Knowledge (i. e., the Internet) we can turn to for help. Although given a lot of grief because of it's promulgation of much phony information (including bogus quotes) - that has become a surprisingly good tool for tracking down the sources of reconstructed quotes. Such sources were once available only in rare book rooms of remote or hard to access libraries, but now you can often find with a few clicks of the mouse. In fact, the sources for all the "quotes" (note quotes) given below were located relatively quickly and a search that took hours or days can sometimes be reduced to minutes. The Fount of All Knowledge is indeed a fount of all knowledge - if used with caution.

So we'll start off with our good friend King George III.


Quote #1

"If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world!"

- George III to Benjamin West after learning George Washington was going to resign his commission as Commander of the Continental Congress and return to Mount Vernon.

George's Commission

You'll find this quote on the Fount of All Knowledge sometimes with a description of a meeting where King George asked his then-court painter, Benjamin West, what George Washington was planning to do now that peace had been agreed to. Benjamin replied (we read) that George was going to resign his commission. Then King George made his famous exclamation.

Certainly a great quote (and it also appears in some bonafide, albeit relatively recent, history books) it is indeed a "reconstruction". It's source is a memorandum book of Rufus King, the now-forgotten Founding Father who later served as minister to Britain. The book contained a letter written May 3, 1797 where Rufus wrote about a recent conversation with Benjamin West. The letter is (with modern spelling and punctuation added):

Mr. West called on me. We entered into politics after speaking of the Dinner at the Royal Academy and of the annual exhibition

Mr. West said things respecting America had changed very much, that people who could not formerly find words of unkindness enough now talked in a different language, that the King had lately spoken in the most explicit manner of the wisdom of the American government and of the abilities and great worth of the characters she produced and employed. He said the King had lately used very handsome expressions respecting Mr. Jay and and that he also spoke in a very pleasing manner of Mr. Gore.

But that in regard to General Washington, he told him since his resignation that in his opinion "that act closing and finishing what had gone before and viewed in connection with it, placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living, and that he thought him the greatest character of the age."

So there was no record of any meeting with George III and Benjamin right after the Revolution. And the letter recording the conversation itself was written only in 1797 and is secondhand at best.

Still although King George may not have said exactly what is in the famous quote, certainly the sentiments were there.

Source: The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King , Charles King (Editor), Volume III, 1896


So far so good. And for an even more famous quote, we'll turn to


Quote #2

"God does not play dice with the Universe."

- Albert Einstein to Niels Bohr in dismissing quantum mechanics as untrue.

Albert Einstein:  Dice - No Dice

Another "reconstructed" quote but it's actual source is impossible to trace because Albert made the dice allusion on a number of occasions. That he made some comment to Niels Bohr is certain since Niels himself wrote a lengthy description of the debates he and Albert had about quantum theory. At one point he wrote:

On his side Einstein mockingly asked us whether we could really believe that the dear God took recourse to dice playing, to which I replied by pointing at the great caution, already called for by ancient thinkers in ascribing attributes to Providence in everyday language. I remember also how at the peak of the discussion Ehrenfest, in his affectionate manner of teasing his friends, jokingly hinted at the apparent similarity between Einstein's attitude and that of the opponents of relativity theory; but instantly Ehrenfest added that he would not be able to find relief in his own mind before concord with Einstein was reached.

But probably the first dice reference is from the earliest days of quantum mechanics. In 1926 Albert wrote a letter to Max Born, the physicist who with Robert Oppenheimer developed quantum theory for molecular systems and who first proposed quantum theory to be a probabilistic formulation. The letter was mostly concerned with Albert's son-in-law's health which prevented him from reading a play by Max's wife, Hedi. But in the last paragraph Albert writes:

Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the 'Old One'. I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice.

Another "no-dice" quote is what he wrote to his former assistant, Cornelius Lanczos, in 1942. He wrote to Cornelius about his dissatisfaction with current quantum theory. He summed up his views:

But that He rolls dice or makes use of "telephathic" means (as is imputed to Him by the present-day quantum theory) is something I cannot believe.

Such comments left many physicists scratching their collective pates - particularly since quantum mechanics doesn't use "telepathic means" nor was it intended to give secrets of the "Old One". But Albert never gave up his objections although in 1944 he again wrote to Max that he realized his views were considered odd.

We have become Antipodean in our scientific expectations. You believe in the God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists, and which I, in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I firmly believe, but I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way, or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find. Even the great initial success of the quantum theory does not make me believe in the fundamental dice-game, although I am well aware that our younger colleagues interpret this as a consequence of senility. No doubt the day will come when we will see whose instinctive attitude was the correct one.

With kind regards to you and your family (now freed from flying bombs),

A. Einstein

An important point is that Albert did not believe that quantum mechanics was actually wrong, but that it was incomplete. He believed quantum theory was a formalizing of the statistical averaging of an exact non-probabilistic reality whose theory remained to be discovered. In the letter we see he admits to Max that quantum mechanics did indeed have great early successes (and it was to have more and amazing future successes) and he acknowledged that his objections were instinctive. He also clearly leaves open the possibility that Max's probabilistic interpretation could indeed be correct.

One part of quantum theory that Albert found particularly objectionable was the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. As a fundamental postulate (i. e., an unprovable concept) that Werner Heisenberg used when deriving quantum theory, the uncertainty principle says that conjugate variables - position and momentum, energy and time - cannot be simultaneously determined with arbitrary precision. For some reason, Albert didn't like this.

The truth is you can derive the uncertainty principle from the well-established theoretical principle (not to mention the experimental observation) that electrons have both a wave and particle character. Plugging the equivalence of mass of an electron with the associated wavelength (mass = 6.62 × 10-34 ÷ [wavelength × velocity]) into the classical mathematical equation for a wave, you get the Schrödinger Equation. From there you can in turn derive the uncertainty principle by superimposition of multiple waves to form a wave packet. The derivations are so straightforward that as long as you believe mathematics is correct, you can't really argue that the uncertainty principle is something other than a fundamental principle of nature.

In fairness to Albert, we should point out that there is a thought experiment constructed by Albert and two collaborators, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, that they felt showed there is a more fundamental and complete theory lurking around the corner. Succinctly (and over-simplistically stated), they showed that if you had two interacting particles that separated, the action of one affected the other no far how far they are separated. So Albert said quantum theory shows there is "action at a distance" which is not considered a proper scientific concept.

The paradox - called the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (or EPR) Paradox - has still not been resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Some people think the EPR paradox shows Albert may indeed be correct and there are hidden variables of a more fundamental theory. Others don't worry about it, confident it will be refuted in time. Still others don't see it as a paradox at all. After all, they say, you're not measuring the property of the second particle but calculating it based on a theory. So it's no more paradoxical than using the equations of the conservation of momentum to calculate the velocity of a bouncing ball by measuring the velocity of the other ball it bounced off. And some scoff at the argument altogether, saying all this brouhaha isn't arguing about the validity of quantum mechanics but is about philosophical interpretations which themselves rely on vague and ultimately undefinable terms - kind of like Wittgenstein thinks about quantum theory. So with Albert's skepticism of quantum mechanics, it is ironic that in 1905 Albert used the idea of quantized energy - proposed by Max Planck in 1900 - to explain the photoelectric effect. Of course, it was his paper on the photoelectric efect - not relativity - that won Albert the 1921 Nobel Prize.

The quote about God not playing dice makes it a given that Albert was a religious man, something that Albert acknowledged. What does come as a surprise - and we mean a big surprise - is that in his private correspondence, Albert also characterizes his personal views as agnostic and admitting that others would consider his views as atheistic (he used both words). For instance, once a young ensign in the US Navy wrote that he heard Albert's religious beliefs were formed from his association with a Jesuit priest. Albert's reply in toto is:

July 2nd, 1945

Ensign Guy H. Raner, Jr. (C)USNR

Dear Mr. Raner:

   I received your letter of June 10th. I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me.
   From the standpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and always have been an atheist. Your counter-arguments seem to me very correct and can hardly be better formulated. It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere - childish analogies. We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of this world - as far as we can grasp it. And that is all.

With Best Wishes

yours sincerely,
   [signed] A. Einstein

Albert Einstein.

copy to Ensign Glinden
San Francisco.

After reading this letter there will be less surprise to learn that in other correspondence Albert stated he did not believe in the immortality of the individual and (what does shock some people) he said that traditional religion - actually all religion - was superstition (actually he said "childish superstition"). On the other hand, Albert was never as pugnacious in his beliefs as was Bertrand Russell and was critical of "professional atheists".

Well, that settles it - except when you think you're all done, you read that in 1929, Albert wrote to a rabbi that he did indeed believe in God!

But, he qualified, the God of Spinoza.

Whoever he was.

So in the end we find people that pick and chose various Einstein quotes to prove that Albert believed the way they do - even though it's the opposite of what someone else concludes using other Albert quotes. But if you take it all together, Albert's well-reasoned religious beliefs befit a man who is regarded as one of the smartest men in history, and it's not difficult, though, to understand what Albert believed. But this exercise, as the mathematics textbooks say, will be left to the reader.

People today will point out that Albert's own theories of relativity were attacked by the Nazis, thus showing how stupid and idiotic the Nazis were (which you can't argue with). Conveniently omitted is that there were American public figures who likewise condemned the theory of relativity. One of the most prominent American clergyman in the 1920's made a speech about Albert and Relativity. First His Eminence made some comments about "petty befogged professors" who come up with new standards " to attract attention to themselves", and then plowed on and which we now quote sans translation:

What does all this worked-up enthusiasm about Einstein mean? It evidently is a worked-up, fictitious enthusiasm, because I have never met a man who understood in the least what Einstein is driving at, and I have been so much impressed by this fact that I very seriously doubt that Einstein himself knows really what he is driving at.

Truth is always very clear when seen with a clear eye. The fact that any theory cannot be enunciated and only succeeds in befogging the mind is a patent proof that it is not really truth.

Now, I have my own ideas about the so-called theories of Einstein, with his relativity and his utterly befogged notions about space and time. It seems nothing short of an attempt at muddying the waters so that without perceiving the drift, innocent students are led away into a realm of speculative thought, the sole basis of which, so far as I can see, is to produce a universal doubt about God and His creation

I mean that while I do not wish to accuse Einstein at present of deliberately wishing to destroy the Christian faith and the Christian basis of life, I half suspect that if we wait a little longer we will find he unquestionably will ultimately reveal himself in this attitude. In a word, the outcome of this doubt and befogged speculation about time and space is a cloak beneath which lies the ghastly apparition of atheism.

Of course, Albert knew what he was driving at and you can easily demonstrate the basics of relativity such as time and mass dilation with the simplest of middle school algebra. And you can rest easy since the church his Eminence represented is now fully d'accord with relativity. Still, to this day there are a surprising number of people - ironically, many with - quote - "good American educations" - unquote - who believe the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics are contrary to true religion.

But, dang it, try as we might, we just can't find much anything about 20th century physics in any religious texts searched so far.

Not even Spinoza's.


The Born-Einstein Letters , Irene Born (Translator), MacMillan Press Ltd., 1971.

Letter to Erik Gutkind, January 3, 1954 (Original in German)

"Cardinal Sees Atheism's Ghost Behind Relativity", the Miami Herald, April 9, 1929.


Well, with all that intellectualizing, maybe we should return to earth and proceed to:


Quote #3

"I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell!

- William Techumseh Sherman, Speech at West Point, 1880.

According to one distinguished historian in an extremely popular, nay iconic book on American history, we read that the elderly General Sherman, haunted by the destruction of the South wreaked by his (in)famous "March to the Sea", howled these words at a speech at West Point. Naturally "Uncle Billy's" tormented repentance has been seized on by anti-war activists as what befalls the evil professional war mongers.

Alas, the actual quote above is not in any surviving speeches of General Sherman although you will sometimes read on the Fount of All Knowledge that he may have said "War is Hell" at the Michigan Military Academy in 1880. Or maybe it was 1879. Or maybe some other year. But again there is no record of Uncle Billy saying it.

But on August 11, 1880, he did give a speech in Columbus, Ohio, to a group which included a number of Union veterans. He was received with much applause and despite the rain, he evidently enjoyed himself. What the local paper reported was:

As he rose from his seat, 10,000 voices shouted, "Three cheers for Uncle Billy." The roar of applause was tremendous and deafening. When it subsided, the General began to talk in a familiar vein, which greatly pleased the boys.

He said, in substance, "It delights my soul to look on you and see so many of the good old boys left yet. They are not afraid of the rain; we have stood it many a time.

The war now is away back in the past, and you can tell what books cannot. When you talk, you come down to the practical realities just as they happened. You all know this is not soldiering here. There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell. You can bear this warning voice to generations yet to come. I look upon war with horror, but if it has to come, I am there."

First note that the story makes no claim that it reports a verbatim text. Instead, it says this is what "Uncle Billy" said in substance.

This account, though, is sometimes edited and relocated to the Michigan Military Academy to make it sound like he's addressing a group of young cadets. Although exactly who the General is addressing as "boys" seems to shift from the veterans to the younger members of the audience, he's certainly not addressing bright-eyed eager cadets, either at MMA or West Point. And while not denying the horrors of war, Uncle Billy says if war comes again, he is ready.

And indeed after Appomattox Uncle Billy stayed in the Army and proved he was willing to win regardless of the costs - particularly to the other side. In an 1866 letter to the still General Grant, Billy scarcely sounds like a man torn with regret:

St. Louis, Dec. 28, 1866


Just arrived in time to attend the funeral of my Adjutant-General Sawyer. I have given general instructions to General Cooke about the Sioux. I do not yet understand how the massacre of Colonel Fetterman's, party could have been so complete. We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children. Nothing less will reach the root of the case.

(Signed) W. T. Sherman Lieutenant-General

As you may guess, Billy's unexpurgated quotes are not included in most American history books. In any case, he continued to be in charge of the Army of the West until 1884.


Columbus Dispatch, August 12, 1884; August 11, 2012

Wild Life on the Plains and Horrors of Indian Warfare by a Corps of Competent Authors and Artists, W. L. Holloway (Editor), Pease Taylor Publishing, 1891.


And finally we arrive back to Good Old Colony Times - and one of the more amusing "reconstructions" - with:


Quote #4

"Caesar had his Brutus - Charles the First, his Cromwell - and George the Third - [cries of 'Treason! Treason!'] - may profit by their example! If this be treason, make the most of it!"

- Patrick Henry speaking against the Stamp Act in the Virginia Assembly, May, 30, 1765.

Patrick's Speech

Sometimes it's a bit difficult to decide what to do when finding multiple and contradictory sources of a quote. Do you pick the most likely - usually the earliest and first hand account - or do you combine them all to form some "grand reconstruction"? Nothing illustrates the dilemma better than Patrick's fiery speech.

The first we read about Patrick's Stamp Act speech was recorded by author William Wirt in 1817. In his book about Patrick, William wrote.

It was in the midst of this magnificent debate, while he was descanting on the tyranny of the obnoxious act, that he exclaimed, in a voice of thunder, and with the look of a god, "Caesar had his Brutus Charles the first, his Cromwell - and George the third - ("Treason!" cried the speaker - "Treason! Treason!" echoed from every part of the house). It was one of those trying moments which is decisive of character.

Henry faltered not for an instant. but rising to a loftier attitude, and fixing on the speaker an eye of the most determined fire, he finished his sentence with the firmest emphasis) "... may profit by their example! If this be treason, make the most of it!"

Stirring stuff indeed. But this was, we must point out, written in 1817 - more than half a century after Patrick delivered his speech. So just how accurate is William's account?

In this case, we do, though, have an actual and contemporary eye witness account. A French visitor had come to town that day and decided to take in the debate at the Virginia Assembly. The actual extract from the diary (very slightly edited and modernized) is as follows:

May the 30th [1765]. Set out early from halfway house in the chair and broke fast at York, arrived at Williamsburg at 12. I went immediately to the assembly which was setting, where I was entertained with very strong debates concerning duties that the Parliament wants to lay on the American Colonies, which they call or style Stamp Duties.

Shortly after I came in one of the members stood up and said he had read that in former times Tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and he did not doubt but some good American would stand up, in favor of his country, but (says he) in a more moderate manner, and was going to continue, when the Speaker of the House rose and, said he, the last that stood up had spoke treason, and was sorry to see that not one of the members of the House was loyal enough to stop him before he had so far. Upon which the same member stood up again (his name is Henry) and said that if he had affronted the Speaker or the House, he was to ask pardon, and he would show his loyalty to his Majesty King George the Third, at the expense of the last drop of his blood, but what he had said must be attributed to the interest of his country's dying liberty which he had at heart, and the heat of passion might have led him to have said something more than he in tended, but, again, if he said anything wrong, he begged the Speaker and the House's pardon. Some other members stood up and backed him, on which that affair was dropped.

So there's no doubt that Patrick did make comparisons of George III to some famous historical tyrants, and he was called to task for making what was considered a treasonous remark. But there's nothing about the shouts of "Treason!" from the assembly, only a verbal admonition from the Speaker. And instead of delivering his stirring if-this-be-treason remark, Patrick begged the listeners' pardon and affirmed his loyalty to the King.

Now we shouldn't assume that William completely spun this tale of the more revolutionary Patrick out of the cloth. William said he had heard the story about the shouts of "Treason!" but there were so many variants as to Patrick's response that he thought the story was too good to be true. So he consulted other eyewitnesses - including Thomas Jefferson. Tom responded to William's query by saying, "I well remember the cry of treason, the pause of Mr. Henry at the name of George the III, and the presence of mind with which he closed his sentence, and baffled the charge vociferated." So it seems we should take Tom at his word, nicht wahr?.

A worrisome point, though, is that Tom was, he told William, a student and was not actually in the chamber. Instead he was standing at the "door of communication between the house and the lobby". Of course that doesn't necessarily mean he couldn't have heard the debates, but you wonder why a French traveler could obtain a place for listening but not the Young Tom.

But more troublesome is that Tom's answer sounds like he is responding to a specific question and had not simply been asked to state what happened - the best way for a historian to get the unbiased truth. So we suspect William specifically asked if the assembly shouted "Treason!" and if Patrick had really delivered his famous response. Not that we question Tom's honesty - Heaven forfend! - but people who are prompted for answers tend to favor what was prompted - and the prompter tends to hear what he prompted. And we note that Tom did not specifically confirm Patrick's closing words when he diplomatically responded "he closed his sentence, and baffled the charge vociferated."

Now one way out of the dilemma is to combine all accounts into one. So you may read that when Patrick mentioned King George, there were cries of "Treason!" and the gave his "If this be treason, etc., etc." reply. Then he later begged pardon and avowed his loyalty to the King. This is certainly covering all bases but is also kind of a wimpish way out.

No, we must sadly conclude that the most honest and objective conclusion is the one based on the only contemporary and eyewitness account - which we emphasize was written well before Patrick had gone down in history as the firebrand orator of the revolution. And we beg both William's, Tom's, - and Patrick's - pardon.

But what, you ask, about the most famous quote of Patrick's, that is, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Sad to say the odds of this being - ah - "reconstructed" - are pretty good.

The last stirring paragraph begins:

"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take," cried he, with both his arms extended aloft, his brow knit, every feature marked with resolute purpose of his soul, and his voice swelled to its boldest note of exclamation...

"Give me liberty, or give me death!"

And yes, this was also written by William Wirt in his 1817 book about Patrick. Did he really say it? We'll leave this exercise to the reader.

So we see that in the end there is no clear dividing line between a prit' near verbatim quote, a reconstructed quote, and a bogus quote. A reconstructed quote might be almost exactly what was said. It might be pretty close. Or it might be (as Nikita Khrushchev might have said) a bunch of дерьмо.

On the other hand, perhaps Patrick did indeed speak as William wrote.

After he begged pardon.


"Journal of a French Traveller in the Colonies, 1765, I", The American Historical Review, 26(4), pp. 726-747, 1921

"Of Deathless Remarks - A Few Notes for Mr. Bartlett", Richard Hanser, American Heritage, June, 1970

"Henry's Early Life and Times - 1765", Patrick Henry, Voice of the Revolution, Red Hill Patrick Henry Memorial,

Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, William Wirt, James Webster (Publisher), 1817, (on-line at Documenting the American South,


Reference Site

Internet Archive, The Internet Archive is a great resource for people looking for at-one-time-rare sources. There are also old broadcasts (including Grouch Marx trading barbs with Old West badman and rotten train robber, Al Jennings on You Bet Your Life) and recordings (including those of Alessandro Moreschi, the last known castrato).

Be aware that although a copyright holder may have given permission for Internet Archive to post a book, article, or other publication, it doesn't mean that anyone else can reproduce the work. In general, you would have to get permission from the copyright holders to reproduce the actual works even if it is available for viewing and reference.

Google Newspaper Archive, Lots of newspapers archived and searchable.