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The Top 11 Historical Misquotes of All Time

Jun 12 2012 at 7:11 pm by

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History’s a funny thing, really. It’s never accurate. Why?

Because caveman times never had the wonderful invention of the audio recorder! Or camcorder, for that matter.

That’s okay, though, because in all honesty science has gotten us somewhat close to complete accuracy when recording history. Not close enough, though. There are misquotes in history that might shock you. Some might make you laugh. Others might make you go…”Huh?”

All will be completely true, though. Before getting into that, though, a little philosophy for you:

 The Idea of “Historical” History

There can be no better conundrum than that when you think about it. History really isn’t the story of the past. Rather, it’s the story of the stories of the past.

Clearly there’s no origin. No starting point. Everyone wants to think so. But it’s not true.

The reason why history is recorded is because at that time it was relevant to record it! That literally means there was a ‘George Washington’ type figure before the actual George Washington. Someone wrote an iconic “Huckleberry Finn” novel before Mark Twain did. And someone explored dialectical principle well before Plato or Aristotle did.

It just so happens that these iconic persons in our history were the ones recognized for what we know as history. And that’s what this is all about: finding the ones before the ones recognized in history that should be recognized. If that makes any darn sense….

It should be stated that even as I write this, someone may have already written something similar to this years ago, possibly centuries ago; and I may claim that this is my ‘original work,’ but is there such a thing? Who knows….

That’s why, of course, I titled this the “11 Historical Misquotes.” Having 10 is too trite. In case someone wants to claim that I’m not the originator of my own material (not the quotes, of course), I can say that I have 11, not 10! So there.

Here are the top 11 Historical Misquotes of All Time…

Number 11: George Washington

 George Washington

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Our founding father. Our cornerstone of America. Raise the flags, and let’s put our hands over our hearts in solemn praise.

Everyone has heard of the quote, “I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree.” And everyone asserts that our first President George Washington was the one who said it.

The fact is this: he was not. The real truth was that a biographer by the name of Parson Weems said it in a story told in the 1800s. Who the heck is Parson Weems? And what kind of name is ‘Parson Weems’?

Here’s a little history (true history, anyway) for you. Parson Weems was a book agent and author who wrote a ‘biography’ of George Washington. I use the single quotations very strictly here, because it wasn’t a true biography. He apparently wrote it without really interviewing the man with the wooden teeth.

The point is this: George Washington never said he chopped down a cherry tree. Or even that he “cannot tell a lie.” Even the first President of the United States can fib.


Number 10: Mark Twain

 Mark Twain

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This is truly a special one. For three reasons: Benjamin Franklin, Edward Ward, and Christopher Bullock. (Who the heck is “Edward Ward” and “Christopher Bullock”?)

The quote in question is this: “The only two certainties in life are Death and Taxes.” Did Mark Twain actually say this? He most certainly did. Is he the originator of the quote? Certainly not. At least chronologically, he was not. (At least no one thought of Tom Sawyer before he did. Twain would’ve gotten pretty furious at that.)

It just so happens that Mr. Benjamin Franklin, Mr. Edward Ward, and Mr. Christopher Bullock were also cited for saying this famous quote. We all know Mr. Franklin, that’s for sure. Mr. Ward, a humorist and writer born in Oxfordshire, wrote it in his book “Dancing Devils” in the year 1724. Christopher Bullock, writer of plays – specifically the play “The Cobbler of Preston” – also wrote it.

So who said it first? Does it matter? Would it stand to reason then that, since there were probably thousands more academically endowed people in the world before whoever said this darn quote first, it’s entirely possible someone else said it maybe during medieval times?

It’s almost like the philosophical question: “Who came first – the chicken or the egg?” Sorry, Benji Frank – neither came first. The dinosaurs did.


Number 9: General Philip Sheridan

 General Phillip Sheridan

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I hope I don’t get any tomahawks to the brain or the Cleveland Indians throwing some fastballs at me, but it was General Philip Sheridan who said the phrase: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Rather harsh, don’t you think?

Here’s the truth, though: General Sheridan in fact did not say such a thing! He actually allegedly said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Pretty plain statement, really, given those Native Americans were so difficult with their particularly ‘savage’ ways (please don’t be mad, as I’m being facetious here and don’t mean to imply that Native Americans are actually savage people!).

It just so happens, though, that Sheridan himself even denied that he said anything like that. There’s actually no proof that he did say anything like that. Yet, he’s quoted for generations and generations that he, in fact, even stated the misquote.

Words stick like glue to your head, I guess. Even better than tomahawks do.


Number 8: Paul Revere

 Paul Revere

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This is a funny one, because the story in its entirety turns the quote into a drunken statement of utter nonsense when you think about it: this refers to the quote “The British are coming!”

There’s literally no evidence stating that Paul Revere actually said this. Moreover, it would make no sense that he did.

By historical fact (no, seriously), Revere’s mission during the American Revolution was one of sheer secrecy. No British soldiers needed to know that they were, in fact, coming. That’s like the opposition running into the battlefield wielding a banana. It just wasn’t smart.

In fact, most of the colonial residents of that time considered themselves British, too! So if that quote was in fact true, Revere would be basically preaching to the choir.

The quote “The British are coming!” probably came from a poem entitled Paul Revere’s Ride. Not Paul Revere himself. If it did, no one would’ve heard him say it long enough before he had his head chopped off by a British soldier.


Number 7: Queen Marie Antoinette

 Marie Antoinette

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Suffice it to say, when you end up having a bad royal reputation, you end up saying a ton if things you never actually said. Such is the case for the legendary Queen Marie Antoinette.

For centuries, she was always tagged for the quote – “If they have no bread, let them eat cake!” It makes perfect sense given her record as a French queen (not terribly good).

But the fact is she never said this at all. Instead, a book entitled Confessions written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau has a line, which states that there was a “make-shift of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread and who replied: ‘Let them eat brioche’.” (That’s a type of cake, by the way.)

Obviously that was meant to imply that Antoinette said that. But she really didn’t. It was satirical. Propoganda.

Besides…. What’s wrong with cake anyway? Eggs, wheat, milk, vanilla extract. It’s practically breakfast.


Number 6: Winston Churchill

 Winston Churchill

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This is a perfect example of how a legendary figure can carry the honor of a quote without actually saying the quote – the complete opposite of Antoinette.

Winston Churchill actually wished he had said this quote: “The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash.”

Yes, you guessed it: he didn’t. Instead, his assistant, one by the name of Anthony Montague-Brown, did. Churchill then later stated that he wished he had said it. See, there’s the difference.

Only when you’re a legendary figure can you be credited for something you wished you said. What’s funny was he did say it, just not out of his own thought process, but to quote his assistant! Does that still count? Let’s debate, shall we?


Number 5: Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli

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Allow this one to go waaaaaay over your head, because there’s no way to figure out who really said this. Proof that if one person says someone said it, everyone else will eventually believe it if people keep on saying that person said it. A fundamental belief of truth. Say it enough, and it becomes true.

This can be said about Niccolo Machiavelli. The great Italian historian and diplomat. Everyone says the guy said the famous quote: “The ends justify the means.” Of course, he said it in Italian. Big difference.

This opens up the entire issue to misinterpretation. Because if you literally translate what Machiavelli said, he actually said: “One must consider the final result.”

Also a big difference.

We’ve seriously fallen off the translation wagon here when we interpret the need to simply be result-oriented by saying that we can rob a bank just so we can have enough money to pay for a kidney transplant! I’m pretty sure Machiavelli didn’t intend that meaning.

Still, there are many situations where the “ends justify the means.” So it is good advice. It just so happens that Machiavelli didn’t mean that in the end!


Number 4: Edward Murphy

 Edward Murphy

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Here’s a special case as far as misquotes go that I should address. A lot of the reasons historical quotes are misquoted are for poetic license or convenience.

Everyone loves a good one-liner. We see it in just about anything – action thrillers (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back”), comedies, cop TV shows, everywhere. These one-liners have authority. Punch. Power. They sound official.

Such is the case for the famous quote mentioned by Mr. Edward Murphy himself, the creator of Murphy’s Law, the saying that “anything that can go wrong, will.”

Doesn’t that just hit you in the face? It has a formidable nature to it no one can deny or refute.

What’s funny is that Murphy actually didn’t say it exactly like this! What he really said was…. “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.”


Number 3: Lord Acton

 Lord Acton

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And here’s another reason quotes are misquoted – by pulling things out of context for the sake of demanding an extreme situation or assertion.

What does that mean? Am I getting too technical here? Let me put it this way: people like to steer conventional wisdom to mean what they want it to mean. Take the highly popular quote: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Lord Acton said that…. Or did he? Hmm…. What he actually said was “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

See the difference?

Probably the reason why the quote evolved into this out-of-context version is because of the many dictators and monarchs in our history forsaking humility for the sake of more and more power.

People would say that “power corrupts.” Oh, yes, it does – no matter what you do. You can have the best of intentions, but the more power you have, the more you’ll corrupt. It’s a definite.

Lord Acton wasn’t saying that at all. We power-hungry humans have a choice. We can wield power for the right reasons. We can seek some sort of balance, and still have power. And we won’t be corrupted.


Number 2: Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman

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 I particularly love this quote, because just about anyone could say it and have it mean something extraordinary. It just took a President of the United States to say it for it to have that timeless quality.

It’s the quote: “The Buck Stops Here.” Very presidential and sloganized, I would say.

The truth is our great Harry Truman really didn’t create the phrase. Yes, he said it; but he wasn’t the originator of it. I repeat: that’s the essence of a true quote.

History tells us that Truman adopted the phrase out of a gift he had received in El Reno, Oklahoma. How do we know that for sure? It just so happens that a Yale librarian found an El Reno newspaper photograph from the year 1942 clearly displaying that exact phrase on the colonel’s desk at the Federal Reformatory at El Reno.

Pass the buck

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That’s where Truman’s gift came from.

So, in other words, Truman can be branded a thief! Copyright infringement! Oh, but back in the day, that wasn’t too much of an issue. After all, it wasn’t like he was trying to adopt the phrase “I’ll be back,” made popular by the great Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Moreover, let’s be honest here: the buck stops everywhere (and then goes elsewhere, of course)! So the reality is this quote is practically useless and pointless. Except that when Truman said it, it really meant something to every American of the time.


Number 1: Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

 Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

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I named this the number 1 misquote for one obvious reason: there’s literally no reason or evidence that this quote would be credited to this particular individual! It’s astonishing how history can sort of make things up, when you think about it.

Who’s Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto anyway? Why, he’s one of the Japanese authorities behind the Pearl Harbor bombing during World War II. And he apparently said this foreboding statement (in Japanese, of course):

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.”

The fact is the great Admiral didn’t say anything like that at all. You’d think that if you were planning on bombing a naval base in the United States, you’d have to have some sort of confidence in your choice. And the Japanese were more than confident.

That statement really doesn’t show much confidence!

This will make you laugh: the real originators of that quote were actually Hollywood enthusiasts. Makes sense when you think about it. It was the screenwriters for the 1970 movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!

However, it was true that this Admiral really didn’t believe Japan could win a protracted war against America. He just didn’t say it in that way, this sleeping giant thing. Still, several times the phrase kept creeping back, most notably recently in the film “Pearl Harbor” in 2001.

Oh, but Hollywood loves to ham things up, inject a bit of romanticism. For sure, I can say that the Admiral must’ve been coming close to saying something like this when the United States fought back. I’d be pretty peeved, too, if somebody kamikazied my ships by surprise.

That’s just me, though.

No, Seriously, It’s Just Me

Anyone who says otherwise is guilty of misquotation. I’m in charge of what I say.

How am I supposed to know if anyone said anything like this before me? It’s entirely logistically possible that someone could say something like this before me!

Could that mean that history’s nothing more than a collection of misquotes? People quoting other people quoting other people quoting other people? Seems a bit redundant, don’t you think?

Or perhaps that’s the only way great sayings of wisdom can continue to live on. Because people keep applying it to life and situations of great importance. Who cares if someone said it before them. What matters is why it was said at that point in time. Right?

Let’s quote Shakespeare then…. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” May I, dear sir, have this quote to borrow?

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