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Misquoting Lincoln

Bush supporters falsely quote Lincoln as advocating arresting, exiling or hanging members of Congress who damage military morale in wartime.


Supporters of President Bush and the war in Iraq often quote Abraham Lincoln as saying members of Congress who act to damage military morale in wartime “are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged.”

Republican candidate Diana Irey used the “quote” recently in her campaign against Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, and it has appeared thousands of times on the Internet, in newspaper articles and letters to the editor, and in Republican speeches.

But Lincoln never said that. The conservative author who touched off the misquotation frenzy, J. Michael Waller, concedes that the words are his, not Lincoln’s. Waller says he never meant to put quote marks around them, and blames an editor for the mistake and the failure to correct it. We also note other serious historical errors in the Waller article containing the bogus quote.

Update Aug. 26: Candidate Irey retracted the quote and apologized hours after this article appeared.


This false Lincoln “quote” has become a favorite of those who like to accuse critics of Bush’s war policy of disloyalty or treason. Our Internet search brought up more than 18,000 references to it.

Origin of a Specious Quote

“Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged,” that’s what President Abraham Lincoln said during the War Between the States.

– J. Michael Waller, “Democrats Usher in An Age of Treason.” Insight magazine, 23 Dec. 2003.


The supposed quote in question is not a quote at all, and I never intended it to be construed as one. It was my lead sentence in the article that a copy editor mistakenly turned into a quote by incorrectly inserting quotation marks.

-J. Michael Waller, email to FactCheck.org, Aug. 21, 2006.

Should Murtha be Hanged?

A recent example is an appearance by Diana Irey, the Republican candidate running against Rep. Murtha, a leading critic of Bush’s war policy. She said at a news conference May 24, at the National Press Club in Washington DC, that Murtha’s comments and actions “are not that of a patriot” but “serve to aid and comfort our enemy.” And as if those words weren’t strong enough, she added:

Diana Irey: Our 16th President once said, and I quote: ‘Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged.’

After savoring the applause of her partisan audience, Irey went on to make clear that she wasn’t actually advocating hanging Murtha, saying that “Lincoln’s remedy” was too extreme for him.

A Bogus Quote

But in fact it isn’t “Lincoln’s remedy” at all. The sentence she attributed to Lincoln is the brainchild of J. Michael Waller, a conservative scholar who wrote an article for Insight magazine that appeared Dec. 23, 2003 under the headline, “Democrats Usher in An Age of Treason.” He started his article with the quote, adding, “that’s what President Abraham Lincoln said during the War Between the States.”

In fact there’s no evidence of Lincoln ever advocating hanging members of Congress at all. We searched The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, but the phrase “exiled or hanged” simply doesn’t appear there, let alone the entire quote. And according to Lincoln historian Thomas F. Schwartz, there is also no trace of this quote in The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, a 1996 compilation of quotes later attributed to Lincoln by his contemporaries. Schwartz is the Illinois State Historian and secretary of The Abraham Lincoln Association, and also writes a column called “Lincoln Never Said That” in the association’s quarterly newsletter, For The People. In the issue for Autumn, 2005, he wrote, “The Internet is a great incubator of spurious Lincoln sayings and no clearer examples can be shown than several that have recently surfaced,” including the quote in question here.

When we contacted Waller he said we were the first to ask him about it. He readily conceded that the quote is bogus and blamed the matter on editors at Insight magazine. Here is the pertinent portion of his reply, in full, to our emailed inquiry:

J. Michael Waller: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to correct this important issue. The supposed quote in question is not a quote at all, and I never intended it to be construed as one. It was my lead sentence in the article that a copy editor mistakenly turned into a quote by incorrectly inserting quotation marks.

Additionally, I filed my story with the lead sentence ending in the words “Civil War,” which my southern editor switched to “War Between the States.”

Oddly, you are the first to question me about this. I’m surprised it has been repeated as often as you say. My editors at the time didn’t think it was necessary to run a correction in the following issue of the magazine, and to my knowledge we received no public comment.  The magazine is no longer being published.

Again, thank you for asking about this and for providing the opportunity to correct it.

We followed up by contacting Insight’s former managing editor Scott Stanley. He denied putting quote marks in Waller’s copy, but said such a thing might have been done by one of six “formatting editors” at the publication, who sometimes “took liberties” with the copy. “I know Waller well enough to know that if Waller said it, he did,” Stanley said. He said Waller might have put the phrase in italics, and that a formatting editor might have changed it to a direct quote by mistake, following an Insight policy of not opening a story with italicized quotes. “My guess is that somewhere along the line, somebody played with it thinking they were doing the right thing,” Stanley said.

Update Aug. 26: Within hours after this article appeared, Candidate Irey said in a campaign news release:

Diana Irey, Aug. 25: Today I became aware for the first time that a line I used in a May press conference was not, in fact, a quote from Abraham Lincoln. It was a mistake to say the line came from President Lincoln, and the mistake was mine. I apologize.

Might Lincoln Have Said That?

Even without the quote marks, Waller’s article still suggests that Lincoln might have said it, or that the words sum up his policies. But we find little evidence that Lincoln endorsed anything so extreme as executing members of Congress for any reason, let alone for merely “acting to damage military morale.” We also discovered that Waller rests his case in part on a material misstatement of fact, and also on a serious historical error.

It is true that Lincoln temporarily exiled a former member of Congress, Democrat Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, a prominent critic of Lincoln who advocated allowing the South to secede. Vallandigham had given a fiery anti-war speech in Mount Vernon, Ohio saying, among other things, that the Civil War was being fought to liberate blacks and enslave whites and that men who would submit to being drafted for the Union army did not deserve to be free men. In a famous letter to Democratic Rep. Erastus Corning dated June 12, 1863, Lincoln defended the military trial and the attendant suspension of habeas corpus, and at one point referring to Vallandigham as an agitator who had been urging soldiers to desert:

Lincoln, 1863: Long experience has shown that armies can not be maintained unless desertion shall be punished by the severe penalty of death. The case requires, and the law and the Constitution, sanction this punishment– Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert?

But there’s historical evidence that the arrest caught Lincoln by surprise and that he wouldn’t have advocated it had he been consulted in advance. The arrest was the doing of Gen. Ambrose Burnside, not Lincoln. The general later offered his resignation to Lincoln after hearing that the President’s entire Cabinet was in an uproar over his actions. Lincoln’s private reply can hardly be taken as an endorsement of what the general did:

Lincoln (message to Burnside, May 29, 1863): Your despatch of to-day received. When I shall wish to supersede you I will let you know. All the cabinet regretted the necessity of arresting, for instance, Vallandigham, some perhaps, doubting, that there was a real necessity for it—but, being done, all were for seeing you through with it.

Even if Lincoln had ordered the arrest it offers scant support for the notion that he favored arresting anyone solely because they “damage morale and undermine the military.” While encouraging draft evasion or desertion may fall under the broad heading of “undermining the military” it is a far more serious matter than the mere stating of political opinions that might “undermine morale.” We also note that today there’s no draft to evade, and we know of no prominent Democrats who are urging troops to go AWOL, making Waller’s parallel a dubious one at best.

The fact that Lincoln exiled Vallandigham was also a matter of political damage control. Burnside’s court had ordered the ex-Congressman held in a military prison for the duration of the war, but Lincoln overruled the sentence and ordered Vallandigham sent through the lines and into the hands of a Confederate soldier near Murfreesboro, Tenn. Vallandigham later slipped quietly back into the Union through Canada and despite the sentence hanging over his head was allowed to resume his political activities unmolested. He was quite prominent, attending the Democratic national convention of 1864 and offering a resolution to make unanimous the nomination of George McClellan to oppose Lincoln for re-election.

A Hanging Offense?

While we find little support for the idea that Lincoln favored arresting members of Congress (or even former members) for merely saying things that dispirit the troops, we find none for the notion that he favored hanging. Waller’s article makes much of the trial of a man who was sentenced to hang, but Waller makes serious mistakes in the way he describes that case.

He wasn’t a congressman: Waller calls it “the case of Rep. Lambdin P. Milligan [D-Ind.],” making the vital error of describing Milligan as a member of Congress. In fact, Milligan was never a member of Congress. His name does not appear in the official Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, a comprehensive listing of House and Senate since 1774.

He wasn’t hanged: Milligan was a lawyer and Confederate sympathizer from Huntington, Ind. who was tried and convicted by a military tribunal. Lincoln actually delayed his execution. After the war and Lincoln’s death the Supreme Court took up his case and rendered a landmark ruling overturning Milligan’s conviction and holding that martial law could not supersede the civil courts in areas where the government and civil courts were still open and operating. Milligan went free, practiced law until 1897 and died in 1899.

The allegations were deadly serious: Milligan hadn’t merely tried to “discourage enlistments” in the Union army, as Waller writes. In fact he’d been implicated in a fantastic plot to free Confederate prisoners of war from several Union prisons, to arm them with weapons to be stolen from federal and state arsenals in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and to march these troops against Union forces in Missouri and Kentucky. He was convicted of nothing less than plotting to overthrow the US government while in communication with the Confederate enemy. That’s a far cry from merely damaging military morale, the offense Waller would have us believe warranted hanging in Lincoln’s mind.

Waller concedes that the quote is bogus. We judge that it’s a bad paraphrase also, and based – at best – on poor scholarship.

Acknowledgment: FactCheck.org thanks subscriber Cliff Hancuff for bringing the dubious Lincoln quote to our attention, for sharing research pointing to Waller as the likely originator, and for sharing video of the Diana Irey news conference.



Watch Republican candidate Diana Irey misquoting Lincoln while attacking Democratic Rep. John Murtha


The Abraham Lincoln Society, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 1953 (electronic edition)

Thomas F. Schwartz, “Lincoln Never Said That,” For The People, quarterly publication of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Autumn 2005.

J. G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, in The Century; a popular quarterly, Volume 38, Issue 1, New York, May 1889:127-137

Ohio Historical Society, “Clement Vallandigham“, Ohio History Central: An Online Encyclopedia of Ohio History, 2005.

Message, Lincoln to Burnside: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 6. Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865, 29 May 1863.

Letter, Abraham Lincoln to Erastus Corning and Others, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, June 1863.

Allan Nevins, “The Case of the Copperhead Conspirator,” in Quarrels That Have Shaped the Constitution, ed. John A. Garraty, New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

The Senate Historical Office and the Legislative Resource Center of the House of Representatives, Biographical Directory of the US Congressonline edition, searched Aug. 21, 2005.

Diana Irey for Congress, “Irey Apologizes for Mistaken Lincoln ‘Quote” News Release, 25 Aug 2006.