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Huntsman, Lincoln and Hallmark

Jon Huntsman wrongly paraphrased Abraham Lincoln as saying: "[W]e are a great country because we are a good country." Lincoln assuredly never said that.

The expression is similar to a common political bromide that Ronald Reagan and others have attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville. But de Tocqueville didn't write those words, either.

Former Utah Gov. Huntsman made the slip-up at the announcement of his presidential candidacy in Liberty Park, N.J.

Huntsman, June 21: Our political debates today are corrosive and not reflective of the belief that Abe Lincoln espoused back in his day, that we are a great country because we are a good country.

The words appear nowhere in the collected writings of Lincoln. According to James M. Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Lincoln only wrote the phrase "great country" three times, and never close to the way Huntsman said. In an e-mail to FactCheck.org, he wrote:

Cornelius: The 3 only occasions on which [Lincoln] WROTE the words ‘great country’ were unrelated to this kind of Harry Truman / Ronald Reagan political apothegm-making, and one of them was directed at a foreigner about HIS country.  Might’ve originated with Hallmark.

Cornelius was kidding about Hallmark, of course. The misattributed platitude has been floating around for many years, but not attributed to Lincoln. A similar quote was a favorite of President Reagan. For example, in 1986 he said during a session with members of the American Legion Boys Nation:

Reagan, July 25, 1986: America is great because America is good. And if America ever stops being good, America will stop being great.

Reagan claimed that the quote appeared in Alexis de Tocqueville's seminal work, "Democracy in America," and was "one line in that that, I guess, has been quoted more than any author has ever had a line quoted." But Reagan was also wrong. The 19th century French historian never wrote those words, either in "Democracy in America" or any of his other works. That was established as long ago as 1995 by the conservative Weekly Standard, which reported that Bill Clinton and Pat Buchanan were also fond of using the spurious de Tocqueville quote. The Standard's John J. Pitney reported that Dwight D. Eisenhower used the quote in 1952. Ike liked it so much he used it at least three times and attributed it to "a wise philosopher" (1952), "a wise French visitor" (1953) and "a wise philosopher — a Frenchman — [who] came to this land" (1956).

More recently, another researcher traced the misquotation back to a sermon given in New York in 1922 by a Presbyterian minister named John McDowell, who wrongly attributed the words to de Tocqueville. An account of the sermon appears in a letter in a church publication, The Herald and Presbyter, on Sept. 6, 1922.

Huntsman would have been correct to describe the thought as one repeated by many politicians. But Lincoln never said it.

Update, June 23: This article was updated to note that Eisenhower used the quote on at least three occasions, not just two. We added a reference and a link to a 1952 campaign speech.

— Scott Blackburn