Quotes Uncovered: Honest Abe

I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent research.

Hugo asked:

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” – Abe Lincoln

The Yale Book of Quotations has the following entry:

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Attributed to Abraham Lincoln in Golden Book, Nov. 1931. The Chicago Daily Tribune, May 10, 1923, printed, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubts,” as a submission by reader Benedict J. Goltra.

Matt Woodley asked:

In my line of work (I help pastors develop sermons) I hear the following statement attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times–and if necessary, use words.” Apparently he never said it.

Right. Can any of our researcher/readers track down the earliest findable appearance of this apocryphal quotation?

As always: do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?


"If you can't beat them, join them."


There is no documented source for that falsely-attributed Assisi quote within 200 years of his life. Many think it is a misquote of a reference he made in Chapter XVII in his Rule of 1221. Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had gained permission to do so. But he also said: "Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds."


Everyone keeps talking about that mysterious MLK quote that popped up on Twitter and Facebook after Bin Laden was killed. Apparently he never said it! Did someone make it up, or is it another person's quote that's now been attributed to MLK?


With regards to the fake MLK quote, it was originally posted as an original phrase, followed by a related MLK quote, the quote-marks got dropped and the whole thing was then attributed to MLK:



I've found this reference from 1999 (not that far back) cited in a discourse, which also attributes the quote to Assisi:
[William Fay and Linda Evans Shepherd, Share Jesus without Fear (1999), 22.]

Eric M. Jones.

Elbert Hubbard is often credited for this clever remark. Doesn't sound very Lincolnesque...witty though it may be.

American Medical Association, American Medical Association. House of Delegates - 1922 -
... and the other is that it is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt of it. ...

Kentucky State Medical Association - 1921 - ... we were wondering whether or not to sit still and look like a fool, or endeavor to speak and remove all doubt

Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Board of Home Missions. Dept. of Church and Country Life Work - 1919 -
... — was it Socrates remarked that at times 'tis better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt ?


"gravy train"

Daniel J. Luke

Proverbs 17:28 "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue."

Ken Hirsch

Garson O'Toole researched the "remain silent" quote last year: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/17/remain-silent/#more-227

Garson O'Toole

There is an entry at the "Quote Investigator" blog about the saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Here is the version of the jest that was published in 1907 in a book titled "Mrs. Goose, Her Book" by Maurice Switzer:

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.

I think that is the earliest known instance, and it is possible that Maurice Switzer crafted the clever remark. Disclosure: I run the QI blog. The related biblical proverb mentioned by Daniel J. Luke is also discussed.


Quite fitting that the first quote showed up on my feed reader right below the Altchuler charity post.

Pat Carroll

Attributed to Seneca: The one hope of the doomed is not to hope for safety.

William C. Waterhouse

It's Vergil, not Seneca: "Una salus victis nullam sperare salutem"
(Aeneid, Book II, line 354).
"The only safety for the defeated is not to hope for safety."

James Curran

Could you try a question that is of some import to my family...

The saying "Price of Liberty is eternal vigilance" is generally attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

However, the original sentiment was phrased as "The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance" by the Irish statesman John Philpot Curran (of whom a complete lack of evidence has never stopped my family from claiming as an ancestor).

So the question becomes, did Jefferson paraphrase Curran? Or is the modern wording the work of some nameless editor who can't quote or attribute correctly?

Matthew Luce

"The choices you make, make you."

I'm just a college student who's heard this quote all too many times as I've been growing up. I've never heard it attributed to anyone, though, and I was just curious as to its origins.


Garson O'Toole

Thanks to Claye for the 1999 cite to the saying attributed to Francis of Assisi. The WikiQuote website lists this saying in the "Disputed" section of the entry for Assisi. The earliest cite given in WikiQuote is 1993. It is not listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations or the YBQ. The best I can offer for now is an attribution in 1989.

Cite: 1989 August-September, World Vision, Page 16, [Free standing quotation in a box; Section compiled by Ginger Hope, Associate Editor World Vision], Volume 33, Number 4, World Vision International. (Google Books defective snippet; Verified visually)

Preach the gospel all the time - if necessary, use words. Francis of Assisi