The Rev. William John Henry Boetcker was a Presbyterian and notable public speaker who led the Citizens’ Industrial Alliance. In 1916, he produced a booklet with a list of maxims such as “We cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong” and “We cannot help the poor by kicking the rich.”
In a recent letter I misattributed those words to Abraham Lincoln. I thank the citizens who took time to clarify this issue and apologize for any confusion.
Sources like Wikipedia indicate this historical mix-up often happens, indicating the misattribution apparently stems from a leaflet. Boetcker’s list of “The Ten Cannots” was on one side and authentic Lincoln quotations on the other. Some say the attributions were reversed on the pamphlet, causing further confusion.
In any case, misattribution snowballed as Lincoln grew into an American icon and Boetcker faded from public memory. It even got to the point where Ronald Reagan cited Lincoln as the author of the “cannots” when he spoke during the 1992 Republican National Convention.
This is a reminder that we need to be careful in sourcing historical quotes. It also makes me think I would like to learn more about this Rev. Boetcker. He was onto something with his list and is described as having been an excellent motivational speaker!