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The Lincoln Quote

Is This Quote for Real?

"Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded."

-Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) U.S. President.

Speech, 18 Dec. 1840, to Illinois House of Representatives

The Story

The above quote, widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln, has been quoted and referred to by a number of sources over the decades, since the early part of the 20th Century, at least. I featured it on my web page because it is a succinct and persuasive statement about prohibition. But, the question remains: Did Lincoln really say it? So far, based on the evidence, it is my opinion he probably did not - that it was made up after he died and wrongly attributed to him. The evidence is not conclusive either way at this point, but the opinions and information listed below might interest you.


Due to some excellent work by Uncle Mike, we now have the best documentation of the origins of the quote yet. JPEG images of the documents are provided below:

Authorship of Anti-Prohibition Screed Credited to Lincoln Is Admitted by Georgia Wet Leader  The American Issue - Volume XII - Pennsylvania Edition, Westerville, Ohio, July 22, 1922  Continuation of the article

An Infamous Rum Forgery - The Voice, Volume V, No. 8, New York, Thursday, January 19, 1888 

For Liberty - Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation 

More on Local Option - Edwsardsville Intelligencer - Saturday, March 28, 1908

Abraham Lincoln's views on temperance are expressed in the following document:

Address to the Washington Temperance Society of Springfield, Illinois - Abraham Lincon, Speeches and Rightings 1832-1858, Compiled by Don E. Fehrenbacher, 1989
Continuation of the Address
Continuation of the Address
Continuation of the Address
Continuation of the Address
Continuation of the Address

From my good friend, Bob Ramsey:

It appears on page 544 of the Congressional Record-House for December 22, 1914. Linclon was quoted by Rep. Robert L. Henry of Texas.

Another friend, Brian Huff, found it in the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations:

The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright 1993 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. Caedmon recordings reproduced by arrangement with Harper Collins Publishers.

Dr. Mark Kleiman, a professor at Harvard University, contributed the following:

I tried to verify the purported Lincoln anti-prohibition quote. Yes, we have no bananas.

The standard reference is The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (8 vols.) Roy P. Basler, Ed., Rutgers University Press, 1953. It gives reports (though not verbatim texts) of several of Lincoln's speeches in the legislature, including remarks on December 14 1840 on "Payment of Interest on the Public Debt" and on December 19 "Concerning Expenditures for Public Printing," but nothing on December 18, and nothing at all about alcohol or temperance (according to the index) during Lincoln's entire period of service in the legislature except the great and unduly neglected speech to the Washington Temperance Society of Springfield on February 22 1942. The index also gives no reference to the Maine Liquor Law of 1846, the first prohibition act, or to the word "prohibition."

A more recent source is Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, (2 vols.) Library of America, 1989. Again, nothing on that date, and nothing on "alcohol" "temperence" "prohibition" or "Maine Liquor Law" in the entire period, except for the Washington Temperance address (which I hope someone with a scanner will post here).

While it's impossible to be sure that Lincoln didn't say something, I will give fifty to one that there is no authentic record of any such speech anytime in Lincoln's career. That's based on the results of my search, but also on three other observations:

1. The term "prohibition" does not appear to have been in the contemporary political vocabulary with respect to alcohol control laws.

2. Lincoln stood well enough with the temperance movement to be invited to give the Washington's Birthday address to the Washington Temperance Society of Springfield in 1842. It's hard to believe that this would have been true if prohibition had been a live issue and Lincoln on the pro-liquor side of it.

3. Temperance, along with abolition, nativism, the protective tariff, and women's rights, was among the movements that constituted the original Republican party. Lincoln was bold in attacking the nativist (American or "Know-nothing") wing, but if he had picked a quarrel with the temperance faction there would surely be some record of it. In his campaign against Douglass in 1858, he was forced to deny Douglass's charge that in his youth he had kept a "grocery" (package-goods store and tavern), but his supposed anti-prohibition views never became an issue.

After a little more research (to his credit) Dr. Kleiman came back with the following:

I have to take back what I said about there being no evidence of Lincoln's supporting a prohibition law in Illinois.

The Basler collection has a letter from Lincoln to Henry Whitney on June 7, 1855, lamenting the electoral defeat of Lincoln's friend Logan -- "worse beaten than any man ever was since elections were invented" -- and adding "It is conceded on all hands that the prohibitory law is also beaten." The "also" suggests that Lincoln was a supporter of the law.

From Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML:

I believe Mark K. is right that the Lincoln quote is apocryphal.

It was investigated by a Lincoln scholar at the request of Ollie Steinberg of the Minnesota Grassroots party. Like Mark, he found no record of any speech by Lincoln on the alleged date (Dec 18, 1840).

I've been told that according to the Home Book of Quotations (16th edition), it was fabricated in the 1880s - apparently by anti-Prohibitionists in Atlanta courting the Negro vote. Lincoln was well-known for his temperance sympathies. According to Herbert Asbury's "The Great Illusion," he authored a dry law modeled on the Maine law, which was rejected by Illinois voters in a special referendum on June 4, 1855. He was also alleged to have authored and signed a total abstinence pledge in 1846. According to temperance authorities, Lincoln was reluctant to sign the 1862 whiskey tax that helped fund the Civil War, on grounds it would condone the liquor trade. According to a temperance leader who spoke with him on the day of his assassination, Lincoln predicted that the next great question after slavery would be abolition of the traffic in legalized liquor.

I'm sorry to say that the Lincoln quote seems bogus, since I had it printed on California NORML's matchbooks. It's so good, I feel tempted to quote it as "attributed to Lincoln."

Peter Webster contributed the following:

From the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations: A.L. speech 22 Feb 1842, Washingtonian Temperance Society

"Whether or not the world would be vastly benefited by a total banishment from it of all intoxicating drinks seems not now an open question. Three-fourths of mankind confess the affirmative with their tongues, and I believe all the rest acknowledge it in their hearts."

Redford Givens found the following:

There has been discussion about the authenticity of the Lincoln remark below.

I don't know if this will settle anything but Matthew Woll, who testified in the 1926 Senate Prohibition Law hearings, mentions the exact place in the Illinois House of Representatives records where Lincoln's anti-prohibition statement can be found.
R Givens


1926 Senate National Prohibition Law hearings page 281


Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, made a similar statement in the Illinois House of Representatives, December 18, 1840, which can be found on page 136 of the Journal of the House of that date:

"Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principle upon which our Government was founded."

Steve Young, who lives in Illinois, contributed the following:

Last week, as the debate about Abraham Lincoln's alleged quote regarding prohibition was renewed, I found a library with the document sometimes cited to support the quote.

I managed to get to the library and ... no dice, the quote does not appear anywhere in the Journal of the Illinois House of Representatives from 1840. The librarian told me that the journal from that period does not record debate or statements on particular issues. The only items documented are the actual pieces of legislation under discussion, official motions on the legislation and vote tallies listing who cast votes on each motion.

As for the specific page cited in support of the quote, the Great Emancipator does indeed make a motion regarding an amendment to an act "to regulate Tavern and Grocery Licenses...". The amendment declares that " person shall be licensed to sell vinous or spiritous liquors in this State," under penalty of a fine of $1,000.

After the amendment had been read (and presumably debated), "Mr. Lincoln moved to lay the proposed amendment on the table..." In my understanding of contemporary parlimentary terminology "to lay on the table" means to set aside an issue without an affirmative or negative vote. Once "tabled" an issue may be reconsidered at the discretion of any member who can muster a majority vote, though the issue could remain tabled indefinitely, perhaps forever. I assume the phrase had a similar meaning 150 years ago.

Lincoln's motion was then approved by a vote of 75-8. Since the legislature seemed to jump from topic to topic in a rather arbitrary manner, it's difficult to tell whether the amendment was ever taken off the table again.

So it appears the quote will remain unverified. While it is possible that Lincoln made some such statement as support of his motion, it's also possible that he wanted to disregard the amendment because he didn't consider it tough enough. Or he may have had some more mundane reason for his action.

A few interersting notes for those who have read this far:

The page and date cited in support of the quote do not correspond. Page 136 actually records events of Dec. 19, 1840, not Dec. 18. I skimmed through the proceedings from Dec. 18, but found nothing worth mentioning.

In the margin of page 136, someone marked the relevant passage with a pencil. An amateur scholar with little regard for rare documents? Or the anti-prohibitionist researcher grasping at straws trying to find the slightest bit of support for his contention that Lincoln saw things his way?

As I chatted with the librarian, who seemed to be a bit of a Lincoln buff, he said he was unfamiliar with the quote, but he said that it sounded like something Lincoln might have said. I asked the librarian (who seemed to know his way around government documents) about this and he said 1840 was decades before complete debates and speeches in the Illinois legislature were officially recorded. Quite time consuming and expensive without the proper technology, I imagine.

Just as it is today, I suspect it would be unlikely to see lenghthy, direct quotes from congressional debates published in newspapers, especially regarding a topic that probably would not have been among the state's foremost concerns at the time.

I'm no historian, but I'm afraid I must now side with the skeptics. It seems to me that someone went to the trouble to cite an obscure and difficult to access source that has a very loose connection to the alleged quote in order to paint it with an authentic veneer. I think the fabricator felt fairly certain no one would call him on it. The fact that the date and page of the citation don't correspond appears to me to be an effort to muddy the waters a bit more.

If the source for the quote really did record whole debates I might be more willing to suspend my suspicion. However, it's clear that the Journal of the House of Representatives did not do that at the time.