Sunday, January 7, 2007

Millard Fillmore's birthday!

Ed Darrell, over at Millard Fillmore's Bathtub, reminds us that today is Millard Fillmore's 207th birthday. I'm ashamed to admit this, but with all the hassle of a new semester starting tomorrow, it had slipped my mind.

Ed offers a quotation "attributed to Fillmore": "May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not." But did Fillmore actually say it? As Ed points out, we don't know. He's searching, as is Elektratig, but nothing yet.

"Attributed to" quotations can be the bane of the historian's existence--or, we can see them as fun research opportunities. (Actually, they're both.)

New technology makes searching for words and phrases much easier than it would have been just a few years ago, as I pointed out a few days ago in a posting about the word "y'all." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first printed occurrence of "y'all" was in 1909, but through the use of a couple of new online databases, I was able, in just a few minutes, to find the word half a century earlier, in the April 1858 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger.

We can use this same searching capability to look for quotations in the printed record. For example, one of the most famous "attributed to" Lincoln quotations is: "You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." Did Lincoln say that? It certainly sounds like Lincoln, but there are no contemporary accounts that put those words in Lincoln's mouth. In fact, the saying was not even attributed to Lincoln until 1901, in a book titled Abe Lincoln's Yarns and Stories.

At least, that what's everybody said. And then Dr. Y'all here decided to have a go at it, using those same databases, and guess what? Yep, there it was, in the New York Times, August 26, 1887, in an account of a conference of Prohibition supporters meeting in Syracuse. Fred Wheeler, one of the conference organizers, made a speech in which "he quoted most aptly Lincoln's remark that 'you can fool all the people some of the time....'" There it is, fourteen years before it should be there: a direct connection between Lincoln and the quotation.

If anyone is interested, you can read more on this in the Autumn 2005 newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association.

All this sounds pretty cool, but it's not nearly as big a deal as it might sound; all I did was type a few words into a search form. And I'll point out that these databases can't do everything. They allow you to search only a relatively limited number of sources, which means that there might be even earlier occurrences of "y'all" or the saying about fooling all the people. They aren't forgiving with syntax; searches generally return hits only for exact matches, so any variation in spelling or word choice can leave you with "false negatives." (A search for "fool the people" will not return an occurrence of "fool all the people.") The databases don't necessarily tell us if Lincoln ever said it; that question is still up in the air. And they're often not available unless you're asssociated with a college that has purchased a subscription.

Of course, all this doesn't help Ed in his search for the alleged Fillmore quotation.

Ed, I really wanted to give you, as a Fillmore birthday present, the source of the quotation. But I can't.

A quick search for the quotation (in several variations) in American Periodical Series, a ProQuest database that covers some 1,200 popular magazines and journals that began publishing between 1749 and 1900, shows nothing.

The New York Times: Nothing until Sept. 21, 1962, when Brooks Atkinson, in a "Critic at Large" column, attributed the quotation to Fillmore without further citation.

In Making of America, a free (yay!) database which "currently contains approximately 9,500 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints," is a book titled Speeches in the Second and Third Sessions of the Thirty-seventh Congress, by Benjamin F. Thomas (1863). On page 185, Thomas says: "If the spirit of party cannot be subdued or chastened in the presence of our imminent peril, God save the country; for he only can." That's not the Fillmore quotation, but it's the closest I could find.

Happy Fillmore Birthday, Ed; I wish I could have done better.