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The saying "God must love the poor [or the common people or the plain people] because he made so many of them" falls somewhere between a proverb and a famous quotation, but its origins are rather murky. It is among the hundreds of aphorisms ascribed (by many people) to Abraham Lincoln—but as with a number of other quotations attributed to him, there appears to be no evidence recorded during Lincoln's lifetime that he ever actually said it. I searched several dictionaries of quotations and proverbs and couldn't find any mention even of the quotation itself, much less a reliable attribution for it.

My questions are as follows:

1. What is the earliest recorded version of this quotation—and when, where, and by whom was it written and (supposedly) said?

2. What is the evidence for and against Abraham Lincoln as the source of the quotation?

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One interesting feature of this quotation is that it began appearing with some regularity, usually attributed to Lincoln, in the middle 1890s, some three decades after Lincoln's death (April 15, 1865). Another is that most of the earliest citations specifically attribute the quotation to Lincoln. A third is that, even at that early period, a key element of the expression—the identity of those that God must love—appears in three distinct forms: the poor, the common people, and the plain people.

The earliest printed reference to the quotation that I've been able to find uses the "common people" wording. From John Durham, "The National Unitarian Conference," in the [New York] Independent (November 7, 1889):

The same magnanimity which impelled Lincoln to reflect that God must love the common people because he makes so many of them, inspired Hale’s fine talk. It is the people, he said, who make religious revolutions, and not the ecclesiastical authorities. Creeds die hard, and rituals die slowly. It is the people who are the pioneers, and the Church follows.

But an instance of "the poor" pops up four years later, in an appeal to President Grover Cleveland from C.C. Goodwin, editor of the Salt Lake [City, Utah] Tribune, in the Washington Post, reprinted as "A Letter to Grover," in the Aspen [Colorado] Evening Chronicle (September 14, 1893), referring to Lincoln although not by name:

Have not subsequent events proved that you were in error then? Does no glimmering of the truth come to you that for fifteen years a storm has been gathering and it was in this year that it broke? Thirty years ago a man occupied the exalted station which you now occupy who was ever in close rapport with the people. To his nearest advisor he once said: 'God must love the poor; he makes so many of them.' That man was much derided in his lifetime, but his image is now encircled with a golden halo in the thought of all who look back along the years to call up his memory. It was because his uttermost thought was to do that which was best for all his people, especially for the poor of the land.

Anna Worden, "The Advancement of Woman" in Margaret Yardley, The New Jersey Scrap Book of Women Writers, volume 2 (1893) repeats the "common people" version:

The Grange is the organization of the common people, and Abraham Lincoln once said he thought “God must love the common people ; He had made so many of them ;” and could we but be imbued with the missionary spirit, what a messenger of intelligence the Grange might become to the lowly and neglected.

And "Direct Legislation," in Railroad Trainmen's Journal (March 1894) has simply "common people":

"God must love common people.'' said Abraham Lincoln, "or He wouldn't make so many." We "common people," the workers, are in the majority, and we shall never rest until we get the major part of the good things we produce. But a means by which we can do this, by which we can shape legislation to fit our own welfare, is, and has for a long time been a crying necessity.

The earliest instance of the "plain people" variant appears in Albert Cook, "Chautauqua: Its Aims and Its Influence," in The Forum (August 1895):

More often I think of him [John Vincent] in the same breath with Lincoln. "God must love the plain people, he has made so many of them," is a sentiment ascribed to the great President, and it is one that would sound equally appropriate in the mouth of the good Bishop. Lincoln knew how to bide his time, and not prematurely advance the day of great things.

In contrast, the earliest source to cite someone other than Lincoln as the author of the saying is Keyes Danforth, Boyhood Reminiscences: Pictures of New England in the Olden Times in Williamstown (1895)—and his attribution is by no means precise:

He [Keyes Danforth, Sr.] was very shrewd and had great tact, and was a born leader. He was a strong democrat, and was democratic; he loved the common people, and was their friend. As some eminent divine said, "God must love the common people for he has so many more of them." He was a genial companion, fond of a joke, and had a great fund of stories and regaled the company with them well embellished.

Nevertheless, Martin Tullai, "So Abe Didn't Say It, But He Should Have: Who Said It?" in the Baltimore Sun (August 30, 1992) asserts just as firmly that there is no record of Lincoln's actually having said or written it:

The following quotation, a favorite of many people, is chiseled into the stone entrance of the New York Daily News skyscraper in New York:

"God must have loved the common people: He made so many of them."

But there is no proof that they are Lincoln's words.

To some extent that view is supported by the fact that in a speech before the House of Representatives on April 20, 1896, Representative Talbert of South Carolina felt free to make the observation as if it were original to himself:

I do not say that the appropriations now before this Committee of the Whole for the benefit of foreign subjects ought not to be paid; possibly they ought to be. If they are just and right let them be paid; but while we are taking care of foreigners, while we are taking care of negroes, while we are taking care of Indians, let us try to take care of the poor white people of our own country who have just claims against us, for it is the poor people who are in the majority. It seems to me, sir, that God must love the poor people more than anybody else, because he has made so many more of them. Let us do something for this class of people in our own country.

This doesn't sound like a politician invoking a famous saying of a famous president, although as a post-Reconstruction South Carolinian, Talbert may not have been eager to credit Lincoln as his source of his apothegm. In any case, the earliest of these matches comes about 30 years after Lincoln's death.


Assessment

The earliest recorded instance of the quotation in question appears in late 1889, slightly more than 24 years after Lincoln's death. The delay in attribution is explicable if we accept that people simply hadn't heard the statement at the time it was made and that it emerged 20 years or more later in some a biography of Lincoln or a memoir about working with him. It is certainly a point in favor of Lincoln that, even in 1889, he is the person to whom the saying is ascribed.

On the other hand, 24 years is a long time to keep something so catchy and quotable under wraps. It is also problematic that the details of whom Lincoln made the remark to and under what conditions are inconsistently reported. C.C. Goodwin, writing in 1883, asserts that Lincoln was speaking to "his nearest advisor." A story in the January 29, 1901, St. Paul [Minnesota] Globe has it that the comment arose in response to an arrogant opposition senator:

It was Lincoln who said: "God must love the common people, because he has made so many of them." This in reply to a remark of deprecation made by a senator against a "common" man the president had selected for an office. Lincoln's birthday, Feb. 12, is a legal holiday in Minnesota and seven other states.

And another journalist, writing in the December 1903 issue of Success magazine, provides a vignette in which the remark arises in response to a Congressman's embarrassment at presenting the president with a petition from the voters of his district:

On Lincoln's lips, the words that often came were these,—"The common people." To those who lived with him and talked with him, especially during the Civil War, it seemed as if he could never cease thinking of those who were just human beings, unlettered, unknown, inglorious. A congressman from a western district approached him during his term as president, and apologized for presenting a petition from his constituents, because they were very common people.

"Well," said Lincoln, pleasantly, "God must love the common people, He's made so many of 'em."

That is, by late 1903—less than 15 years after the first print reference to the expression that I could find—writers cite at least three different contexts for the remark, three different people the remark was directed to, and three different versions of who the speaker says God must love.

Lincoln is identified early and often as the source of the remark about common/plain/poor people. But the absence of any record of the quotation from the 1860s or before, the 24-year gap between Lincoln's death and the earliest mention of the quotation that I could find, inconsistencies in the details of the anecdote early in its period of popularization, and significant inconsistencies in the wording of the quotation all point toward the conclusion that Lincoln was not the originator of the expression.

Ultimately, the fact that political hagiographers, who would have found the quotation perfect for their purposes of glorifying the martyred president as a brilliant but down-to-earth man of the people, overlooked the quotation for more than two decades following Lincoln's assassination may be the strongest piece of circumstantial evidence that the expression arose some time after his death and is the work of an uncredited aphorist.

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  • There is also the following extract from Congressional Records from 1913 : Lincoln did love the common people. He said God must have loved them or he would not have made so many of them. books.google.it/…
    – user 66974
    May 27, 2020 at 6:06
  • Aren't there a number of aphorisms that are apocryphally attributed to Lincoln?
    – Barmar
    May 27, 2020 at 14:28
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    @Barmar to such an extent that Abraham Lincoln Once Said, "Don't Believe Everything That You Read on The Internet." has been added to the list
    – Chris H
    May 27, 2020 at 14:55

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