When Ronald Reagan, in discussing fundamental values at the Republican convention, erroneously attributed to Abraham Lincoln several positive principles, he joined a long line. Abraham Lincoln -- not Yogi Berra -- is the most misquoted American.
Historians have been trying for over 40 years to set the record straight on the ''Ten Cannots,'' which run as follows:
* ''You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.''
* ''You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.''
* ''You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.''
* ''You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.''
* ''You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.''
* ''You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.''
* ''You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.''
* ''You cannot establish security on borrowed money.''
* ''You cannot build character and courage by taking away men's initiative and independence.''
* ''You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.''
Mr. Reagan quoted the third, fifth and tenth of these precepts at the convention, attributing them to Abraham Lincoln. Press reports, at least initially, took Mr. Reagan's word for it.
In fact, the author of these literary gems was William J.H. Boetcker, a one-time Brooklyn clergyman who gave up the ministry to lecture on industrial relations. In 1916 he published a booklet called ''Inside Maxims'' which were an early form of the ''Ten Cannots.'' He later refined them in other pamphlets to further the cause of laissez-faire individualism.
In 1942 the Committee for Constitutional Government, a lobby backed by the newspaper publisher Frank Gannett, distributed hundreds of thousands of copies of a leaflet with an authentic Lincoln quote on one side entitled, ''Lincoln on Limitations.'' On the reverse was a list of Boetcker's maxims, properly attributed in a footnote.
Somehow, Boetker's words came to be ascribed to Lincoln. In 1949 an Ohio congresswoman, Frances P. Bolton, read them as Lincolniana into the Congressional Record. Look magazine reprinted them with the suggestion that ''Its about time for the country to remember.''
Congresswoman Bolton apparently had gotten them from a friend who had heard them delivered by radio commentator Galen Drake. From Drake they were traced to the Royle Forum, house organ of a New Jersey machinery manufacturer. Its editor, Richard Cook, had taken them from some direct-mail advertising by a firm which, in turn, had taken them from the Committee for Constitutional Government's 1942 leaflet.
Attempting to correct the record, Rep. Stephen M. Young inserted into the Congressional Record in 1950 an article from Harper's magazine, written by a Lincoln scholar, Albert A. Wolman, listing most of the ''Ten Cannots'' and much other material as falsely attributed to Lincoln. Another scholar, Roy P. Basler, had also debunked the material in the Abraham Lincoln Quarterly in December, 1949.
Nonetheless, in 1954 President Eisenhower's postmaster general, Arthur E. Summerfield, cited the ''Cannots'' as Lincolnian wisdom in a speech delivered in Akron, Ohio. Stephen A. Mitchell, chairman of the Democratic National Committee charged that Summerfield was trying to ''put over a Lincoln hoax'' -- attempting to make Lincoln sound like a modern-day Republican.
The confusion continued. In 1976 the Tiffany Company ran the 10 nuggets as an ad in the New York Times under the heading: ''Abraham Lincoln Said More Than 100 Years Ago.'' When the attribution was challenged, Tiffany acknowledged it had erred and apologized to its customers. But Mr. Reagan -- and probably many others -- haven't got the word yet.
The ''Ten Cannots'' are but a small part of the numerous sayings and expressions erroneously attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Cut in stone over the entrance to the Museum of the City of New York are words that Lincoln would have agreed with, but has never been documented as saying:
''I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.''
In 1909 the Rev. J.T. Hobson quoted Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln as recalling a little ''sermon'' his father had preached ''to the boys:
''Don't drink, don't smoke, don't swear, don't gamble, don't lie, don't cheat. Love your fellowmen and love God. Love truth, love virtue and be happy.''
When Robert Todd Lincoln was asked about this, he flatly denied that he had ever heard of it before.
In 1863, President Lincoln was quoted as saying, when he looked upon ''the graves of our dead heroes'' at Gettysburg: ''I do love Jesus.''
Again, this has not been substantiated.
Authentic statements by Lincoln endorsed the right of labor to form unions and to strike. A paragraph from his inaugural address ranked labor above capital, and another statement held that labor should receive the good things it produces.
But the following alleged Lincoln quote is false: