Biggest (And Most Famous) Historical Misquotes

With the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial last week, an interesting controversy arose regarding the statue. Famed African-American poet Maya Angelou criticized the quote placed on the King Memorial. Reading, ""I was a drum major for justice peace and righteousness," Angelou believes that this makes King sound full of himself, despite being a very humble person. King's original quote read: "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter." Quite different right? This brings about questions of historical accuracy, and how inaccuracy can many times change how we perceive people and events from our past.

Let's take a look at some of the biggest, and most famous misquotes from history. Some may surprise you; some may even upset you. But, one will know doubt learn the importance of historical accuracy.

Niel Armstrong, Moon Landing

On July 20th, 1969, Niel Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. Upon leaving their lander, Armstrong uttered the now famous words over live television broadcast: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Only one problem - this line doesn't actually make sense, as "mankind" is essentially discussed in both clauses.

The communicators used by the astronauts were such that they only began picking up communications after a certain number of syllables (as to avoid hearing breathing and other unimportant noise over live broadcasts). As such, words often times were cut off. Upon stepping on the moon, Armstrong actually said "That's one small step for A man, one giant leap for mankind." Now that makes sense.

In recent years, however, there has been much controversy over what Armstrong really said. In his book, Armstrong claims he said the quote correctly, while NASA argues against it. Who can fault him if he did forget the "a." Being on the moon might have been a little nerve-racking.

Armstrong, as he makes his first step on the moon.
Armstrong, as he makes his first step on the moon.

John Paul Jones - Ready to Throwdown

Favored amongst seamen and those in the military, John Paul Jones' "I have not yet begun to fight," has become a symbol of American defiance.

Attributed to Jones during a cannon battle with the British H.M.S. Serapis in 1779 when asked if he would surrender, Jones actually said the following: "No. I may sink, but I'm damned if I'll strike!"

Apparently, a seamen who witnessed this later wrote a biography of Jones, and changed the quote, believing that readers would not understand what "strike" meant.

John Paul Jones - Not the bassist of Led Zeppelin.
John Paul Jones - Not the bassist of Led Zeppelin.

John Swigert - Apollo 13 Incident

That's right - another misquote from space. On April 14th, 1970, as Apollo 13 was 300,000 miles from earth and heading to the moon, an explosion occurred following an otherwise routine procedure. While it is often believed that Commander Jim Lovell then said "Houston, we have a problem," this is not accurate.Upon the explosion, it was actually John Swigert who uttered the famous line, albeit differently.

What Swigert actually said was "Okay Houston, we've had a problem here." A little less dramatic to be sure. The misquote is attributed to the film Apollo 13, which has Tom Hanks' Jim Lovell, instead of Swigert (Kevin Bacon), giving the misquoted line (for an in-depth look at this misquote, see this article on historical mistakes in film: http://mabrgordon.hubpages.com/hub/The-Top-10-Biggest-Historical-Movie-Mistakes).

The crew of Apollo 13 following a successful re-entry and splashdown.
The crew of Apollo 13 following a successful re-entry and splashdown.

George Washington - Hot Cherry Lie

From elementary school, you've undoubtedly heard the tale of a young George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. When faced with punishment, Washington cedes the truth, claiming he can never tell a lie.

Supposedly, this is what Washington said: “I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree.” Meant to be a symbol of American morality, in reality, this quote, and more importantly this event, never actually happened.

Ultimately, this story was an invention of early Washington biographer Parson Weems, in an attempt to add a sort of moral mythological flare to Washington (much like many of the images and myths about Washington - see the following image).

Much like cherry tree story, this painting of Washington crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851) is also a historical embellishment. Washington crossed in the dead of night, and most assuredly did not stand in the overcrowded boat.
Much like cherry tree story, this painting of Washington crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851) is also a historical embellishment. Washington crossed in the dead of night, and most assuredly did not stand in the overcrowded boat.

Marie Antoinette - Let Them Eat Cake!

Supposedly, upon learning of the terrible conditions of citizens of France under her husband's reign, the famous French vixen proclaimed of the starving populace, "Then let them eat brioche (bread)." Over the years, this has changed to cake.

Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette never actually said this. It has been found that the first record of her saying such a line was in a 1931 German children's (quite false) history book. Furthermore, the actual quote first appeared in a novel by French author Jean-Jacques Rousseau, when Marie Antoinette was just a small girl.

Talk about historically inaccurate...and [whispering] a terrible movie.
Talk about historically inaccurate...and [whispering] a terrible movie.

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Comments 2 comments

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

Often it happens with the bible as well.I think it is because people don't really listen.


Xenonlit profile image

Xenonlit 5 years ago

This is an outstanding hub! I wonder how many teachers, right this week, have taught the misquotes. I also hope that they fix the MLK monument.

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