During the Wheeling speech in 1950, McCarthy said :

As one of our outstanding historical figures once said, “When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be from enemies from without, but rather because of enemies from within.” Joseph McCarthy (RationalWiki)

Who is he referring to when he speaks about a "historical figure"? An old president of the US ?

  • 4
    Can't speak to this one specifically, but its not unheard-of for populist American politicians to acquire their quotations via the rectal extraction method.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 26, 2016 at 19:51

1 Answer 1


Probably Abraham Lincoln.

While the specific "quote" is almost certainly manufactured, the core idea could easily have been taken from Lincoln's Lyceum Address. In that speech, Lincoln warned that the mortal danger to the United States was not foreign but domestic:

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.

(In recent years this has been rendered as "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves". That is rather more similar to McCarthy's purported "quote", but post-dates his speech by decades.)

Of course, we cannot know for certain who (if anyone) McCarthy meant, since he failed to explicitly name this "outstanding historical figure". Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that McCarthy made the reference while delivering a Lincoln Day speech. In fact, he began with:

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight as we celebrate the one hundred forty-first birthday of one of the greatest men in American history ... These would be truly appropriate things to be able to mention as we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

It stands to reason that he may reference Lincoln's remarks.

Note that this isn't to say McCarthy was actually quoting Lincoln. It is at best a very loose paraphrase of a liberal summary of a paragraph in Lincoln's speech.

  • I believe you have overlooked some of Lincoln's even more famous words: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided." Interestingly enough, we note that Lincoln did not think that the divisions incurred by slavery would destroy the country, but would lead it to change its inner structure. It is also of note that the famous phrase itself is paraphrased from the Gospel of Mark 3:25.
    – BOB
    Jan 27, 2016 at 20:38
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    @BOB No, I consider that to be different in essence from the point McCarthy was making.
    – Semaphore
    Jan 27, 2016 at 21:07
  • How so? They both relate to divergent political interests within the society of the United States which attempt to pull the country in different directions.
    – BOB
    Jan 27, 2016 at 21:15
  • 2
    One is about subversive elements within, the other is about diametrically opposed structures not co-existing.
    – Semaphore
    Jan 28, 2016 at 4:57

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