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S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.

Abraham Lincoln

  • [“The incarnation of the people and of modern democracy;” born in Hardin County, Ky., Feb. 12, 1809; served in the Black Hawk war, 1832; member of the Illinois Legislature; elected to Congress, 1846; President of the United States from March 4, 1861, until his death by assassination, April 15, 1865.]
  • I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.

  • The first famous utterance of Lincoln on the subject which was destined to divide the Union temporarily after his own election to the Presidency, was made in a speech to the Illinois Whig State Convention at Springfield, June 16, 1858. Sumner once said, “Where slavery is, there liberty cannot be; and where liberty is, there slavery cannot be.”
  • Just before the fall of Vicksburg, July 4, 1863, a self-constituted committee urged Mr. Lincoln to remove Gen. Grant from command on the ground of his intemperate habits. After listening to them, the President brought the interview to a close by asking them if they knew where the general bought his whiskey; “because, if I can find out, I will send every general in the field a barrel of it.”—CARPENTER: Six Months in the White House.
  • When objections were made to the appointment of Wolfe to the command of the expedition against Quebec, on the ground that he was mad; “Mad, is he?” exclaimed George II.: “I wish his madness was epidemic, and that every officer in my army was seized with it.” The result is well known. On the night of Sept. 12, 1759, the British troops were embarked for a spot on the opposite side of Quebec, whence they might scale the Heights of Abraham, overlooking the city. Undisturbed save by the dipping of the oars, Wolfe repeated Gray’s Elegy, saying that he “would rather have written it than take Quebec.” After scaling the heights, his whole army was soon drawn up before the French; and, at the first volley, both commanders fell. Wolfe heard the cry, “They run!” and, being told it was the enemy, he exclaimed, “Now God be praised! I die happy.” Montcalm, when assured that his wound was mortal, replied, “So much the better: I shall not see the English in Quebec.” Their common monument bears the inscription: Mortem virtus, communam famam historia, monumentum posteritas dedit.
  • Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

  • At the consecration of the national cemetery on the battle-field of Gettysburg, Nov. 19, 1853, the President made a short address, in which, speaking of the victorious army, he said, “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.” He closed by pledging the country to renewed effort, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
  • It is not best to swap horses when crossing a stream.

  • When congratulated by the National Union League upon his renomination to the Presidency, June 9, 1864, he replied, “I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that I am the best man in this country; but I am reminded in this connection of the story of an old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion that it was not best to swap horses when crossing a stream.”
  • It was in his second inaugural address, March 4, 1865, that Lincoln expressed the feeling which had animated him throughout the struggle now soon to terminate: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
  • A short time before this (Feb. 2), President Lincoln attended what was called the Hampton Roads Conference, when Mr. Hunter, the Confederate Secretary of State, referred to the correspondence between Charles I. and Parliament as a precedent for a negotiation between a constitutional ruler and rebels. Mr. Lincoln replied, “Upon matters of history, I must refer you to Mr. Seward, for he is posted in such things, and I don’t profess to be; but my only distinct recollection of the matter is, that Charles lost his head.”—CARPENTER: Six Months.
  • The freedmen are the wards of the nation.

  • A remark of the President to E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War, who replied, “Yes, wards in chancery.” Secretary S. P. Chase wrote to Mr. Stanton, calling his attention to a complaint made by the colored people of Cincinnati to certain orders or officers of the War Department: “We cannot afford to loss the support of any of our people. One poor man, colored though he be, with God on his side, is stronger against us than the hosts of the Rebellion.”—CARPENTER: Six Months in the White House, 180. When told, in 1862, that Gen. McClellan was an admirable engineer, Lincoln observed, “He seems to have a special talent for a stationary engine.”
  • Lord Lyons presented to the President an autograph letter of Queen Victoria announcing the marriage of the Prince of Wales. Mr. Lincoln’s only remark to the bachelor minister was, “Lyons, go thou and do likewise.”
  • Of a recently deceased politician of Illinois, whose merit was obscured by an overweening vanity, Lincoln said, “If Gen. —— had known how big a funeral he would have had, he would have died years ago.”
  • In one of the great series of debates between Lincoln and Douglas in 1858, the latter spoke of having known Lincoln when he was a flourishing grocery-keeper at New Salem, Sangamon County. Lincoln denied it, but said that if it had been true, Judge Douglas would have been his best customer. It is true that Lincoln was first a clerk and then a partner in a grocery in that town; but when a barrel of whiskey was rolled in to attract customers, Lincoln retired from the partnership.
  • He was first called “Old Abe” in 1847 by Leslie Smith, a lawyer, who said during a River and Harbor Convention in July of that year, “There is Lincoln on the other side of the street. Just look at Old Abe.” “Tall, angular, and awkward,” says E. B. Washburne (“Reminiscences of Lincoln,” 16), “he had on a short-waisted, thin, swallow-tail coat, a short vest of the same material, thin pantaloons scarcely coming down to his ankles, a straw hat, and a pair of brogans, with woollen socks.” In 1858, hearing himself called “Old Abe,” Lincoln said, “Oh, they have been at that trick many years. They commenced it when I was scarcely thirty.”
  • Of the love of office among Virginians, he said just before the war, “They won’t give up the offices. Were it believed that vacant places could be had at the North Pole, the road there would be lined with dead Virginians.”
  • When charged with having changed his mind in some matter, he replied, “I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser to-day than he was yesterday.”
  • Lincoln’s phrase “government of the people,” etc., was anticipated by Daniel Webster, who, in his speech against Hayne, Jan. 20, 1830, said, “It is, sir, the people’s constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” Theodore Parker used a similar expression in a speech before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, May 13, 1854. The idea is as old as Luther, who said (“Sincere Exhortation to Peace”), “For government was not established for its own ends,… but for the interest and the advantage of the people.” Sir William Temple has said that “for a prince to govern all by all is the great secret of happiness and safety, both for prince and people;” and Napoleon’s maxim was, “Every thing for the people, nothing by them.”
  • Another phrase of Lincoln’s, “With malice towards none,” etc., may be compared with the close of a letter of John Quincy Adams to A. Bronson of Fall River, Mass., July 30, 1838, in reply to an invitation to attend a celebration, on Aug. 1, of the final abolition of slavery in the British West Indies: “In charity to all mankind, bearing no malice or ill-will to any human being, and even compassionating those who hold in bondage their fellow-men, not knowing what they do.” Rufus Choate said of Mr. Adams’s relentlessness as a debater, “He had an instinct for the jugular and the carotid artery, as unerring as that of any carnivorous animal.”—E. P. WHIPPLE: Recollections of Eminent Men, 61.
  • John Adams, speaking of the election of his son to the Presidency, used an expression of which he may share joint authorship with Louis XIV.: “No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it. He will make one man ungrateful, and a hundred men his enemies, for every office he can bestow.”—QUINCY: Figures of the Past, 74.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his remarks at funeral services at Concord, April 19, 1865, called Lincoln “the true representative of this continent;… the pulse of twenty millions throbbing in his heart, the thought of their minds articulated by his tongue;” and Charles Sumner began his eulogy on the President, in Boston, June 1: “In the providence of God, there are no accidents.”
  • A few more anecdotes of Mr. Choate, recorded by the late E. P. Whipple, may be added here: He said to Boston Whigs during the Polk campaign, “We will return James K. Polk to the convention that discovered him.” Of the English historians of ancient Greece, Choate observed that they, even Thirlwall and Grote, were more or less biassed by their feelings on English party politics: “They were consciously or unconsciously influenced in their opinions as to the personal and political character of Charles James Fox.”
  • The Supreme Court once demanded that Choate should find a precedent for a position which seemed just. “I will look, your honors,” replied Choate, “for a precedent, although it would be a pity that the court should lose the honor of being the first to establish so just a rule.”
  • Of an ugly artist who had painted a portrait of himself, Choate declared it “a flagrant likeness.”
  • Of the great advocate’s almost undecipherable chirography, Professor Ticknor remarked that he had in his possession two letters, one written by Manuel the Great of Portugal in 1512, and the other by Gonsalvo de Cordova a few years earlier; “These letters strongly resemble your notes of the present trial.” Choate instantly remarked, “Remarkable men! they seem to have been much in advance of their time.”
  • He declared the lawyer’s vacation to be “the space between the question put to a witness and his answer.”
  • The story is told, that Choate, having exhausted his allotted time, was stopped by the court: “I know that my time is exhausted,” he replied, “but as amicus curiæ I should like to make a few suggestions to your honors.” He was allowed to proceed.