The More Wisdom than Wit of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, US President, 1861-1865. Photo: Mathew Brady Civil War Series [Public Domain] via US National Archives.

The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: A Book of QuotationsThe Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: A Book of Quotations by Abraham Lincoln

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third of the Dover "Wit and Wisdom" series I have read, following on from Poor Richard (Benjamin Franklin) and Mark Twain. While the latter two were certainly witty in the humorous sense of the word, its use in relation to Lincoln is one more of quick intelligence, sans humour.

There are many familiar quotes in this book, two at least from popular culture. The first from Bob Dylan's "Talkin' World War III Blues" (p. 29):
You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time (29 May 1856).
The other quote is from Saving Private Ryan, a letter of condolence to a Mrs Lydia Bixby. Lincoln believed that Bixby had lost five sons in the war. The book suggests this was what Lincoln believed at the time, but it was a mistake - she had lost two (p. 78). I decided to delve into this a little more.

While there is much controversy about the actual letter, ranging from opinions that the wording of the letter is greater than the Gettysburg Address, to that it wasn't written by Lincoln but by his assistant personal secretary, John Hay.

What is even stranger is that Bixby may well have been a Confederate sympathiser and operated a house of ill repute! Still, that doesn't take away from Lincoln's eloquence.

There isn't much in the way of humour other than a mild form of self-deprecating humility. My favourite story about Lincoln is his decision to grow a beard, based on the suggestion of an 11 year-old girl, Grace Bedell, in a letter of 15 October 1860 (p. 14). My great, great grandfather, James Beasley Percy, born in 1866 near Armidale, wore the same beard.

Emily and James Percy, circa 1890s.

But there is one thing that Lincoln was famous for, not so much what he wrote but what he didn't send. On 14 July 1863, Lincoln wrote a scathing letter to General George G. Meade for letting Robert E. Lee's forces escape following the Battle of Gettysburg (p. 86). Lincoln referred to these as "hot letters" to let off steam. I suppose it is easier not to post a letter, much less so with a "flaming" email!

While quotes are easy to come by on the internet, and not all are adequately attributed, I find reading the "Wit and Wisdom" series useful in that the quotes are themed around important events or activities. Reading a person's thoughts, letters, and speeches in this way provides a richer idea of the trials and tribulations they faced, rather than the glossy bits that are seen in a simple meme or online quote.

Lincoln appears to be much more serious than Twain or Poor Richard. Indeed, responding to a cabinet minister wondering why Lincoln was reading a humorous book (p. 44), Lincoln replied:
With all the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.
And he was under enormous strain. In responding to a reported death threat, Lincoln remarked on 4 April 1865 (p. 16):
I cannot bring myself to believe that any human being lives who would do me any harm.
Alas, there was, but the rest is history.