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Best Quotes from Abraham Lincoln - a hero to many and, surprisingly, a racist

 I have often used quotes from Abe Lincoln to illustrate a point. For example I always believed he said "You can't make the poor rich, by making the rich poor" and I've been using this quote for years to help explain why I favour capitalism over socialism (whilst nonetheless being an egalitarian). Trouble is, as I've only just learned, he never actually said this. It's the sort of quote you believe someone like him might have made, if only they'd have thought of it....

Which reminds me. Neil Armstrong actually said "One small step for man, one VAST leap for mankind". Not "... one GIANT leap..." as he's traditionally quoted. Check it out for yourself here.

What Lincoln did in fact say was admittedly similar to my 'poor rich, rich poor' quip: 

“You cannot lift the wage earner up by pulling the wage payer down.” 

which I'll agree is not so different, except it only relates to work and employment. He also said:

“You can’t make a weak man strong by making a strong man weak”

Similar use of irony (of which you will see in a moment, he was a master), but to be frank I don't understand it. Sounds clever when you first hear it, but the two characters in his analogy aren't related. It just doesn't make sense.

Anyway, he made a huge number of speeches littered with delightful quotes that I decided to list here for you to better appreciate the mind of one of the world's heroes... or so I thought.

It was towards the end of my research through hundreds of candidate quotes festooning the web, that I caught sight of a quote that stopped me in my tracks. Lincoln, the man who won the American Civil War and (eventually) illegalised the ownership of slaves (the import of slaves was already illegal) was in fact a white supremacist!! Seems he famously believed in the rights of blacks (referred to in his day as negroes or worse) to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", as defined by the US Constitution - which meant not being owned by somebody else for the purpose of exploitation - but what I never knew, and suspect most people didn't know, Americans included perhaps (or am I just a naive Limey), was that he never wanted blacks to have a vote, hold public office or be allowed to marry whites whom he believed were, in his words... pause for incredulity... "superior". How could such a smart guy be so deluded?

Before he was chosen as the leader of the Republicans (it also surprised me to learn that it was the Democrats who supported the retention of slavery and the newly formed Republican party who were the abolitionists), he toured the country (mainly Northern states of course) debating publicly with the Democrat leader, Judge Stephen Douglas - an out and out loathsome racist. This is a quote by Lincoln from their first debate in Ottowa Illinois in August 1868, taken from The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln :

Now gentlemen, I don't want to read at any greater length, but this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery and the black race. This is the whole of it, and anything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse. [Laughter.] I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. [Loud cheers.] I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects---certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. [Great applause.]”

O M G !

These are the words and beliefs of the man whose enormous memorial lauds it over Washington DC and who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (while the war continued to rage for nearly another year) which ultimately was responsible for liberating 3.5 million slaves. 

Further digging uncovered many variations of the above. Here are some archives if you want to root around yourself. 

and this beautifully curated collection

However this starling revelation might make you feel about the man, he was still responsible for many memorable quotes, some of which I've selected here for you to enjoy and maybe even claim as your own:

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” [Predicting Jan 6 2020 perhaps?]

“I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how a man could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.” [He was agnostic and no fan of Christianity or any other dogma. If he was alive today, he'd revel in how much we now know about the universe and I'm certain he'd be an atheist].

“I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.”

“The best way to predict your future is to create it.”

“Tact: the ability to describe others as they see themselves.”

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” [Love this one]

“No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar” [...and this one]

“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

“I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”

“It's not me who can't keep a secret. It's the people I tell that can't.”

“The Lord prefers common-looking people. That is why he made so many of them.”

“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”

“You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.”

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

“When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one third thinking about what I want to say.”

“The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma.”

“My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”

“Hypocrite: The man who murdered his parents, and then pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan.”

“If this country is ever demoralized, it will come from trying to live without work.”

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God cannot retain it.”

“You cannot lift the wage earner up by pulling the wage payer down.”

“You can’t make a weak man strong by making a strong man weak”

“You cannot have the right to do what is wrong!”

“Don't worry when you are not recognized but strive to be worthy of recognition”

“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. ”

“Tis better people think you a fool, then open your mouth and erase all doubt.”

“And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.”

“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it's a useful little chap”

“Never do anything for anyone who can just as well do it themself”

“If you think you can you can, if you think you can't you're right!”

“The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for to-morrow which can be done to-day.”

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.”

“The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”

“What is conservatism? Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?”

“Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.”

“we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- 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.”

“There can be glory in failure and despair in success.”

“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”

“IF you are going to fight, don't let them talk you into negotiating. But, if you are going to negotiate, don't let them talk you into fighting.”

“. . . 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." Famously from his Gettysburg address at the end of the civil war on November 19, 1863
“It is not best to swap horses while crossing the river.”
“When you have got an elephant by the hind legs and he is trying to run away, it's best to let him run"
“Teach the children so it won't be necessary to teach the adults.”
“We shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it.”
“You can complain because a rose has thorns, or you can rejoice because the thorns have a rose.”
“The best thing a man can do for his children is love their mother.” 

“How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?… Four; calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg.”
And of course... “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Hope you enjoyed that. Lots to ponder.

And finally, he wrote this wonderful letter to his son's new headmaster:

Respected Teacher,

My son will have to learn that all men are not just, all men are not true.

But teach him also that for ever scoundrel there is a hero; that for every selfish politician, there is a dedicated leader. Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend.

It will take time, I know; but teach him, if you can, that a dollar earned is far more valuable than five found.

Teach him to learn to lose and also to enjoy winning.

Steer him away from envy, if you can.

Teach him the secret of quite laughter. Let him learn early that the bullies are the easiest to tick.

Teach him, if you can, the wonder of books... but also give him quiet time to ponder over the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and flowers on a green hill.

In school teach him it is far more honorable to fail than to cheat.

Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if every one tells him they are wrong.

Teach him to be gentle with gentle people and tough with the tough.

Try to give my son the strength not to follow the crowd when every one is getting on the bandwagon.

Teach him to listen to all men but teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth and take only the good that comes through.

Teach him, if you can, how to laugh when he is sad. Teach him there is no shame in tears. Teach him to scoff at cynics and to beware of too much sweetness.

Teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidders; but never to put a price tag on his heart and soul.

Teach him to close his ears to a howling mob… and to stand and fight if he thinks he’s right.

Treat him gently; but do not cuddle him because only the test of fire makes fine steel.

Let him have the courage to be impatient, let him have the patience to be brave. Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself because then he will always have sublime faith in mankind.

This is a big order; but see what you can do. He is such a fine little fellow, my son.


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