I was a member of the Abraham Lincoln fan club as a boy. Dad was a member, too. He taped a Lincoln quote to his bedroom mirror: “My father taught me to work. He did not teach me to love it.”
My elementary school class made a pilgrimage to Lincoln’s bronze bust in Springfield. We stood in line to rub his now-shiny nose. As I’ve reflected on Lincoln over the years, I’m still drawn to his ability to tell stories.
A new series
In order to understand the Civil War and its causes, it’s good to look closely at Abraham Lincoln, his words, and his actions. And so, I am starting a new blog series, Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln.
Responding with humor
When a political opponent accused Lincoln of being two-faced, Lincoln supposedly said, “If I had two faces, would I wear this one?”
Lincoln, who knew his King James Bible, used humor to fulfill the verse, “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”
Lincoln received a lot of criticism for Secretary of War Simon Cameron. When Lincoln dismissed Cameron, a group of visiting politicians said the president should go further and replace the whole cabinet. Lincoln replied:
Gentlemen, when I was a young man, I knew one Joe Wilson who was very proud of his chickens, and he built a fine henhouse. Skunks started raiding his hens, and he got annoyed. One night, unusual cackling and fluttering woke him up. It was a bright moonlit night. Joe snuck outside with a shotgun. He saw six skunks running in and out of the shed. Enraged, he put a double charge in his gun to blast the whole tribe of skunks. Somehow, he killed only one, and the rest ran off.
When Joe told this story, he paused here and held his nose. The neighbors asked, ‘Why didn’t you run after them and kill the rest?’ ‘Blast it,’ Joe said. ‘It was eleven weeks before I got over killin’ one. If you want any more skirmishing in that line, you can just do it yourselves!’[i]
Historian James M. McPherson explains Lincoln’s fondness for animal metaphors and parables. McPherson states:
This derived in part from his own rural background [and] the many boyhood hours he spent with Aesop’s Fables. During one of those long hours, his cousin Dennis Lincoln said to him, ‘Abe, them yarns is all lies.’ Lincoln looked up for a moment and replied, ‘Mighty darn good lies, Denny.’
As an adult, Lincoln knew that these ‘lies,’ these fables about animals, provided an excellent way to communicate with a people who were still close to their rural roots and understood the idioms of the forest and barnyard. [ii]
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[i] Paraphrased from Francis Bicknell Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln: The Story of a Picture (New York, 1866 ), 139.
[ii] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: 1990), 99-100.