Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Proverbialisms of Abraham Lincoln by Wolfgang Mieder



It is well known that Abraham Lincoln, like Harry S. Truman in the twentieth century, never went to college. In fact, by his own admission, he probably had little more than one year of formal schooling altogether. But he learned the basics and then developed his keen mind on his own. He became an avid reader of virtually all printed matter he could lay his hands on. In addition to newspapers and magazines, he read, studied, and memorized Shakespeare ( notably parts of Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear), he was acquainted with authors such as Robert Burns, Byron, Daniel Defoe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, and he became extremely well-versed in the Bible. His active life as a lawyer and politician prevented him from reading extensively for pleasure. His time was taken up by informing himself of the news of the day as well as reports of all types, and if there was time for reading, Lincoln would usually stick to Shakespeare or the Bible. But this was reading not so much for pleasure as for comparing his own thoughts, problems, and challenges with those of previous ages and for finding moral and ethical values to face his own time.[*]


For someone who “adopted at several stages of his career the practice of daily Bible reading” it became natural to cite quotations of at least paraphrased verses from the Bible with high frequency in oral as well as written statements. Lincoln scholars have not failed to comment on his preoccupation with biblical phrases, claiming that “his familiarity with and used of Biblical phraseology was remarkable even in a time when such use was more common than now.” But what they have forgotten to comment about are precisely the numerous biblical phrases that long ago turned into folk proverbs and metaphors. These proverbial utterances gave Lincoln the opportunity to speak and write both authoritatively and somewhat colloquially, adding much imagery and color to his arguments of persuasion in speeches and letters.


This preoccupation withy biblical phraseology can take on rather over[powering proportions, as in his written reply of May 30, 1864, to a delegation of Baptists:

I can only thankyou for adding to the effective and almost unanimous support which the Christian communities are so zealously giving to the country, and to liberty. Indeed it is difficult to conceive how it could be otherwise with anyone professing Christianity,, or even having ordinary perceptions of right and wrong. To read the Bible, as the word of God himself, that “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” and to preach there from that, “In the sweat of other man faces shalt thou eat bread” to my mind can scarcely be reconciled with honest sincerity. When brought to my final reckoning, may I have to answer for robbing no man of his goods; yet more tolerable than this, than for robbing one of himself, and all that was his. When, a year or two ago, those professedly holy men of the South, met in a semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the Name of Him who said “As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them” appeal to the Christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, to my thinking the contemned  and insulted God and His church, far more than Satan when he tempted the Savior with the Kingdoms of the earth. The devil’s attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical. But let me forbear, remembering it is also written “Judge not, lest ye be judged.


What a paragraph! What a rhetorical masterpiece! Without even mentioning that horrid word “slavery,” Lincoln employs three biblical proverbs known to everybody, and certainly to the Baptist ministers, and ridicules countless numbers of slaveholders of the South who have earned their bread through the work of their slaves. He also points out proverbially that they have forgotten the “Golden Rule”, and by quoting its proverbial wording, he shows vividly how false their behavior has been. But lest he were to elevate himself to an exaggerated self-righteousness, Lincoln closes his mini-sermon with the proverb that warns everybody against sitting in judgment over others and forgetting that all people commit sinful acts. The message is direct, clear, and authoritative, and all three biblical proverbs add a didactic and persuasiveness to this masterful statement.

An additional example of such proverbial rhetoric can be fond in his incredibly short “Second Inaugural Address” of March 4, 1865.  He uses the same biblical proverbs once again to make his point that slavery is wrong but that people must be careful  in their judgments of others. Lincoln in all his condemnations of slavery is always ready and willing to find a way to bring North and South together and to save the Union. For him, all Americans deserve to be treated alike:

Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and as a result less fundamental and astounding. Both rad the Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been fully answered. The Almighty has his own purposes […] Fondly we do hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.


One further example may serve to illustrate of much of Lincoln’s speeches and writings are permeated with biblical proverbs. The following text is purposely chosen to show Lincoln from a more humorous side. After all, stories and books abound on Lincoln  as a humorist and raconteur. It should be noted, however, that none of them, not even those dealing with folklore and Lincoln, comment on his rich stock of proverbs and proverbial expression.[**] In any case, the following story was written by Lincoln for one Noah Brooks, who claimed that the president handed it to him with the comment: “here is one speech of mine that has never been printed, and I think it worth printing. Just see what you think.” Lincoln even signed the speech and added the humorous title “The President’s Last, Shortest, and Best Speech” to it. All this probably took place on December 6, 1864, for on the next day the Washington Daily Chronicle published it with that title, clearly to the delight of all the inhabitants in the capital:

On thursday of last week two ladies from Tennessee came before the President asking the release of their husbands held as prisoners of war at Johnson’s Island. They were put off till Friday, when they came again; they were again put off to Saturday. At each of the interviews one of the ladies urged that her husband was a religious ma. On Saturday the Present ordered the release of the prisoners, and then said to this lady “You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against the government, because, as they think, that the government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven!”:

 This little speech was by far and fortunately not Abraham Lincoln’s last speech .  .  .But how about Lincoln’s integration of traditional folk proverbs into his speeches and writings? These ready-made bits of folk wisdom were there to serve him at any time to communicate effectively by appealing to common sensed and generational authority. He certainly integrated them on numerous occasions both in the most mundane messages and in his very best speeches and proclamations.

And yet, this fact seems to escape scholars time and time again. A good case in point is the last paragraph in Lincolns famous Cooper Union speech given on February 27, 1860, in New York City. In this speech Lincoln outlines in very clear and logical terms his solid commitment to maintaining the Union and to keep slavery from spreading. As he moved towards the final two paragraphs of his speech, the president rose to an oratorical height that must have moved his audience then just as it does readers today. One can sense here the tension and anxiety in yet one more pitch to prevent the country from entering into a devastating civil war:

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes can prevent it, allow it to spread to the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored- contrivances such as groping for the middle ground between the right and the wrong […]

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by its menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.


In an otherwise superb essay on “Lincoln’s Development as a Writer,” Roy P. Basler, one of the most knowledgeable  Lincoln scholars, introduces his quotation of the last short paragraph of this speech with the observation that Lincoln’s “peroration is one of his most effective and memorable conclusions.” But his readers want to know why that is the case. This is also true for the comments of two authors who state that these words are “a fitting climax to Lincoln’s efforts. Rational principle develops into moral conviction, and the resulting emotional intensity emerges from and synthesizes all that has gone before. Yet the intensity is controlled. Speaker and audience are resolute and principled, but at the same time, they are poised and logical.” What these authors have said is, of course, true and correct, but might it not have helped for a better understanding of Lincoln’s rhetorical power to point out that by claiming that “Right makes might” he is employing a proverb that dates back at least to the fourteenth century? And, to be sure, its antipode  “Might makes right” is just as old. Surely it must be agreed by all interpreters  of the very last sentence of this significant speech that is the wisdom of the proverb “Right makes might” that adds authority and conviction to Lincoln’s argument. It summarizes everything that he has just argued about, namely that the preservation of the Union and the control; of slavery are just and “right “ goals. This being the case, people believing in these principles will have the ‘might’ to keep matters under control.


Lincoln definitely had a predilection to quote proverbs, as can be seen from his fondness for “Broken eggs cannot be mended” in two of his letters. On July 31, 1862, Lincoln wrote the following thoughts about the political situation in Louisiana to August Belmont:

Broken eggs cannot be mended; but Louisiana has nothing to do now but taken her place in the Union as it was, barring the already broken eggs. The sooner she does so, the smaller the amount that will be past mending. This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt. If they expect in any contingency to ever have the Union as it was, I join the writer [Lincoln had been show a letter calling for action of his part] in saying “Now is the time.”


It must be noted that Lincoln does not merely cite the proverb, but he expands on it and makes it part of his entire rhetorical argument why Louisiana must fish or cut bait. About half a year later, in a letter of January 8, 1863, to Major General John A. McClernand, Lincoln picks up his message about maintaining the Union and employs the proverb once again as a persuasive metaphor:

I never did ask more, nor ever willing to accept less, than for all the States, and the people thereof, to taker and hold their places, and their rights, in the Union under the Constitution of the United States. For this alone I felt authorized to struggle, and I seek neither more nor less now. Still, to use a coarse but expressive figure, broken eggs can not be mended. I have issued the emancipation proclamation, and I can not retract it.


Of course Lincoln did not win the war with his metaphors or proverbs, but as in the case of Winston Churchill, his metaphorical prowess helped to stir people into action. Without doubt his use of proverbs gave his speeches, memoranda, proclamations, and letters a remarkable element of common sense and thus persuasive ethical power. Here is a paragraph from the “Temperance Address” that Lincoln delivered on February 22, 1842, at the Second Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois. It should be noted that while he firsts cites the proverb in its usual wording, he then elaborates on it in most vivid terms to bring his point across:

When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what you will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all avenues to his head and heart; and do tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be abler to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.


Lincoln can also give very straightforward advice by quoting a non-metaphorical proverb, as is the case in his fragmentary “Notes for a Law Lecture” of July 1, 1850. Here he is very matter of fact in his explanations, and not necessarily at the height of his oratorical abilities:

I am not an accomplished lawyer. I find quite as much material for a lecture in those points wherein I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful. The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for tomorrow, which can be done today. Never let your correspondence fall behind. Whatever piece of business you have in hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it which then can be done.


Of special interest is, however, Lincoln’s metaphorical statement of October 4, 1854, in yet another speech at Springfield, where he tried to explain the dangers of having slavery spill over into new areas. His figurative analysis appears to be a  paraphrase of the proverb “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”:

It is said that there are more slaves in that extreme north-west portion of Missouri, jutting broadside against Kansas and Nebraska than in any other equal area in Missouri! Will it not go, then, into Kansas and Nebraska, if permitted. Why not? What will hinder it? Do cattle nibble a pasture right up to a division fence, crop all close under that fence, and even put their necks through and gather what they can reach, over the line, and still refuse to pass over into the next green pasture, even if the fence shall be thrown down?

There is  great deal of irony in these questions, and Lincoln is indeed drawing on colorful folk speech that he heard and learned as a country boy. But here he is not alluding to the proverb mentioned above which has its origins in a popular American song composed in 1924.


Proverbs appear in some of his short letters, with Lincoln feeling bad that he does not have the time to compose longer epistles: “You will readily understand and appreciate why I write only very short letters”, he informs Schuyler Colfax on May 31, 1860. But precisely to add at least some poignancy to such letters and drive home a point in the shortest possible way, Lincoln incorporates traditional proverbs without any other comment. In a response to John M. Pomeroy of August 31, 1860, regarding region quarrels among some Pennsylvanian Republicans, Lincoln simply states: “I am slow to listen to criminations among friends, and never expouse (sic) their quarrels on either side. My sincere wish is that both sides will allow by-gones to be by-gones, and look to the present &future only.” Lincoln was also capable of giving the shortest possible oral remarks rather than speeches that could last more than three hours! For example, when he left Springfield on February 11, 1861, on his way to Washington to assume the presidency, he also stopped at Tolono, Illinois , on the way, and here is what this humble and clearly moved man had to say:

I am leaving you on an errand of national importance, attended, as you are aware, with considerable difficulties. Let us believe, as some poet has expressed it: “Behind the cloud the sun is till shining.” I bid you affectionate farewell.


There is no doubt that Lincoln was able to cut through a lot of verbiage and red tape by employing proverbs in such short messages, in each case hitting the proverbial nail on the head, as it were .One last contexualized proverb reference might serve as a conclusion to these comments. It is part of a speech that President Lincoln gave on April 18, 1864, at a Sanitary Fair in Baltimore, Maryland, almost exactly one year before his assassination. As was to be expected, he commented on the war and slavery:

When the war began, three years ago, neither party, nor any man, expected that it would last till now. Each looked for the end, in some way, long ere today. Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. But here we are; the war has not ended, and slavery has been much affected – how much needs not now to be recounted. So it is true that man proposes, and God disposes. But we can see the past, though we may not claim to have directed it; and seeing it, in this case, we feel more hopeful and confident for the future.

Once again this tall yet humble president stands in front of the people and calmly tries to project a positive image for the future. He can indeed claim some progress with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War perhaps nearing its end. But there is no celebration, and there is no hubris,. There is only humility and perhaps a shutter within Lincoln and the people listening to him as everybody is wondering how all this will finally come to a conclusion, It is at this moment that Abraham Lincoln returns to his stock of biblical proverbs, putting the fate of the nation into God’s hands, for “Man proposes, and God disposes”


[*]https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0028.204/--what-abraham-lincoln-readan-evaluative-and-annotated-list?rgn=main;view=fulltext

[**] Many historians emphasize the evidence that Lincoln was a skeptic, that he did not attend any church, that his ‘biblical references’ were a more or less a cynical  tactic, a defense against the accusation that he was an unbeliever, so common between political opponents in that age. Naturally, in contemporary politics, this view sacrifices the votes of the many for the sake of not insulting  the sentiments and self-righteous attitudes of a very few.

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