Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories

“Well, my friend, how much ground did you and my client here
fight over?”

The fellow answered: “About six acres.”

“Well,” said Mr. Lincoln, “don’t you think that this is an
almighty small crop of fight to gather from such a big piece of

The jury laughed. The Court and District-Attorney and complainant
all joined in, and the case was laughed out of court.

A simple remark one of the party might make would remind Mr.
Lincoln of an apropos story.

Secretary of the Treasury Chase happened to remark, “Oh, I am so
sorry that I did not write a letter to Mr. So-and-so before I
left home!”

President Lincoln promptly responded:

“Chase, never regret what you don’t write; it is what you do
write that you are often called upon to feel sorry for.”

In an interview between President Lincoln and Petroleum V. Nasby,
the name came up of a recently deceased politician of Illinois
whose merit was blemished by great vanity. His funeral was very
largely attended.

“If General — had known how big a funeral he would have had,”
said Mr. Lincoln, “he would have died years ago.”

A Senator, who was calling upon Mr. Lincoln, mentioned the name
of a most virulent and dishonest official; one, who, though very
brilliant, was very bad.

“It’s a good thing for B—” said Mr. Lincoln. “that there is
such a thing as a deathbed repentance.”

A member of Congress from Ohio came into Mr. Lincoln’s presence
in a state of unutterable intoxication, and sinking into a chair,
exclaimed in tones that welled up fuzzy through the gallon or
more of whiskey that he contained, “Oh, ‘why should (hic) the
spirit of mortal be proud?'”

“My dear sir,” said the President, regarding him closely, “I see
no reason whatever.”


When Abraham Lincoln once was asked to tell the story of his
life, he replied:

“It is contained in one line of Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country

“‘The short and simple annals of the poor.'”

That was true at the time he said it, as everything else he said
was Truth, but he was then only at the beginning of a career that
was to glorify him as one of the heroes of the world, and place
his name forever beside the immortal name of the mighty

Many great men, particularly those of America, began life in
humbleness and poverty, but none ever came from such depths or
rose to such a height as Abraham Lincoln.

His birthplace, in Hardin county, Kentucky, was but a wilderness,
and Spencer county, Indiana, to which the Lincoln family removed
when Abraham was in his eighth year, was a wilder and still more
uncivilized region.

The little red schoolhouse which now so thickly adorns the
country hillside had not yet been built. There were scattered
log schoolhouses, but they were few and far between. In several
of these Mr. Lincoln got the rudiments of an education–an
education that was never finished, for to the day of his death he
was a student and a seeker after knowledge.

Some records of his schoolboy days are still left us. One is a
book made and bound by Lincoln himself, in which he had written
the table of weights and measures, and the sums to be worked out
therefrom. This was his arithmetic, for he was too poor to own a
printed copy.


On one of the pages of this quaint book he had written these four
lines of schoolboy doggerel:

“Abraham Lincoln,
His Hand and Pen,
He Will be Good,
But God knows when.”

The poetic spirit was strong in the youngscholar just then for on
another page
of the same book he had
written these two verses, which are supposed to have been
original with him:

“Time, what an empty vapor ’tis,
And days, how swift they are;
Swift as an Indian arrow
Fly on like a shooting star.

The present moment just is here,
Then slides away in haste,
That we can never say they’re ours,
But only say they’re past.”

Another specimen of the poetical, or rhyming ability, is found in
the following couplet, written by him for his friend, Joseph C.

“Good boys who to their books apply,
Will all be great men by and by.”

In all, Lincoln’s “schooling” did not amount to a year’s time,
he was a constant student outside of the schoolhouse. He read all
the books he could borrow, and it was his chief delight during
the day to lie under the shade of some tree, or at night in front
of an open fireplace, reading and studying. His favorite books
were the Bible and Aesop’s fables, which he kept always within
reach and read time and again.

The first law book he ever read was “The Statutes of Indiana,”
and it was from this work that he derived his ambition to be a

When he was but a barefoot boy he would often make political
speeches to the boys in the neighborhood, and when he had reached
young manhood and was engaged in the labor of chopping wood or
splitting rails he continued this practice of speechmaking with
only the stumps and surrounding trees for hearers.

At the age of seventeen he had attained his full height of six
feet four inches and it was at this time he engaged as a ferry
boatman on the Ohio river, at thirty-seven cents a day.

That he was seriously beginning to think of public affairs even
at this early age is shown by the fact that about this time he
wrote a composition on the American Government, urging the
necessity for
preserving the Constitution and perpetuating the Union. A
Rockport lawyer,
by the name of Pickert, who read this composition, declared that
“the world couldn’t beat it.”

When the dreaded disease, known as the “milk-sick” created such
havoc in Indiana in 1829, the father of Abraham Lincoln, who was
of a roving disposition, sought and found a new home in Illinois,
locating near the town of Decatur, in Macon county, on a bluff
overlooking the Sangamon river. A short time thereafter Abraham
Lincoln came of age, and having done his duty to his father,
began life on his own account.

His first employer was a man named Denton Offut, who engaged
Lincoln, together with his step-brother and John Hanks, to take a
boat-load of stock and provisions to New Orleans. Offut was so
well pleased with the energy and skill that Lincoln displayed on
this trip that he engaged him as clerk in a store which Offut
opened a few months later at New Salem.

It was while clerking for Offut that Lincoln performed many of
those marvelous feats of strength for which he was noted in his
youth, and displayed his wonderful skill as a wrestler. In
addition to being six feet four inches high he now weighed two
hundred and fourteen pounds. And his strength and skill were so
great combined that he could out-wrestle and out-lift any man in
that section of the country.

During his clerkship in Offut’s store Lincoln continued to read
and study and made considerable progress in grammar and
mathematics. Offut failed in business and disappeared from the
village. In the language of Lincoln he “petered out,” and his
tall, muscular clerk had to seek other employment.

In his first public speech, which had already been delivered,
Lincoln had contended that the Sangamon river was navigable, and
it now fell to his lot to assist in giving practical proof of his
argument. A steamboat had arrived at New Salem from Cincinnati,
and Lincoln was hired as an assistant in piloting the vessel
through the uncertain channel of the Sangamon river to the
Illinois river. The way was obstructed by a milldam. Lincoln
insisted to the owners of the dam that under the Federal
Constitution and laws no one had a right to dam up or obstruct a
navigable stream and as he had already proved that the Sangamon
was navigable a portion of the dam was torn away and the boat
passed safely through.

At this period in his career the Blackhawk War broke out, and
Lincoln was one of the first to respond to Governor Reynold’s
call for a thousand mounted volunteers to assist the United
States troops in driving Blackhawk back across the Mississippi.
Lincoln enlisted in the company from Sangamon county and was
elected captain. He often remarked that this gave him greater
pleasure than anything that had happened in his life up to this
time. He had, however, no opportunities in this war to perform
any distinguished service.

Upon his return from the Blackhawk War, in which, as he said
afterward, in a humorous speech, when in Congress, that he
“fought, bled and came away,” he was an unsuccessful candidate
for the Legislature. This was the only time in his life, as he
himself has said, that he was ever beaten by the people. Although
defeated, in his own town of New Salem he received all of the two
hundred and eight votes cast except three.

Lincoln’s next business venture was with William Berry in a
general store, under the firm name of Lincoln & Berry, but did
not take long to show that he was not adapted for a business
career. The firm failed, Berry died and the debts of the firm
fell entirely upon Lincoln. Many of these debts he might have
escaped legally, but he assumed them all and it was not until
fifteen years later that the last indebtedness of Lincoln & Berry
was discharged. During his membership in this firm he had applied
himself to the study of law, beginning at the beginning, that is
with Blackstone. Now that he had nothing to do he spent much of
his time lying under the shade of a tree poring over law books,
borrowed from a comrade in the Blackhawk War, who was then a
practicing lawyer at Springfield.

It was about this time, too, that Lincoln’s fame as a
story-teller began to spread far and wide. His sayings and his
jokes were repeated throughout that section of the country, and
he was famous as a story-teller before anyone ever heard of him
as a lawyer or a politician.

It required no little moral courage to resist the temptation that
beset an idle young man on every hand at that time, for drinking
and carousing were of daily and nightly occurrence. Lincoln never
drank intoxicating liquors, nor did he at that time use tobacco,
but in any sports that called for skill or muscle he took a
lively interest, even in horse races and cock fights.

John Calhoun was at that time surveyor of Sangamon county. He had
been a lawyer and had noticed the studious Lincoln. Needing an
assistant he offered the place to Lincoln. The average young man
without any regular employment and hard-pressed for means to pay
his board as Lincoln was, would have jumped at the opportunity,
but a question of principle was involved which had to be settled
before Lincoln would accept. Calhoun was a Democrat and Lincoln
was a Whig, therefore Lincoln said, “I will take the office if I
can be perfectly free in my political actions, but if my
sentiments or even expression of them are to be abridged in any
way, I would not have it or any other office.”

With this understanding he accepted the office and began to study
books on surveying, furnished him by his employer. He was not a
natural mathematician, and in working out his most difficult
problems he sought the assistance of Mentor Graham, a famous
schoolmaster in those days, who had previously assisted Lincoln
in his studies. He soon became a competent surveyor, however, and
was noted for the accurate way in which he ran his lines and
located his corners.

Surveying was not as profitable then as it has since become, and
the young surveyor often had to take his pay in some article
other than money. One old settler relates that for a survey made
for him by Lincoln he paid two buckskins, which Hannah Armstrong
“foxed” on his pants so that the briars would not wear them out.

About this time, 1833, he was made postmaster at New Salem, the
first Federal office he ever held. Although the postoffice was
located in a store, Lincoln usually carried the mail around in
his hat and distributed it to people when he met them.

The following year Lincoln again ran for the Legislature, this
time as an avowed Whig. Of the four successful candidates,
received the second highest number of votes.

When Lincoln went to take his seat in the Legislature at
Vandalia he was so poor that he was obliged to borrow $200 to buy
suitable clothes and uphold the dignity of his new position. He
took little part in the proceedings, keeping in the background,
but forming many lasting acquaintances and friendships.

Two years later, when he was again a candidate for the same
office, there were more political issues to be met, and Lincoln
met them with characteristic honesty and boldness. During the
campaign he issued the following letter

“New Salem, June 13, 1836.

“To the Editor of The Journal:

“In your paper of last Saturday I see a communication over the
signature of ‘Many Voters’ in which the candidates who are
announced in the journal are called upon to ‘show their hands.’
Agreed. Here’s mine:

“I go for all sharing the privileges of the government who assist
in bearing its burdens. Consequently, I go for admitting all
whites to the right of suffrage who pay taxes or bear arms (by no
means excluding females).

“If elected, I shall consider the whole people of Sangamon my
constituents, as well those that oppose as those that support me.

“While acting as their Representative, I shall be governed by
their will on all subjects upon which I have the means of knowing
what their will is; and upon all others I shall do what my own
judgment teaches me will best advance their interests. Whether
elected or not, I go for distributing the proceeds of the sales
of public lands to the several States to enable our State, in
common with others, to dig canals and construct railroads without
borrowing money and paying the interest on it.

“If alive on the first Monday in November, I shall vote for Hugh
L. White, for President.

“Very respectfully


This was just the sort of letter to win the support of the
plain-spoken voters of Sangamon county. Lincoln not only received
more votes than any other candidate on the Legislative ticket,
but the county which had always been Democratic was turned Whig.

The other candidates elected with Lincoln were Ninian W. Edwards,
John Dawson, Andrew McCormick, “Dan” Stone, William F. Elkin,
Robert L. Wilson, “Joe” Fletcher, and Archer G. Herndon. These
were known as the “Long Nine.” Their average height was six feet,
and average weight two hundred pounds.

This Legislature was one of the most famous that ever convened in
Illinois. Bonds to the amount of $12,000,000 were voted to assist
in building thirteen hundred miles of railroad, to widen and
deepen all the streams in the State and to dig a canal from the
Illinois river to Lake Michigan. Lincoln favored all these plans,
but in justice to him it must be said that the people he
represented were also in favor of them.

«- Previous | 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 | View All | Next -»

Be the first to comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.