Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories

A Complete Collection of the Funny and

Witty Anecdotes that made Abraham Lincoln
Famous as America’s Greatest Story Teller

With Introduction and Anecdotes

By Colonel Alexander K. McClure

Profusely Illustrated


ABRAHAM LINCOLN, the Great Story Telling President, whose
Emancipation Proclamation freed more than four million slaves,
was a keen politician, profound statesman, shrewd diplomatist, a
thorough judge of men and possessed of an intuitive knowledge of
affairs. He was the first Chief Executive to die at the hands of
an assassin. Without school education he rose to power by sheer
merit and will-power. Born in a Kentucky log cabin in 1809, his
surroundings being squalid, his chances for advancement were
apparently hopeless. President Lincoln died April 15th, 1865,
having been shot by J. Wilkes Booth the night before.

Dean Swift said that the man who makes two blades of grass grow
where one grew before serves well of his kind. Considering how
much grass there is in the world and comparatively how little
fun, we think that a still more deserving person is the man who
makes many laughs grow where none grew before.

Sometimes it happens that the biggest crop of laugh is produced
by a man who ranks among the greatest and wisest. Such a man was
Abraham Lincoln whose wholesome fun mixed with true philosophy
made thousands laugh and think at the same time. He was a firm
believer in the saying, “Laugh and the world laughs with you.”

Whenever Abraham Lincoln wanted to make a strong point he usually
began by saying, “Now, that reminds me of a story.” And when he
had told a story every one saw the point and was put into a good

The ancients had Aesop and his fables. The moderns had Abraham
Lincoln and his stories.

Aesop’s Fables have been printed in book form in almost every
language and millions have read them with pleasure and profit.
Lincoln’s stories were scattered in the recollections of
thousands of people in various parts of the country. The
historians who wrote histories of Lincoln’s life remembered only
a few of them, but the most of Lincoln’s stories and the best of
them remained unwritten. More than five years ago the author of
this book conceived the idea of collecting all the yarns and
stories, the droll sayings, and witty and humorous anecdotes of
Abraham Lincoln into one large book, and this volume is the
result of that idea.

Before Lincoln was ever heard of as a lawyer or politician, he
was famous as a story teller. As a politician, he always had a
story to fit the other side; as a lawyer, he won many cases by
telling the jury a story which showed them the justice of his
side better than any argument could have done.

While nearly all of Lincoln’s stories have a humorous side, they
also contain a moral, which every good story should have.

They contain lessons that could be taught so well in no other
way. Every one of them is a sermon. Lincoln, like the Man of
Galilee, spoke to the people in parables.

Nothing that can be written about Lincoln can show his character
in such a true light as the yarns and stories he was so fond of
telling, and at which he would laugh as heartily as anyone.

For a man whose life was so full of great responsibilities,
Lincoln had many hours of laughter when the humorous, fun-loving
side of his great nature asserted itself.

Every person to keep healthy ought to have one good hearty laugh
every day. Lincoln did, and the author hopes that the stories at
which he laughed will continue to furnish laughter to all who
appreciate good humor, with a moral point and spiced with that
true philosophy bred in those who live close to nature and to the
people around them.

In producing this new Lincoln book, the publishers have followed
an entirely new and novel method of illustrating it. The old
shop-worn pictures that are to be seen in every “History of
Lincoln,” and in every other book written about him, such as “A
Flatboat on the Sangamon River,” “State Capitol at Springfield,”
“Old LogCabin,” etc., have all been left out and in place of them
the best special artists that could be employed have supplied
original drawings illustrating the “point” of Lincoln’s stories.

These illustrations are not copies of other pictures, but are
original drawings made from the author’s original text expressly
for this book.

In these high-class outline pictures the artists have caught the
true spirit of Lincoln’s humor, and while showing the laughable
side of many incidents in his career, they are true to life in
the scenes and characters they portray.

In addition to these new and original pictures, the book contains
many rare and valuable photograph portraits, together with
biographies, of the famous men of Lincoln’s day, whose lives
formed a part of his own life history.

No Lincoln book heretofore published has ever been so profusely,
so artistically and expensively illustrated.

The parables, yarns, stories, anecdotes and sayings of the
“Immortal Abe” deserve a place beside Aesop’s Fables, Bunyan’s
Pilgrim’s Progress and all other books that have added to the
happiness and wisdom of mankind.

Lincoln’s stories are like Lincoln himself. The more we know of
them the better we like them.


While Lincoln would have been great among the greatest of the
land as a statesman and politician if like Washington, Jefferson
and Jackson, he had never told a humorous story, his sense of
humor was the most fascinating feature of his personal qualities.

He was the most exquisite humorist I have ever known in my life.
His humor was always spontaneous, and that gave it a zest and
elegance that the professional humorist never attains.

As a rule, the men who have become conspicuous in the country as
humorists have excelled in nothing else. S. S. Cox, Proctor
Knott, John P. Hale and others were humorists in Congress. When
they arose to speak if they failed to be humorous they utterly
failed, and they rarely strove to be anything but humorous. Such
men often fail, for the professional humorist, however gifted,
cannot always be at his best, and when not at his best he is
grievously disappointing.

I remember Corwin, of Ohio, who was a great statesman as well as
a great humorist, but whose humor predominated in his public
speeches in Senate and House, warning a number of the younger
Senators and Representatives on a social occasion when he had
returned to Congress in his old age, against seeking to acquire
the reputation of humorists. He said it was the mistake of his
life. He loved it as did his hearers, but the temptation to be
humorous was always uppermost, and while his speech on the
Mexican War was the greatest ever delivered in the Senate,
excepting Webster’s reply to Hayne, he regretted that he was more
known as a humorist than as a statesman.

His first great achievement in the House was delivered in 1840 in
reply to General Crary, of Michigan, who had attacked General
Harrison’s military career. Corwin’s reply in defense of Harrison
is universally accepted as the most brilliant combination of
humor and invective ever delivered in that body. The venerable
John Quincy Adams a day or two after Corwin’s speech, referred to
Crary as “the late General Crary,” and the justice of the remark
from the “Old Man Eloquent” was accepted by all. Mr. Lincoln
differed from the celebrated humorists of the country in the
important fact that his humor was unstudied. He was not in any
sense a professional humorist, but I have never in all my
intercourse with public men, known one who was so apt in humorous
illustration us Mr. Lincoln, and I have known him many times to
silence controversy by a humorous story with pointed application
to the issue.

His face was the saddest in repose that I have ever seen among
accomplished and intellectual men, and his sympathies for the
people, for the untold thousands who were suffering bereavement
from the war, often made him speak with his heart upon his
sleeve, about the sorrows which shadowed the homes of the land
and for which his heart was freely bleeding.

I have many times seen him discussing in the most serious and
heartfelt manner the sorrows and bereavements of the country, and
when it would seem as though the tension was so strained that the
brittle cord of life must break, his face would suddenly brighten
like the sun escaping from behind the cloud to throw its
effulgence upon the earth, and he would tell an appropriate
story, and much as his stories were enjoyed by his hearers none
enjoyed them more than Mr. Lincoln himself.

I have often known him within the space of a few minutes to be
transformed from the saddest face I have ever looked upon to one
of the brightest and most mirthful. It was well known that he had
his great fountain of humor as a safety valve; as an escape and
entire relief from the fearful exactions his endless duties put
upon him. In the gravest consultations of the cabinet where he
was usually a listener rather than a speaker, he would often end
dispute by telling a story and none misunderstood it; and often
when he was pressed to give expression on particular subjects,
and his always abundant caution was baffled, he many times ended
the interview by a story that needed no elaboration.

I recall an interview with Mr. Lincoln at the White House in the
spring of 1865, just before Lee retreated from Petersburg. It was
well understood that the military power of the Confederacy was
broken, and that the question of reconstruction would soon be
upon us.

Colonel Forney and I had called upon the President simply to pay
our respects, and while pleasantly chatting with him General
Benjamin F. Butler entered. Forney was a great enthusiast, and
had intense hatred of the Southern leaders who had hindered his
advancement when Buchanan was elected President, and he was
bubbling over with resentment against them. He introduced the
subject to the President of the treatment to be awarded to the
leaders of the rebellion when its powers should be confessedly
broken, and he was earnest in demanding that Davis and other
conspicuous leaders of the Confederacy should be tried, condemned
and executed as traitors.

General Butler joined Colonel Forney in demanding that treason
must be made odious by the execution of those who had wantonly
plunged the country into civil war. Lincoln heard them patiently,
as he usually heard all, and none could tell, however carefully
they scanned his countenance what impression the appeal made upon

I said to General Butler that, as a lawyer pre-eminent in his
profession, he must know that the leaders of a government that
had beleaguered our capital for four years, and was openly
recognized as a belligerent power not only by our government but
by all the leading governments of the world, could not be held to
answer to the law for the crime of treason.

Butler was vehement in declaring that the rebellious leaders must
be tried and executed. Lincoln listened to the discussion for
half an hour or more and finally ended it by telling the story of
a common drunkard out in Illinois who had been induced by his
friends time and again to join the temperance society, but had
always broken away. He was finally gathered up again and given
notice that if he violated his pledge once more they would
abandon him as an utterly hopeless vagrant. He made an earnest
struggle to maintain his promise, and finally he called for
lemonade and said to the man who was preparing it: “Couldn’t you
put just a drop of the cratur in unbeknownst to me?”

After telling the story Lincoln simply added: “If these men could
get away from the country unbeknownst to us, it might save a
world of trouble.” All understood precisely what Lincoln meant,
although he had given expression in the most cautious manner
possible and the controversy was ended.

Lincoln differed from professional humorists in the fact that he
never knew when he was going to be humorous. It bubbled up on the
most unexpected occasions, and often unsettled the most carefully
studied arguments. I have many times been with him when he gave
no sign of humor, and those who saw him under such conditions
would naturally suppose that he was incapable of a humorous
expression. At other times he would effervesce with humor and
always of the most exquisite and impressive nature. His humor was
never strained; his stories never stale, and even if old, the
application he made of them gave them the freshness of

I recall sitting beside him in the White House one day when a
message was brought to him telling of the capture of several
brigadier-generals and a number of horses somewhere out in
Virginia. He read the dispatch and then in an apparently
soliloquizing mood, said: “Sorry for the horses; I can make

There are many who believe that Mr. Lincoln loved to tell obscene
or profane stories, but they do great injustice to one of the
purest and best men I have ever known. His humor must be judged
by the environment that aided in its creation.

As a prominent lawyer who traveled the circuit in Illinois, he
was much in the company of his fellow lawyers, who spent their
evenings in the rude taverns of what was then almost frontier
life. The Western people thus thrown together with but limited
sources of culture and enjoyment, logically cultivated the story
teller, and Lincoln proved to be the most accomplished in that
line of all the members of the Illinois bar. They had no private
rooms for study, and the evenings were always spent in the common
barroom of the tavern, where Western wit, often vulgar or
profane, was freely indulged in, and the best of them at times
told stories which were somewhat “broad;” but even while thus
indulging in humor that would grate harshly upon severely refined
hearers, they despised the vulgarian; none despised vulgarity
more than Lincoln.

I have heard him tell at one time or another almost or quite all
of the stories he told during his Presidential term, and there
were very few of them which might not have been repeated in a
parlor and none descended to obscene, vulgar or profane
expressions. I have never known a man of purer instincts than
Abraham Lincoln, and his appreciation of all that was beautiful
and good was of the highest order.

It was fortunate for Mr. Lincoln that he frequently sought relief
from the fearfully oppressive duties which bore so heavily upon
him. He had immediately about him a circle of men with whom he
could be “at home” in the White House any evening as he was with
his old time friends on the Illinois circuit.

David Davis was one upon whom he most relied as an adviser, and
Leonard Swett was probably one of his closest friends, while Ward
Lamon, whom he made Marshal of the District of Columbia to have
him by his side, was one with whom he felt entirely “at home.”
Davis was of a more sober order but loved Lincoln’s humor,
although utterly incapable of a humorous expression himself.
Swett was ready with Lincoln to give and take in storyland, as
was Lamon, and either of them, and sometimes all of them, often
dropped in upon Lincoln and gave him an hour’s diversion from his
exacting cares. They knew that he needed it and they sought him
for the purpose of diverting him from what they feared was an
excessive strain.

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