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The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: A Book of Quotations

The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: A Book of Quotations

by Bob Blaisdell

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The most eloquent of American presidents, Lincoln seemed to have a comment—sagacious or humorous—on just about anything that mattered. This concise compendium offers his astute observations on a variety of subjects—from women to warfare. Nearly 400 quotations include such thought-provoking and memorable remarks as:
Bad promises are better broken


The most eloquent of American presidents, Lincoln seemed to have a comment—sagacious or humorous—on just about anything that mattered. This concise compendium offers his astute observations on a variety of subjects—from women to warfare. Nearly 400 quotations include such thought-provoking and memorable remarks as:
Bad promises are better broken than kept.
Marriage is neither heaven nor hell; it is simply purgatory.
Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.
Quotations are arranged chronologically within such topics as family and friends, the law, politics and the presidency, story-telling, religion, and morality. Students, writers, public speakers, and other readers will find this thought-provoking and entertaining volume an excellent introduction to the sixteenth president’s wit, common sense, and insight.

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The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln

A Book of Quotations

By Abraham Lincoln, Bob Blaisdell

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11074-5



We find ourselves in the peaceful possession of the fairest portion of earth as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement of establishment of them—they are a legacy bequeathed us by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Theirs was a task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and valleys a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; 'tis ours only to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know.

—"The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions": Address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838 [GS]

* * *

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?—Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never!—All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time or die by suicide.

—"The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions": Address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838 [HSW]

On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been. When we were the political slaves of King George and wanted to be free, we called the maxim that "all men are created equal" a self-evident truth; but now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim "a self-evident lie."

—Letter to George Robertson, August 15, 1855 [CW2]

* * *

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." ... When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

—Letter to his friend Joshua Speed, August 24, 1855 [HSW]

* * *

You can better succeed with the ballot. You can peaceably then redeem the government and preserve the liberties of mankind through your votes and voice and moral influence.... Let there be peace. Revolutionize through the ballot box and restore the government once more to the affections and hearts of men by making it express, as it was intended to do, the highest spirit of justice and liberty.

—Speech to Springfield abolitionists, c. 1855 [RW]

* * *

We are a great empire. We are eighty years old. We stand at once the wonder and admiration of the whole world, and we must enquire what it is that has given us so much prosperity, and we shall understand that to give up that one thing would be to give up all future prosperity. This cause is that every man can make himself. It has been said that such a race of prosperity has been run nowhere else.... we see a people who, while they boast of being free, keep their fellow beings in bondage.

—Speech, Kalamazoo, Michigan, August 27, 1856 [CW2]

* * *

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy.

—Note, c. August 1858 [HSW]

What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? ... Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them.

—Speech, Edwardsville, Illinois, September 11, 1858 [CW3]

* * *

If the great American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled just as surely as all other difficulties of like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted. Let the people on both sides keep their self-possession, and just as other clouds have cleared away in the time, so will this, and this great nation shall continue to prosper as heretofore.

—Speech, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, February 15, 1861 [CW4]

* * *

That portion of the earth's surface which is owned and inhabited by the people of the United States is well adapted to be the home of one national family; and it is not well adapted for two or more.

—Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862 [GS]

* * *

Our national strife springs not from our permanent part; not from the land we inhabit; not from our national homestead. There is no possible severing of this, but would multiply, and not mitigate, evils among us. In all its adaptations and aptitudes, it demands union, and abhors separation. In fact, it would, ere long, force reunion, however much of blood and treasure the separation might have cost.

—Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862 [GS]

* * *

The resources, advantages, and powers of the American people are very great, and they have, consequently, succeeded to equally great responsibilities. It seems to have devolved upon them to test whether a government established on the principles of human freedom can be maintained against an effort to build one upon the exclusive foundation of human bondage.

—Letter to the Workingmen of London, February 2, 1863 [CW6]

Four score 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.

—Gettysburg Address, at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863 [HSW]

* * *

I am not accustomed to the use of language of eulogy; I have never studied the art of paying compliments to women; but I must say that if all that has been said by orators and poets since the creation of the world in praise of women were applied to the women of America, it would not do them justice for their conduct during this war. I will close by saying, God bless the women of America!

—Speech at the Sanitary Fair, Washington, D.C., March 18, 1864 [CW7]

* * *

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by the two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.

—Speech, Sanitary Fair, Baltimore, Maryland, April 18, 1864 [HSW]

* * *

Nowhere in the world is presented a government of so much liberty and equality. To the humblest and poorest amongst us are held out the highest privileges and positions. The present moment finds me at the White House, yet there is as good a chance for your children as there was for my father's.

—Speech to 148th Ohio Regiment, August 31, 1864 [CW7]



Upon the system of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the scriptures and other works, both of a religious and moral nature, for themselves.

—Letter to the people of Sangamo County, March 9, 1832 [HSW]

* * *

I cannot read generally. I never read textbooks, for I have no particular motive to drive and whip me to it. I don't and can't remember such reading.

—Remark to William Herndon, his friend and law partner (no date) [DHD]

* * *

When I read aloud two senses catch the idea: first, I see what I read; second, I hear it, and therefore I can remember it better.

—Remark to William Herndon, who asked him, with annoyance, why he read aloud (no date) [LAIKH]

* * *

The way for a young man to rise is to improve himself every way he can, never suspecting that anybody wishes to hinder him. Allow me to assure you that suspicion and jealousy never did help any man in any situation. There may sometimes be ungenerous attempts to keep a young man down; and they will succeed too, if he allows his mind to be diverted from its true channel to brood over the attempted injury. Cast about, and see if this feeling has not injured every person you have ever known to fall into it.

—Letter to William Herndon, July 10, 1848 [CW1]

* * *

This habit of uselessly wasting time is the whole difficulty; and it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children that you should break this habit. It is more important to them, because they have longer to live and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it; easier than they can get out after they are in.

—Letter to John D. Johnston, his stepbrother, December 24, 1848 [CW2]

* * *

I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.

—Remark to his friend Joshua Speed (no date) [RW]

* * *

Resolve to be honest at all events; and if, in your own judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation.

—Notes for a lecture on law, July 1, 1850 [DHD]

* * *

I am from home too much of my time for a young man to read law with me advantageously. If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already. It is but a small matter whether you read with anybody or not. I did not read with anyone. Get the books, and read and study them till you understand them in their principal features; and that is the main thing. It is of no consequence to be in a large town while you are reading. I read at New Salem, which never had three hundred people living in it. The books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places....

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.

—Letter to Isham Reavis, November 5, 1855 [CW2]

* * *

A capacity and taste for reading gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems. And not only so, it gives a relish and facility for successfully pursuing the yet unsolved ones.

—Speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 30, 1859 [HSW]

* * *

Yours of the 24th asking "the best mode of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the law" is received. The mode is very simple, though laborious and tedious. It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully.... Work, work, work, is the main thing.

—Letter to John M. Brockman, September 25, 1860 [CW4]

* * *

Your good mother tells me you are feeling very badly in your new situation. Allow me to assure you it is a perfect certainty that you will, very soon, feel better—quite happy—if you only stick to the resolution you have taken to procure a military education. I am older than you, have felt badly myself, and know what I tell you is true. Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life. Take the advice of a friend, who, though he never saw you, deeply sympathizes with you, and stick to your purpose.

—Letter to Quintin Campbell, who had recently started at West Point; written at the request of Campbell's mother and Lincoln's wife, June 28, 1862 [CW5]

* * *

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time.

—Letter to Fanny McCullough, December 23, 1862 [HSW]

* * *

The advice of a father to his son, "Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear it that the opposed may beware of thee," is good, and yet not the best. Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.

—Letter to Captain James Cutts, October 26, 1863 [CW6]

* * *

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

—Remark to Noah Brooks, early December 1864 [RW]



How miserably things seem to be arranged in this world. If we have no friends, we have no pleasure; and if we have them, we are sure to lose them and be doubly pained by the loss.

—Letter to Joshua Speed, February 25, 1842 [HSW]

* * *

Say to him that if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant; but that if it be his lot to go now, he will soon have a joyous meeting with many loved ones gone before; and where the rest of us, through the help of God, hope ere long to join them.

—Letter to John D. Johnston, his stepbrother, on Lincoln's father's illness, January 12, 1851 [CW2]

* * *

It is my pleasure that my children are free, happy, and unrestrained by parental tyranny. Love is the chain to lock a child to its parent.

—A common remark made, according to his wife Mary, whenever he was "chided or praised" for his indulgence of his children (no date) [LAIKH]

* * *

Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone—he is actually gone!

—Remark to his secretary John Nicolay, on the death from disease of Lincoln's son Willie, February 20, 1862 [DHD]

* * *

Did you ever dream of some lost friend and feel that you were having a sweet communion with him, and yet have a consciousness that it was not a reality? ... That is the way I dream of my lost boy Willie.

—Remark on his son Willie, to Colonel Le Grand Cannon (no date) [RW]

Think you better put Tad's pistol away. I had an ugly dream about him.

—Telegram to his wife, about their son Tad, June 9, 1863 [CW6]

* * *

Let him run; there's time enough yet for him to learn his letters and get pokey. Bob was just such a little rascal, and now he is a very decent boy.

—Remark to Noah Brooks on his boys Robert and Tad (no date) [RW]

* * *

Do good to those who hate you and turn their ill will to friendship.

—Remark to his wife, Mary, when she "talked to him about former Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase and those who did him evil" (no date) [LAIKH]


Excerpted from The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln by Abraham Lincoln, Bob Blaisdell. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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