IDAHO HISTORY: Lincoln’s words combined wit, wisdom

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANFebruary 16, 2014 

It has been the custom for many years for the Idaho legislature to celebrate Lincoln Day on or near his birthday, as they did again this year. In 1986, I was honored by being invited to speak to a joint session of the legislature on the wit and wisdom of our 16th president.

I felt that Lincoln’s own words best reveal the common sense and humor of the man most Americans consider to be our greatest president. Surely none before or since had to deal with trials equal to those he faced during the long and bloody Civil War, or bore them with such patience and humility. Here, in his own words, from speeches and letters, are quotations I shared with the legislature that day, most of them as relevant today as when Lincoln wrote them or spoke them:

- “If I were to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how — the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end.”

- “I have been driven many times to my knees, by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

- “Die when I may, I want it said by those who knew me best that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.”

- “I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule.”

- “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.”

- “Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good.”

- “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

- “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed; consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes and decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

As a trial lawyer Lincoln used both logic and humor to make a point. Here are examples:

- “His argument is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.”

- “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog? Five? No; calling a tail a leg don’t make it a leg.”

And finally, these words of advice to his fellow barristers: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peace-maker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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