A Lincoln Story About His Stories

“I have the popular reputation of being a story-teller…”
(1864 Photo by Mathew Brady)

Abraham Lincoln’s stories are famous. It’s one of the hallmarks of this great president. He told them on many occasions and for different reasons.

Even literary great, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his Commemoration Ode to Lincoln in 1865, mentioned them:

Ralph Waldo Emerson

He is the author of a multitude of good sayings, so disguised as

pleasantries that it is certain they had no reputation at first but as jests; and only later, by the very acceptance and adoption they find in the mouths of millions, turn out to be the wisdom of the hour. I am sure if this man had ruled in a period of less facility of printing, he would have become mythological in a very few years, like Aesop…by his fables and proverbs. [1]

Here’s a Lincoln story about one such misunderstanding of his ‘jests.’

One evening, in the summer of 1863, a business delegation from New York, representing Governor Horatio Seymour, met with President Lincoln. At the conclusion of the meeting, one of the delegates, who was not a fan of Lincoln’s, leered at the president and pressed him to tell one of his famous “good stories.”

Realizing that the man was embarrassing the rest of the delegation, Lincoln turned his back to him and addressed the rest of those present – not with the requested story, but with an explanation about his stories.

“I believe I have the popular reputation of being a story-teller, but I do not deserve the name in its general sense, for it is not the story itself, but its purpose or effect that interests me. I often avoid a long and useless discussion by others, or a laborious explanation on my own part, by a short story that illustrates my point of view. So, too, the sharpness of a refusal or the edge of a rebuke may be blunted by an appropriate story so as to save wounded feelings and yet serve the purpose. No, I am not simply a story-teller, but story-telling as an emollient saves me much friction and distress.” [1]

Afterwards, the humbled delegation and its humiliated associate left the White House with a new appreciation for its occupant and a true understanding of the power of Lincoln’s stories.

Wisdom’ indeed.

Food for thought.


[Like this story? Click here for more Stories That Abe Told.]

Works Cited

[1] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1904). “Remarks at the Funeral Services Held in Concord, April 19, 1865.” in Vol. XI “Miscellanies – Abraham Lincoln.” The Complete Worksof Ralph Waldo Emerson, with a Biographical Introduction and Notes by Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, MA & New York City, NY: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

[2] Gross, Anthony (1912). Lincoln’s Own Stories. New York City, NY: Harpers and Brothers. pp. 210-211.

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2 Replies to “A Lincoln Story About His Stories”

  1. Intriguing post! I’d be interested in tracing some of the historic tales Lincoln utilized to find their source & trace the accuracy. Did the business between Gov. Seymour & Lincoln get satisfactorily concluded?

    1. Thanks Matt! The story is attributed to one Col. Silas W. Burt. He never mentions WHAT the business was (I too wondered). According to his story, the insulting colleague was a Major. The meeting most probably had to do with Lincoln’s call for more troops in 1864. If I’m not mistaken, there was a quota issue…not sure if it was NY or Chicago. The source is a book published in 1912 by Anthony Gross (should be at the bottom of the post in “Works Cited”). Gross’s book is a compendium of stories base on interviews with those who knew, met, or wrote about Lincoln (i.e. Davis, Grant, Nicolay, Herndon, even Horace Greeley.) Veracity of the stories? ‘Grain of salt’ probably is the best formula.

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