Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

9 of Abraham Lincoln's Smartest (and Sassiest) Quotes

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Everyone remembers Abraham Lincoln as being honest, intelligent, and maybe a bit too tall for his time. He’s even been rumored to have told a good joke now and again. But what he doesn’t often get credit for is his sass. In many circumstances, Lincoln sharpened his wit just enough to insult a political rival or pose acerbic questions about his opponents’ rationales. Here are nine of his best sarcastic moments, snubs, and put-downs.

1. “By much dragging of chestnuts from the fire for others to eat, his claws are burnt off to the gristle, and he is thrown aside as unfit for further use. As the fool said to King Lear, when his daughters had turned him out of doors, ‘He’s a shelled pea’s cod.’”

—On then-President James Buchanan in a speech at a Republican banquet in Chicago, Illinois, on Dec. 10, 1856

2. “They remind us that he is a very great man, and that the largest of us are very small ones. Let this be granted. But ‘a living dog is better than a dead lion.’ Judge Douglas, if not a dead lion for this work, is at least a caged and toothless one.”

—On political rival Senator Stephen Douglas in his "House Divided” speech, on June 16, 1858

3. “But I cannot shake Judge Douglas’ teeth loose from the Dred Scott decision. Like some obstinate animal (I mean no disrespect), that will hang on when he has once got his teeth fixed, you may cut off a leg, or you may tear away an arm, still he will not relax his hold.”

—On Douglas’ opinions of the Dred Scott Decision; during the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, Aug. 21, 1858

4. “He has at last invented this sort of do nothing Sovereignty—that the people may exclude slavery by a sort of ‘Sovereignty’ that is exercised by doing nothing at all. Is that not running his Popular Sovereignty down awfully? Has it not got down as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death?”

—On Douglas’ opinions on popular sovereignty; during the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate, Oct. 13, 1858

5. “He has a good deal of trouble with his popular sovereignty. His explanations explanatory of explanations explained are interminable.”

—On Douglas' often-conflicting ideas regarding popular sovereignty; during his speech in Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 16, 1859

6. “Your despatches complaining that you are not properly sustained, while they do not offend me, do pain me very much. … There is a curious mystery about the number of troops now with you. When I telegraphed you on the 6th saying you had over a hundred thousand with you, I had just obtained from the Secretary of War, a statement, taken as he said, from your own returns, making 108,000 then with you and en route to you. You now say you will have but 85,000, when all en route to you shall have reached you. How can the discrepancy of 23,000 be accounted for? … And, once more, let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this.”

Letter to General George B. McClellan, April 9, 1862

7. “You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?”

Letter to General George B. McClellan, Oct. 13, 1862

8. “While I have often said that all men out to be free, yet I would allow those colored persons to be slaves who want to be; and next to them those white persons who argue in favor of making other people slaves. I am in favor of giving an opportunity to such white men to try it on for themselves.”

—On the logic of slavery; in a speech to the 140th Indiana Regiment, Washington, D.C., March 17, 1865

9. “But, slavery is good for some people!!! As a good thing, slavery is strikingly peculiar, in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself.

Nonsense! Wolves devouring lambs, not because it is good for their own greedy maws, but because it is good for the lambs!!!”

—In a fragment on pro-slavery theology, ~1858

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On This Day in 1933, FDR Gave His First Fireside Chat
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Getty Images

On March 12, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first "fireside chat" on the radio. It was just eight days after his inauguration. He began: "I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking." Citizens across the nation tuned in to listen.

During the depths of the Great Depression, FDR took to the airwaves to explain to Americans why there had been a recent, ahem, "bank holiday." After a series of bank failures, FDR closed all U.S. banks on March 6, to prevent them from failing as panicked citizens tried to withdraw their holdings. While the banks were closed, a program of federal deposit insurance was created in order to insure the stability of the banks when they reopened.

So imagine, if you will, that your bank has been closed for six days, banks are failing left and right, and the newly-inaugurated president gets on the radio to talk about the situation. You would likely listen, and you'd want a really solid answer. That's just what Americans got.

It was a stunning moment, a roughly 13-minute speech in which the American president spoke directly to the people and asked them to understand how banks work. As an extension of that understanding, he asked people to trust what he and Congress were doing to resolve the problem. While the chat didn't solve the country's financial problems overnight, it did create a remarkable sense of connection between FDR and the citizenry, and it helped prevent a complete collapse of the banking system.

FDR's "fireside chats" (the phrase was coined by press secretary Stephen Early, conveying the intimacy of communication) were among the best examples of a president using mass media to bring a time-sensitive message to the American people. He would go on to do 29 more chats over the course of his long presidency.

So if you've never heard that first "fireside chat," take a few minutes and listen. Here it is with slightly cleaned-up audio:

If you're not into audio, just read the transcript. The text is a model of clear communication.

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The Only 4 Private Citizens to Lie in Honor at the U.S. Capitol
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Billy Graham, the most famous Christian preacher of the past century, died in his home on February 21 at age 99. As a noted spiritual advisor of U.S. presidents, he held a special position of influence in American history. Now, he's being granted another privilege extended to very few Americans: This week, his body will lay in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

From February 28 to March 1, members of the public will be invited to visit the Capitol and pay their respects to the late reverend. It's an honor that has been bestowed upon only 33 Americans since the tradition began with Henry Clay in 1852. Of the distinguished citizens who have "lain in state," 11 were U.S. presidents. Several elected officials and military officials have also been commemorated under the rotunda, but only three private citizens—and with Graham, four—have their names among their ranks.

The first two private citizens to lie in honor were Capitol Police officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson. Both were killed in the line of duty during the Capitol shooting incident in 1998.

The third private citizen to receive the distinction was Rosa Parks. She died in 2005, 50 years after refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger, thus helping set the civil rights movement in motion. So far, she's the only woman whose body has lain in honor at the U.S. Capitol.

Congress chooses which individuals get to receive the honor, either by passing a resolution or having congressional leadership obtain permission from the surviving family. When Graham's body arrives at the Capitol this week, it will be displayed on the same platform used to support Lincoln's body and that of every person (except the two police officers) who has lain in the rotunda since 1865.



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