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

Wikimedia Commons
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