Did Abraham Lincoln really say that?

“You can’t trust everything you see on the internet these days.”  –Abraham Lincoln.

You get the impression some people find a pithy saying and decide it would carry greater weight if attached to the name of someone important. So, they say Lincoln said it. Or Napoleon. Or Henry Ward Beecher. Or Pogo. Or Charlie Brown.

A magnet on my refrigerator has this one: “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” –Abraham Lincoln.

I find myself doubting he said such a thing.  It sounds too bumper-stickerish to have come from our esteemed sixteenth president.

So, with my laptop open, I typed in “Did Lincoln say that?” and got all the sources one could ever require confirming or denying various attributions to Mr. Lincoln.

According to the primary website I checked, Lincoln did not say the following:

–He never said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

–He never said, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”

–He never said, “It’s best to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

–He never said, “If this is coffee, please bring me tea. And if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”

–And–there it was–he never said, “In the end it is not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.”

If I were Honest Abe, I think I’d sue.  Although I’m not sure for what. After all, those are some pretty good sayings.

And yet, Lincoln was not above giving us a memorable line or two.

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time. But you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

He said that.  And it was a good one.

But here is my favorite:

“That’s cool.”

He did. He said it.  At least five or six decades before the hip generation coined the term and everything was considered “cool.”

The date was February 27, 1860 and the setting was the Cooper Union of New York City.  Lincoln had been invited to come from Illinois and deliver a speech concerning the upcoming presidential election.

Many historians say this speech made Lincoln the Republican nominee for the White House.

In the message, Lincoln spoke of the threat from South Carolina in which its leaders vowed to secede from the Union if a Republican were elected president. “So, it will be the fault of the Republicans,” they said.

Here it is, verbatim:

Lincoln: “But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union, and then, you say, the crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! (laughter) That is cool. (great laughter) A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!'” (continued laughter)

Source: Harold Holzer’s book “Lincoln at Cooper Union.”

When I emailed Professor Holzer about Lincoln’s line “That is cool,” he responded that this is the single question he gets asked most often. I wish I could find that email for his exact answer, but as I recall, Dr. Holzer said it simply means “that is unusual.”

We think of “cool” as an invention of the jazz age by its musicians, and later adopted by the culture at large.  But it’s not so.  Consider this from the Civil War…

One morning the Confederate soldiers were having breakfast around the fire. John Harper was spooning boiled rice into his mouth when a small piece of shell struck the spoon, tearing a hole in it, and spattering the rice all over his face. He calmly said, “That was cool,” and went on with his breakfast.  (Source? From a handwritten note I’d stuck in the Cooper Union book. I’m irritated with myself for not noting the source.)

That was a full century before saying something was “cool” was cool.

The point being what?

The point being a) there is no excuse for our using spurious quotes in this day when checking for accuracy can be done so easily.  Preachers more than anyone else should be trustworthy in that every word they say is solid and reliable.

And 2) isn’t the English language delightful?

And 3) ain’t history fun?

That’s all, folks. Thank you for bearing with me through this.  I was called to preach as a college senior while majoring in history and political science, hoping to become a college professor teaching history. I never got the love for history out of my system, as some may have noticed.  I have a shelf filled with books on Lincoln and another on Churchill.  Down the hall in the study, there are several shelves loaded with books on Harry Truman, a pursuit from several decades back.

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