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Lincoln's Thinking

One key to understanding Abraham Lincoln is knowing how his mind worked. Here are direct Lincoln quotations or recollections by some contemporaries who were in an excellent position to observe his thinking in action. Many who knew Lincoln commented on the amazing power of his mind.

As David Davis, a judge and close family friend, explained, "From the humblest poverty, without education, or the means of attaining it; unaided by wealth or influential family connections, he rose, solely, by the strength of his intellect and the force of his character, to the highest position in the world."

Lincoln's Style of Thought

"...altho his life was largely hedged in by crowds and his career and destiny wrought out in cooperation with others, yet his essential self, the thinking part, was passed in social isolation.... When he had a difficult case to develop and mature he would be missing; this was more especially true of his life on the circuit, or when he desired to make an extra effort he would hide somewhere, and in silence, isolation and secrecy, by reflection and self-introspection, mature his plans."
--Henry Whitney, the lawyer who wrote Life on the Circuit with Lincoln

Lincoln's Lifelong Learning

"He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want."
--Lincoln's Autobiography of 1860

"The way he became educated was by never being ashamed to confess his ignorance of what in fact he did not know, by always asking questions where he could probably elicit information, and by studying all his life. I have seen him repeatedly around upon the circuit with school books."
--Leonard Swett, a lawyer who rode the Eighth Judicial Circuit with Lincoln

Lincoln's Thought Development

"Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity."
--Lincoln's Autobiography of 1859

"Perhaps his exceeding plainness of speech detracted somewhat from the real depth of his thought, but he was acute rather than profound; and I am inclined to think that those who were nearest him during the last years of his life were impressed by the swiftness and the correctness of his intuitions, rather than by the originality and profundity of his reasoning."
--Noah Brooks, Washington reporter and frequent White House visitor

Lincoln's Way with Words

"Every one likes a compliment. Thank you for yours on my little notification speech, and on the recent [Second] Inaugeral Address. I expect the latter to wear as well as--perhaps better than--any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world."
--Lincoln's March 15, 1865 letter to Thurlow Weed

"When Lincoln rose to speak, I was greatly disappointed. He was tall, tall--oh, how tall! and so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man....But pretty soon he began to get into his subject; he straightened up, made regular and graceful gestures; his face lighted as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet with the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man."
--A literary critic who heard Lincoln's 1860 Cooper Union address in New York

Lincoln's Legal Mind

"His mind caught the substantial turning point of his case and he stript[sic] all cobwebs and collaterals away, and stood up the substantial question fairly and honorably before his opponent--court & jury."
--William H. Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and biographer

Lincoln's Humor and Stories

"His illustrations were often quaint and homely, but always clear and apt, and generally conclusive....His wit and humor, and inexhaustible stories of anecdote, always to the point, added immensely to his power as a jury advocate."
--Isaac Arnold, a lawyer who was one of Lincoln's earliest biographers

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