That Reminds Me of a Story: Lincoln’s Metaphors and His Audience

written February 2012

Amid the backwoods of Indiana and Illinois Abraham Lincoln received a formal education that was meager, to be kind. With less than a single year in a schoolhouse, Lincoln himself was years later critical of pioneer curriculum.[1] Apart from these “blab schools” Lincoln relied on his own hunger for reading the few books that could be found.[2] His self-education eventually, amazingly,produced a surgical precision with language that perhaps no other president has equaled. Lincoln thus selected the words he used with care with might raise his use of anecdote to a serious form of argument, a deeply exact figurative language all his own.[3] Lincoln’s unique personal upbringing- his earthy rhetorical world on an eventual collision course with a more tradition alone- marked him as an original; his use of metaphor and story was both an asset and a liability for Lincoln. It could be argued however that Lincoln consciously used types of metaphor depending on his audience‘s class and education, with advantageous effects.

Historian James McPherson uses Confederate president Jefferson Davis as a counterweight to Lincoln’s rustic erudition. Attending“colleges” and West Point, and acquiring training in “rhetoric, logic,literature, and science” Davis indeed had the best of 19th-century academia.[4]McPherson’s query, arguing Davis should have been regarded as rivalry effective communicator as Lincoln, yet history showing the Southern leader being dimly recalled for his relative eloquence, is an apt beginning to for this study.

Historians cannot help but note the kinds of books Lincoln read as a child, theBible and Aesop’s Fables among them, to find the root of Lincoln’s life-long love of parable and metaphor. McPherson takes it a step further, noting that Lincoln was allowed to grow up in the“rhythms of nature” and the “rural communities,” so that “perhaps the deficits of Lincoln’s education proved a benefit.”[5] Arguably this rural world of animals and farms was closer to the American antebellum reality that Davis- as well as Lincoln’s future Cabinet and generals- regularly saw.

The Lincoln that can easily emerge from this idea is a mixture of his former law partner William Herndon’s “Western folk hero, funny irreverent,” always ready with a knee-slapping yarn, and Carl Sandberg’s version of a “simple… practical and wise” Lincoln, bestowing Christ-like allegories.[6] To not understand the purpose of the stories then is to misinterpret the teller’s meaning, as was often the case in Lincoln’s time. Lincoln’s use of metaphor was to gain the listener’s understanding, and in turn their acceptance of Lincoln.

Metaphor-as-bridge-builder was an early lesson for the young Lincoln by his father Thomas’ own endless supply of stories. These stories were Lincoln’s de facto text books, and their universals truths connected his world together. The youth was very aware of his “short and simple” life of poverty, and other seeming limitations.[7] It was his early stories- “of no special point” than “because they were funny”- that helped ingratiate himself into New Salem when setting off alone into the world.[8] Lincoln also learned the value of rigorous language from an early age, remembering feeling excluded and “angry” when young, and endeavoring to not do so to others “stuck with me.”[9]

Lincoln’s metaphors slowly took on more weight and purpose, yet stories remained key to explaining complicated issues. Before he gave speeches to large crowds or wrote messages printed in newspapers across the country, Lincoln honed his communication with an intimate, one-on-one manner not taught in universities. Lincoln’s self-awareness of language is palpable when he once stated, “I was not satisfied, until I had put it in language plain enough…for any boy I knew to understand.”[10] These metaphors however had to be personal,and any boy could understand animal and other practical narratives. Republican leader Charles Depew said of Lincoln’s use of stories “for the person he wished to reach…the individual, the story did more than any argument.”

Left unsaid by McPherson is that Lincoln seems to have tempered his message based on his audience when it comes to metaphor use. On the stump before common masses the metaphor often served as primarily an explanation of a loftier moral that could be relatable to peoples’experiences. His use of comparing slavery to “venomous snakes crawling in the road” made the image immediate for his listeners, the drama then heightened by snakes in a bed with children to highlight the immediate danger.[11] Animal metaphors could often cut-through a problem or illuminate a solution higher rhetoric could not touch. Metaphors as explanation for the masses also left Lincoln above the fray, the lightness of the comment not dirtying him as well. This is perhaps why, at same time Lincoln could label Stephen Douglas a “shadow of a pigeon starved to death”Douglas lamented, “every one of his stories seem a whack upon my back.”[12]

Lincoln himself was also his own audience, as he reminds on many occasions. The burden of gaining the presidency amid secession was reason enough to lift his spirits with humor. “I laugh,” he said memorably during the war,“because I must not cry; that is all.”[13] Patronage seekers flooding into Springfield was met with a weary executive-elect, that none the less continuously went out of his way to be welcoming.[14] Personal sanity was retained with stories,both as a source of comfort and a grease for difficult news. Lincoln could not have changed his habit after gained high office if he had tired, ingrained as it was. A Springfield citizen recalled, “Mr. L. has not altered one bit… telling funny stories and cracking jokes.”[15] Like on the stump, those that experienced of Lincoln’s personableness first-hand often could not deny their agreeable effect. It was the ordinary then people that Lincoln was most effective with using metaphor, those of the type he had met in Illinois as a young jack-of-all-trades and later traveling lawyer. Confronted once about his constant storytelling, Lincoln replied:

‘I have found in the course of a long experience that common people’- and,repeating it- “common people, take [stories] as they run, are the most easily influenced and informed through the medium of a broad illustration than in any other way.”[16]

To be uncommon, such as the refined Davis, was to possibly miss Lincoln’s earthy illustration altogether. To return to McPherson’s argument, if Lincoln gained from an education dissimilar to Davis’and other elites, it stands that those like Davis lost something in their cloistered, classical studies. McPherson makes this case, noting Davis “never understood” the need “for reaching the common people.”[17]

Lincoln’s use of metaphor was indeed criticized at times. To his legion of critics he was portrayed as a jokester laughing away mindlessly while the Civil War raged. It should be noted however that these opponents often either told second-hand of Lincoln’s metaphorical fondness, or did not share in Lincoln’s backwoods background. The New York Daily News lambasted the president-elect for story “mania.” Perhaps not without reason the editors wondered if Cabinet meetings would be “wasted with stories.”[18] The metaphors’ deeper meanings then were either not always grasped by critics, or roundly appreciated. Harsh rebukes did not rattle Lincoln’s linguistic philosophy, saying with stark simply, “as to what those hyper-critical few may think, I do not care.”[19]

Some Cabinet members, in truth, were at times at a loss for Lincoln’s humor. The best case of this might be the occasion when Lincoln asked to read a “very funny” section of Artemus Ward to his secretaries. Lincoln as was normally the case “laughed heartily,” yet “not a single member of the Cabinet” joined in. This moment could further McPherson’s suggestion of disconnect between the pastorally unorthodox Lincoln and his conventional Cabinet. But Lincoln then paused, and took a moment to beseech them to understand the benefits of humor, saying “with the fearful strain that it upon me day and night, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this as much as I do.”[20] It was then that Lincoln turned to the true, grimmer task at hand. (Oates notes these two sides to Lincoln, seeing it as “lapses from rollicking” to “a sense of gravity” that today would suggest bi-polar disorder).[21] That he had convened them to hear and comment on the Emancipation Proclamation- “a piece of paper of much significance”- allows a look at Lincoln’s humor with colleagues in a new light. In this light of the Proclamation, the earlier attempt to read Artemus Ward’s “High-Handed Outrage at Utica” becomes an foreshadowed introduction to the case Lincoln wishes to make- complete with analogy to misdirected hatred of Judas Iscariot.[22] This monent illustrates a Lincoln that respected his Cabivet’s stature and intelligence, and so approached the use of metaphor differently. Instead of metaphorical substation, the metaphor acts as preluded segue into the serious matter Lincoln treated it as.

A second test of Lincoln’s use of metaphor with elites is with his generals. This is not to say that Lincoln was at a disadvantage in these circumstances; Benjamin Thomas notes Lincoln’s “quiet dominance” and being “highly effective.”[23] The question is if Lincoln used a different form of metaphor at different times. The difficult General George McClellan, trained at West Point and during the 1850s a wealthy captain of rail, was both petulant and proud.[24] The hierarchy of power whn it came to this particular officer and his president was inverted in McClellan’s mind.[25] Calling Lincoln a “weak reed,” he also did not entirely approve of Lincoln’s love of anecdotes, their telling “ever unworthy of one holding his position.”[26]

Early in the war McClellan had Lincoln at a disadvantage, as the commander-in-chief was a military novice. As Lincoln later grew in tactical knowledge he could interject more forcefully into McClellan’s planning. McClellan could not be won over by folksy charm,but Lincoln nevertheless employed devastating wit in keeping his general inline. In one instance of McClellan having “fatigued horses,” Lincoln’s witheringly replied, “Will you pardon me for asking what horses of your army have done… that would fatigue anything?”[27] In clear terms again- as was his constant goal- Lincoln laid out his displeasure at the pace of the war and McClellan’s inaction. In a second example, McClellan tested the president by inquiring what he is to do with six captured cows. Not backing down from the insubordinate’s challenge, Lincoln responsed merely, “Milk them.” Yet McClellan often served as an antithesis for what Lincoln expected, the general becoming a subject lesson in anecdotes about “having a special talent for a stationary engine.”[28]

Lincoln once stated “It is not the story itself, but its purpose, or effect, that interests me.”[29] A primary purpose seems to have been to build consensus and friendships across the span of his life. This sentiment was never so apparent than when he turned the notion of enemies on its heard, asking, “do I not destroy them when I make them my friends?”[30] Humor, in Lincoln’s hands, was both a sword and an olive branch, weapons modified for each “foe” or friend. Another master of words, Walt Whitman, also saw something deeper than a country story-teller in Lincoln:

“Underneath his outside…mannerisms, and stories from third-class bar-rooms (it is his humor),Mr. Lincoln keeps a fountain of first-class practical telling wisdom.”[31]

Lincoln’s eye was constantly catching the absurdities and humor of life “in anything and everything,” narratives playing out all around him, and with a keen mind he instantly connected it to a story.[32] Lincoln, a sharper observer to make such parallels, was also highly aware of his specific listening audience, tailored each tale to them. Being the case, It might be highly illuminating to compare the themes and types of metaphors used to his various audiences listening, to determine if such a pattern could be uncovered.


[1] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York:Simon & Shuster, 1995), 39.

[2] James M. McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphor” inAbraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 94.

[3] McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphor,” 97-98.

[4] McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphor,” 94.

[5] McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War withMetaphor,” 94-95.

[6] Stephen B. Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 6, 12.

[7] Donald, Lincoln, 19.

[8] Donald, Lincoln, 39-40.

[9] McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphor,” 97-98.

[10] McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphor,” 98.

[11] McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphor,” 102.

[12] Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths, 48.

[13] Paul F. Boller, Jr. Presidential Anecdotes (Tennessee: Kingsport Press, 1982), 123.

[14] Harold Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect:Abraham Lincoln and the Great Session Winter 1860-1861 (New York: Simon& Shuster, 2008), 82.

[15] Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Session Winter 1860-1861, 85.

[16] McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphor,” 99.

[17] McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphor,” 99.

[18] Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Session Winter 1860-1861, 83.

[19] McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphor,” 99.

[20] Keith W. Jennison, The Humorous Mr. Lincoln (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1965), 100.

[21] Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths, 12.

[22] Jennison, The Humorous Mr. Lincoln, 99-100.

[23] Stephen Sears, “Lincoln and McClellan” in Lincoln’s Generals, ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York, Oxford University Press, 1994),11.

[24] Stephen Sears, “Lincoln and McClellan” 7, 10

[25] Stephen Sears, “Lincoln and McClellan” 10. The case of Lincoln “deferring” McClellan in his mind.

[26] Stephen Sears, “Lincoln and McClellan” 6,13.

[27] Jennison, The Humorous Mr. Lincoln,103.

[28] Stories and Anecdotes about Abraham Lincoln,www.aboutabrahamlincoln.com/anecdotes_mcclellan_s_special.html

[29] McPherson, “How Lincoln Won the War withMetaphor,” 98.

[30] Jennison, The Humorous Mr. Lincoln, 107.

[31] Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind theMyths, 8-9.

[32] Boller, Jr. Presidential Anecdotes, 122

Works Cited

Boller Jr., Paul F. Presidential Anecdotes. Tennessee: Kingsport Press, 1982.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1995.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals. New York:Simon and Shuster Paperbacks, 2005.

Holzer, Harold. Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861. New York: Simon& Shuster, 2008.

Jennison, Keith W. The Humorous Mr. Lincoln. New: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1965.

McPherson, James M. “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors” in Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, 93-112. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Oates, Stephen B. Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Sears, Stephen W. “Lincoln and McClellan” in Lincoln’s Generals, edited by Gabor S. Boritt, 1-50. New York: Oxford University Press,1994.

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