Lincoln’s Greatest Quotes: The Best Quotations From Abraham Lincoln
Here are some of Lincoln’s most quotable quotes.  Most of the Lincoln quotations listed here can be found in The Words Lincoln Lived By: 52 Timeless Principles To Light Your Path.  NY: Fireside/Simon & Schuster


*  “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

*  “I don’t like to hear cut-and-dried sermons.  No–when I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.”

*  “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which … when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause.”

*  “I have found that when one is embarrassed, usually the shortest way to get through with it is to quit talking about it or thinking about it, and go at something else.”

*  “No man [who has] resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention.”

*  “A man watches his pear-tree day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at length falls into his lap!”

*  “The true rule, in determining to embrace or reject any thing, is not whether it has any evil in it; but whether it has more of evil than of good. There are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost every thing … is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.”

*  “Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.”

*  “You must not wait to be brought forward by the older men….Do you suppose that I should ever have got into notice if I had waited to be hunted up and pushed forward by older men?”

*  “The way for a young man to rise is to improve himself every way he
can, never suspecting that any body wishes to hinder him. Allow me to
assure you that suspicion and jealousy never did help any man in any situation.  There may sometimes be ungenerous attempts to keep a young man down; and they will succeed too, if he allows his mind to be diverted from its true channel to brood over the attempted injury.
Cast about and see if this feeling has not injured every person you
have ever known to fall into it.”
Letter To William Herndon, July 10, 1848

*  “Half finished work generally proves to be labor lost….”

* “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.”

*  “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862


“Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

There is no record that Lincoln ever made this statement.  He suffered from severe depression himself and no doubt understood that this illness often requires more than just thinking happy thoughts.  We now know that professional care and medical treatment often are required.)

“Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged.”

This quote is the creation of J. Michael Waller for an article that he wrote for Insight magazine (Dec. 23, 2003) and was repeated by Diana Irey in her unsuccessful campaign against Rep. John Murtha, a critic of the Iraq War.  The “Lincoln quote” was picked up by the media and repeated thousands of times on the Internet.   Waller, in a response to, claimed that he did not intend it to be a quote at all but a copy editor mistakenly put quotations around it.  The quote does not even have face validity; Lincoln vigorously opposed the Mexican War when he was a Congressman.

Ten Cannots That Lincoln Did Not Write:

“You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.”
“You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.”
“You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.”
“You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.”
“You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.”
“You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.”
“You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.”
“You cannot establish security on borrowed money.”
“You cannot build character and courage by taking away men’s initiative and independence.”
“You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”

These “Lincoln quotes” were written by Reverend William J.H. Boetcker in the early 20th century. They were reprinted in a column by Ann Landers, quoted in a speech by Ronald Reagan, and have been read into the Congressional Record. 


After Lincoln became a well-known lawyer, he sometimes received inquiries from people who aspired to become lawyers. Here’s what he told one young man: “Get books, sit yourself down anywhere, and go to reading them yourself.”

To another he wrote: “Get the books and read and study them till you understand them in their principal features; and that is the main thing….It is of no consequence to be in a large town while you are reading. I read at New Salem, which never had three hundred people living in it. The books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places.”

A quaint note has survived from one of Lincoln’s civil cases in the 1850s.  “If you settle I will charge nothing for what I have done, and thank you to boot.  By settling you will likely get your money sooner, and with much less trouble and expense.”  (Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Assn., Vol 16, No. 2, pp. 4, 5)

Lincoln understood that compromise is necessary in everyday life.  “Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can,” he wrote in a lecture for lawyers.  “Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser–in fees, and expenses, and waste of time.”

According to one of his secretaries William O. Stoddard, Lincoln was an exceptional listener. Stoddard, who had numerous opportunities to observe Lincoln up close, made this observation: “He was a most teachable man, and asked questions with a childlike simplicity which would have been too much for the false pride of many a man far less well informed. His fund of knowledge was, as he himself declared, very largely made up of information obtained in conversation.” Stoddard then observed that if Lincoln’s knowledge was “not so well arranged and digested as if it had been the accumulation of careful and exact research, it included a vast amount of information hardly to be found in books.”    (From William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary.  A new edition of this Lincoln classic is available, edited by Michael Burlingame.)

A Poignant Website

On February 7, 1850 Lincoln’s second son Edward died–after a 52-day illness. Eddie would have been 4 years old March 10th of that year.

Years ago, my heart almost stopped when I saw Eddie’s tombstone for the first time in the Lincoln museum in Springfield. The tombstone tells exactly how long Eddie lived: 3 years, 10 months, 18 days. His parents had counted the days!

A daguerreotype of Eddie has been found that can now be seen on the
Internet. Get ready to feel pain when you see it. A week after Eddie’s
death a poem entitled “Little Eddie”, which may have been written by Abraham or Mary, was published in The Illinois State Journal. It begins “Those midnight stars are sadly dimmed, That late so brilliantly shone, And the crimson tinge from cheek and lip, With the heart’s warm life has flown…

Excellence in any undertaking can be found in details that most people barely notice, but those who know know.

For example, Lincoln was fond of grammatical inversion. In the Second Inaugural, he did not say ‘We fondly hope and fervently pray.’ Instead he said, ‘Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray.'”

Lincoln also liked to use balanced antitheses. Here is an excerpt from a speech that he gave in Peoria, Illinois–six years before he became President: “The South, flushed with triumph and tempted to excesses; the North betrayed, as they believe, brooding on wrong and burning for revenge. One side will provoke; the other resent. The one will taunt, the other defy; one aggresses, the other retaliates.” (To read more on this subject, see Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg.)

Diligence   The care that Lincoln consistently applied to his work can be seen even in his handwriting.  Researchers have discovered thousands of meticulously written legal documents filed away in dusty courthouse records.

In notes that he prepared for lawyers, Lincoln recommended forming the habit of diligence: “The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every calling, is diligence.  Leave nothing for to-morrow which can be done today.”    Adapted for TAD from The Words Lincoln Lived By, p. 31

Tact  “The sharpness of a refusal or the edge of a rebuke may be blunted by an appropriate story, so as to save wounding feeling and yet serve the purpose.”

That’s a verbatim quote from Lincoln.   Now here is one of Lincoln’s contemporaries—a fellow lawyer by the name of Abram Bergen–on the way Lincoln used the concept: “His (Lincoln’s) tact was remarkable. He carefully studied and thought out the best way of saying everything, as well as the substance of what he should say.”   For Lincoln, tact became an indispensable habit, a priceless instrument in his political toolbox. Adapted from The Words Lincoln Lived By, p. 59.

“Presidents and Kings are not apt to see flaws in their own arguments, but fortunately for the Union, it had a President, at this critical juncture (the Civil War), who combined a logical intellect with an unselfish heart.” Frederick Seward (Frederick Seward, son of William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, served in Washington as his father’s private secretary. His observation was written following an early crisis during the Lincoln administration. For the full story, see Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln: NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005, pp. 396—401.


Unlike many leaders during a war, Lincoln refused to demonize the enemy. For example, when the city of Washington received news that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, a jubilant crowd gathered at the White House and the President was asked to speak.

Here is what Lincoln said that evening: “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted that we fairly captured it. I presented it to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. I now request the band to favor me with its performance.” The band played “Dixie,” followed by “Yankee Doodle.”

Describing the enemy as “our adversaries over the way” was typical, magnanimous Lincoln. Here was a man who ended his second inaugural speech “With malice toward none. With charity for all.” Everyone around Lincoln knew that he meant it.

At his last cabinet meeting, Lincoln stated that he hoped there would be no persecution, no bloody work after the war.

Why—how—did Lincoln behave this way when he was surrounded by powerful individuals who thought a rebel leader should swing from every lamp post in Washington?

Perhaps it was because Lincoln realized that revenge is a dangerous, two-sided weapon. Combatants find it difficult to live together in peace
after they lay down their arms if there is too much to forget. Demonizing is dreadfully difficult to undo.

Perhaps it was because there simply was no place for revenge in Lincoln’s soul. He had found a better way. Lincoln was fond of saying that the best way to destroy an enemy was to make a friend of him.

Thus Tolstoy could write: “Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together.”

For additional information on this aspect of Lincoln’s personality, see The Words Lincoln Lived By, Chapter Six.

Lincoln Quotes: Leadership Style of Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln On The Power Of Positive Thinking
“The way for a young man to rise is to improve himself every way he can, never suspecting that anybody wishes to hinder him.  Allow me to assure you that suspicion and jealousy never did help any man in any situation.  There may sometimes be ungenerous attempts to keep a young man down; and they will succeed too, if he allows his mind to be diverted from its true channel to brood over the attempted injury.  Cast about, and see if this feeling has not injured every person you have ever known to fall into it.”
Abraham Lincoln, Letter to William Herndon, July 10, 1848 (from Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln)

Lincoln’s “Public Opinion Baths”
(On a visit to the White House in 1863, Major General Charles G. Halpine was surprised to find one of its rooms full of people waiting to see the President.  Halpine suggested that Lincoln screen visitors the way generals did.  Here is Lincoln’s response.)

“I feel–though the tax on my time is heavy–that no hours of my day are better employed than those which thus bring me again within the direct contact and atmosphere of the average of our whole people.  Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official–not to say arbitrary–in their ideas, and are apter and apter with each passing day to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity. Now this is all wrong.  I go into these promiscuous receptions of all who claim to have business with me twice each week, and every applicant for audience has to take his turn, as if waiting to be shaved in the barber’s shop.  Many of the matters brought to my notice are utterly frivolous, but others are of more or less importance, and all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage out of which I sprung, and to which at the end of two years I must return.  I tell you that I call these receptions my ‘public opinion baths;’ for I have but little time to read the papers, and gather public opinion that way; and though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect as a whole, is renovating and invigorating to my perceptions of responsibility and duty.”

Quotations About Abraham Lincoln’s Leadership Style

“Careers, like symphonies and books, cannot be fully evaluated until they are finished. The more unconventional a symphony, a book, or a life, the less obvious its ending.”
Gene Griessman, The Words Lincoln Lived By: 52 Timeless Principles To Light Your Path.  NY: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, p. 113

Lincoln’s life was always a work in progress. Had he died even a year earlier, historians today would probably call him a well-meaning but tragic figure. Without a last-minute success on the battlefield, Lincoln would have been defeated at the polls. He had even written out plans for the transition. His successor would probably have ended the war by recognizing the Confederacy, thereby dismantling the Union and leaving slavery in place. But a major last-minute victory did come at Atlanta, and Lincoln sealed his place in history.

Shortly before Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, he lamented the loss of his associates who had invented the United States. “All, all dead,” Jefferson despaired shortly before his death, “and ourselves left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not and who knows not us.” He could not have known that, at that very moment, a young rustic on the Indiana frontier was getting to know him. Who indeed could have predicted that the barely literate youth would grow up and engrave Jefferson’s words on the hearts of the world at Gettysburg?

Nor could Jefferson have known that the great American experiment would survive, or that this boy, inspired by his words, would play such a central part in preserving it. When Lincoln visited the Confederate capital of Richmond shortly after it fell, he stayed for only a few hours. It was clear that the Union had been preserved and slavery was no more. The nation was being reborn.

On his return to Washington aboard the steamboat River Queen, the President read poetry to some of his friends. One of the passages was from Macbeth, his favorite of all Shakespeare’s plays. Little did he realize the eerie significance it would have for his own life.

Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.
Treason has done his worst. Nor steel nor poison.
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing.
Can touch him further.

Six days later, Lincoln was struck down by an assassin’s bullet. Like Duncan, nothing could touch him further. His voice was silenced. But still he speaks.”
Gene Griessman, The Words Lincoln Lived By: 52 Timeless Principles To Light Your Path.  NY: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, p. 113

“Lincoln discovered an important lesson of history: that strict justice produces harsh, mean-spirited individuals and harsh, mean-spirited societies.   Strict justice demands its ‘pound of flesh.’ The inquisitors who burned heretics and witches at the stake convinced themselves that they were being just.”  –Gene Griessman

“Lincoln was a politician who became a statesman.  That happens to politicians whenever they develop the capacity to look beyond the next election and the biases and narrow interests of their constituencies to the long term and the greater good.”  –Gene Griessman