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Bits of History and Historical Fiction

Lincoln's Wit

"If I had a different face…" But this image, probably prepared by one of Alexander Gardner's assistants in early November 1863, is widely considered the best portrait ever taken of Lincoln and shows several of the qualities that made him the great leader he was. (Courtesy Mead Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Recently I reviewed a very fine novel about the courtship of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd, which set me to thinking about his famous witticisms. My favorite is the one in which, responding to a politician who called him two-faced, Lincoln supposedly replied, "If I had a face different from this one, don't you think I'd use it?"


But, according to one of his many biographers, the late David Herbert Donald, his humor often misfired. For instance, in 1856, he spent so much time traveling the Illinois judicial circuit as an itinerant judge, by the time he returned to Springfield, the cottage that Mary and he occupied had become "a handsome two-story Greek revival house, tastefully painted chocolate brown, with dark green shutters." Feigning shock, he asked a neighbor whether he knew where Lincoln lived, because his house used to be right there. Consequently, the story went around that Mary had renovated the house without his consent, absolutely untrue; but privately, he had complained about the cost. As a result, she learned to conceal from her husband how much money she spent. Honest Abe sometimes made his spouse and himself suffer for his habit of being indirect.


Source: David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (1995), p. 197.

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