Abraham Lincoln Quotations Everyone Should Know

What Lincoln Actually Said: 10 Verified Quotes in Context

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln by Preston Brooks 1860
Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln's quotations have become a part of American life, and for good reason. During years of experience as a courtroom advocate and political stump speaker, the Rail Splitter developed a remarkable knack for saying things in a memorable way.

In his own time, Lincoln was often quoted by admirers. And in modern times, Lincoln quotes are often cited to prove one point or another.

All too often the circulating Lincoln quotes turn out to be bogus. The history of fake Lincoln quotes is long, and it seems that people, for at least a century, have tried to win arguments by citing something supposedly said by Lincoln.

Despite the endless cascade of fake Lincoln quotes, it's possible to verify a number of brilliant things Lincoln actually did say. Here is a list of particularly good ones:

Ten Lincoln Quotes Everyone Should Know

1. "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free."

Source: Lincoln's speech to the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois on June 16, 1858. Lincoln was running for U.S. Senate, and was expressing his differences with Senator Stephen Douglas, who often defended the institution of enslavement.

2. "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

Source: Lincoln's first inaugural address, March 4, 1861. Though the states that allowed enslavement had been seceding from the Union, Lincoln expressed a wish that the Civil War would not begin. The war did break out the next month.

3. "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in."

Source: Lincoln's second inaugural address, which was given on March 4, 1865, as the Civil War was coming to an end. Lincoln was referring to the imminent job of putting the Union back together after years of very bloody and costly warfare.

4. "It is not best to swap horses while crossing the river."

Source: Lincoln was addressing a political gathering on June 9, 1864 while expressing his wish to run for a second term. The comment is actually based on a joke of the time, about a man crossing a river whose horse is sinking and is offered a better horse but says it isn't the time to be changing horses. The comment attributed to Lincoln has been used many times since in political campaigns.

5. "If McClellan is not using the army, I should like to borrow it for a while."

Source: Lincoln made this comment on April 9, 1862 to express his frustration with General George B. McClellan, who was commanding the Army of the Potomac and was always very slow to attack.

6. "Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Source: The famous opening of the Gettysburg Address, delivered November 19, 1863.

7. "I can't spare this man, he fights."

Source: According to Pennsylvania politician Alexander McClure, Lincoln said this regarding General Ulysses S. Grant after the Battle of Shiloh in the spring of 1862. McClure had advocated removing Grant from command, and the quote was Lincoln's way of disagreeing strongly with McClure.

8. "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."

Source: A reply to editor Horace Greeley published in Greeley's newspaper, the New York Tribune, on August 19, 1862. Greeley had criticized Lincoln for moving too slowly in bringing an end to the system of enslavement. Lincoln resented pressure from Greeley, and from North American 19th-century Black activists, though he was already working on what would become the Emancipation Proclamation.

9. "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

Source: The conclusion of Lincoln's speech at Cooper Union in New York City on February 27, 1860. The speech received extensive coverage in the New York City newspapers and instantly made Lincoln, a virtual outsider to that point, a credible candidate for the Republican nomination for president in the election of 1860.

10. "I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day."

Source: According to journalist and Lincoln friend Noah Brooks, Lincoln said the pressures of the presidency and the Civil War had prompted him to pray on many occasions.
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McNamara, Robert. "Abraham Lincoln Quotations Everyone Should Know." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/abraham-lincoln-quotations-everyone-should-know-1773576. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Abraham Lincoln Quotations Everyone Should Know. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/abraham-lincoln-quotations-everyone-should-know-1773576 McNamara, Robert. "Abraham Lincoln Quotations Everyone Should Know." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/abraham-lincoln-quotations-everyone-should-know-1773576 (accessed June 5, 2023).