Abraham Lincoln? Henry Clay Whitney? Elliott Anthony? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: A verbose speaker employing overblown rhetoric reportedly inspired a humorous observation from U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Here are two versions:
- That feller can crowd the most words into the fewest ideas of anyone I ever saw.
- He can concentrate the most words into the smallest idea of any man I ever met.
Is there any substantive evidence that Lincoln actually made this quip?
Quote Investigator: There are two distinct anecdotes supporting the attribution of this joke to Abraham Lincoln. Both tales were told by people who claimed to have heard the remark directly from Lincoln. Unfortunately, both stories were published many years after the assassination of the famous statesman in 1865 with a concomitant reduction in credibility.
Henry Clay Whitney was a close friend of Lincoln who in 1892 published “Life on the Circuit with Lincoln” which included the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
There was a small merchant in Chicago, whom (to suppress his real name) I will call Blower, and who sold out his store and embraced the trade, or profession, of politics. Lincoln had great contempt for him, although he gave him an office; but he said to me one day: “That Blower can compress the most words in the fewest ideas of any man I ever knew.”
The second anecdote was told by Elliott Anthony within the 1899 book “The Bench and Bar of Illinois: Historical and Reminiscent”. Anthony was active in politics and frequently met with fellow Republican party member Lincoln. Both were lawyers who regularly visited courts and saw colleagues delivering speeches to juries.
The pair heard a lengthy semi-coherent address about insect-eating storks and the dykes of Holland that was delivered by attorney Robert S. Blackwell. Anthony relayed the following reaction spoken by Lincoln: 2
That beats me! Blackwell can concentrate more words into the fewest ideas of any man I ever knew. The storks of Holland! Why, they would eat him up before he began to get half through telling that story about them.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
As mentioned previously, Lincoln died in 1865. Interestingly, evidence exists that thematically similar remarks were circulating while Lincoln was still alive; for example, in 1862 a newspaper in Edinburgh, Scotland published this: 3
. . . so it is the littlest orators, the men of least grasp and of fewest ideas, who put their little thoughts into the biggest and wordiest orations, and trot them across the stage in crinoline.
Also, in 1868, a few years after Lincoln’s death, a newspaper in Tipton, Iowa printed the following: 4
The editor of the Clinton Age can express the fewest ideas in the most words of any writer in newspaperdom.
QI believes that the two citations above enhance the plausibility that Lincoln delivered the quip in the 1850s or 1860s.
In 1892 and 1899 Lincoln received credit for two different versions of the jest from eyewitnesses as indicated previously. Also, in 1899 a compilation titled “Political Truth: A Digest of Political Methods Now In Vogue” ascribed to Lincoln another instance, but the author did not claim to be an eyewitness: 5
If Lincoln were alive, and could hear some of the political speeches to which the present generation are accustomed, he would fully realize how much truth was embodied in his expression: “That feller can crowd the most words into the fewest ideas of anyone I ever saw.”
A biography in 1906 titled “Lincoln: The Lawyer” by Frederick Trevor Hill attributed another version to the statesman: 6
. . . Lincoln’s humor generally freed his criticisms of all offense. “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met,” was, perhaps, the severest retort he ever uttered; but history has considerately sheltered the identity of the victim.
In 1912 “Lincoln’s Own Stories” edited by Anthony Gross printed an instance matching the 1906 version: 7
Speaking of some lawyer whose name is unknown he said, “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.”
The saying appeared in the 1948 reference “The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs, Maxims, And Famous Phrases”. The editor suggested that the words were spoken circa 1859, but the only evidence provided was a pointer to the 1912 citation given above. 8
In conclusion, there is substantive support for ascribing this quip to Abraham Lincoln based on citations in 1892 and 1899 although the phrasing differed. The 1882 version used the phrase “compress the most words”, and the 1899 version used “concentrate more words”. Both instances referred to “fewest ideas”. Unfortunately, both anecdotes were published long after Lincoln’s death; hence, it is natural to doubt their accuracy. On the other hand, similar humorous remarks were circulating in the 1860s. Variant instances of the joke appearing in citations after 1899 were not based on direct testimony.
(Great thanks to Mary Sechrist Bartow, José Moreno-Lacalle, and Jay Dillon whose discussion of this topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to previous researchers: Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher who compiled and edited “Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln” and Fred R. Shapiro who compiled and edited “The Yale Book of Quotations”.)
- 1892, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln: With Sketches of Generals Grant, Sherman and McClellan, Judge Davis, Leonard Swett, and Other Contemporaries by Henry C. Whitney (Henry Clay Whitney), Chapter 8: Lincoln as a “Merry Andrew”, Quote Page 182, Estes and Lauriat, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1899, The Bench and Bar of Illinois: Historical and Reminiscent, Edited by John M. Palmer, Volume 2, Chapter 32: Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar of Chicago by the Late Judge Elliott Anthony (Revised by Charles E. Anthony), Start Page 602, Quote Page 642 and 643, Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full view) link ↩
- 1862 April 10, The Caledonian Mercury, Speechifying at the General Assemblies, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1868 August 27, The Tipton Advertiser, Iowa Items, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Tipton, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1899, Political Truth: A Digest of Political Methods Now In Vogue by Thomas Edwin Smith, Chapter: Concerning Stump Speakers, Quote Page 103, Published by La Velle Publishing Company, Rock Island, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1906, Lincoln: The Lawyer by Frederick Trevor Hill, Chapter 19: The Jury Lawyer, Quote Page 218 and 219, Century Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1912, Lincoln’s Own Stories, Edited by Anthony Gross, Part 2: The Lawyer, Quote Page 36, Garden City Publishing Company, Garden City, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1948, The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs, Maxims, And Famous Phrases, Selected and Arranged by Burton Stevenson, Topic: Word, Quote Page 2603, Column 1, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩