If They Turn Their Backs To the Fire, and Get Scorched in the Rear, They’ll Find They Have Got To ‘Sit’ on the ‘Blister’!

Abraham Lincoln? Francis Bicknell Carpenter? Carl Sandburg? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Apparently Abraham Lincoln employed a vividly powerful metaphor when discussing the people’s responsibility during an election. The precise phrasing is uncertain. Here is one version:

If the people turn their backs to a fire they will burn their behinds, and they will just have to sit on their blisters.

Would you please help me to find the correct phrasing and a precise citation?

Quote Investigator: Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, and the earliest match known to QI appeared in an 1866 book of reminiscences by U.S. painter Francis Bicknell Carpenter titled “Six Months at The White House with Abraham Lincoln: The Story of a Picture”.

Carpenter wished to paint a picture commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation, and he met with Lincoln about the project in February 1864. He was given space for a studio within the White House, and he worked on the painting until it was completed for viewing in July 1864.

Carpenter’s book contained many anecdotes about Lincoln. One of Carpenter’s unnamed friends was the private secretary of a cabinet minister. In August 1864 the friend was tasked with presenting to Lincoln an assessment of the upcoming election. Unfortunately, the prospects seemed gloomy. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

My friend said that he found Mr. Lincoln alone, looking more than usually careworn and sad. Upon hearing the statement, he walked two or three times across the floor in silence. Returning, he said with grim earnestness of tone and manner: “Well, I cannot run the political machine; I have enough on my hands without that. It is the people’s business, — the election is in their hands. If they turn their backs to the fire, and get scorched in the rear, they’ll find they have got to ‘sit’ on the ‘blister ’!”

This citation is substantive, but the accuracy of this quotation is dependent on the veracity and the memory of Carpenter and his friend. The figurative framework of fire and blisters has a long history as shown below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1804 a newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania reprinted a piece from a newspaper in Trenton, New Jersey which referred to an “old adage” about blisters: 2

We thank them for their generosity; but would remind them of the old adage—“he that burns his seat, must expect to sit on the blister.”
Trenton True Amer.

The adage continued to circulate in 1858 when it appeared in a Burlington, Iowa newspaper: 3

There is an old adage, that those who burn themselves must sit upon the blisters . . .

In August 1866 multiple newspapers published excerpts from Carpenter’s book which was about to be appear. For example, the “Providence Evening Press” of Rhode Island printed the following introductory words: 4

Nearly every reader has been deeply interested in reading, from time to time, the reminiscences of the late President Lincoln furnished by F. B. Carpenter, the artist. Mr. C. is the author of a book about to be published by Hurd & Houghton of New York, entitled “Six Months at the White House,” which gives many facts of interest until now unpublished.

The above introduction was followed by several excerpts from the book including the tale containing the quotation under examination.

In 1936 Carl Sandburg’s acclaimed poem “The People, Yes” incorporated many maxims and sayings including a remark about blisters: 5

Handling honey, tar or dung some of it sticks to the fingers.
The liar comes to believe his own lies.
He who burns himself must sit on the blisters.
God alone understands fools.

The popular phrasing of the quotation ascribed to Lincoln has changed over time. In 1984 the “Akron Beacon Journal” of Ohio described a politician who dramatized Lincoln and delivered a variant quotation: 6

Abraham Lincoln, lanky and craggy-faced, strode out of the past and onto the podium of the Ohio House Wednesday for a few words about himself, politics and the state of things in general.

As played by state Rep. Robert Hagan, a Democrat from Lake County, the 16th president was at his sardonic best . . .

On government by the people: “It would be nice if we could remind the people that politics is their business. If they turn their backs to the fire and burn their behinds, they’re going to have to sit on the blisters.”

In 2003 “The Times Leader” of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania published an editorial containing another variant of the quotation: 7

“Elections belong to the people,” said Abraham Lincoln. “It is their decision. If they decided to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

In conclusion, the 1866 book “Six Months at The White House with Abraham Lincoln” by Francis Bicknell Carpenter included an anecdote from a friend of Carpenter’s which ascribed the quotation under examination to Lincoln. QI believes that this evidence is substantive, but the accuracy of the quotation depends on the truthfulness of Carpenter and his friend. The blister metaphor was not crafted by Lincoln. It had already been circulating for decades.

(Great thanks to Robert Matthews and Mardy Grothe whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe has a helpful website about quotations available here.)

Notes:

  1. 1866, Six Months at The White House with Abraham Lincoln: The Story of a Picture by F. B. Carpenter (Francis Bicknell Carpenter), Chapter 68, Quote Page 275, Hurd and Houghton, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1804 June 13, Aurora General Advertiser, (Article reprinted from Trenton True American, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1858 March 02, The Weekly Hawk Eye, Sharp Practice, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Burlington, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1866 August 27, Providence Evening Press, Additional Reminiscences of President Lincoln by F. B. Carpenter, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Providence, Rhode Island. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1990 (1936 Copyright), The People, Yes by Carl Sandburg, Section 30, Quote Page 57, A Harvest/HBJ Book: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1984 February 16, Akron Beacon Journal, Voice from the past in the present by Mary Grace Poidomani (Beacon Journal Columbus Bureau), Quote Page B1, Column 3, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 2003 November 4, The Times Leader, Our Opinion: Elections belong to you, the voters who decide, Quote Page 7A, Column 3, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)