He Can Compress the Most Words In the Fewest Ideas of Anyone I Ever Knew

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:

  1. That feller can crowd the most words into the fewest ideas of anyone I ever saw.
  2. 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.

Continue reading He Can Compress the Most Words In the Fewest Ideas of Anyone I Ever Knew

Notes:

  1. 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
  2. 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