Lincoln and Euclid

Abraham Lincoln was not an especially well-read man, but what he read he retained, thought about and frequently used.  One author he was fond of was the Greek mathematician Euclid.  His law partner Billy Herndon relates how Lincoln studied Euclid’s Elements:

He studied and nearly mastered the Six-books of Euclid (geometry) since he was a member of Congress. He began a course of rigid mental discipline with the intent to improve his faculties, especially his powers of logic and language. Hence his fondness for Euclid, which he carried with him on the circuit till he could demonstrate with ease all the propositions in the six books; often studying far into the night, with a candle near his pillow, while his fellow-lawyers, half a dozen in a room, filled the air with interminable snoring.

Lincoln wrote about why he decided to study Euclid:

In the course of my law reading I constantly came upon the word “demonstrate”. I thought at first that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not. I said to myself, What do I do when I demonstrate more than when I reason or prove? How does demonstration differ from any other proof?
I consulted Webster’s Dictionary. They told of ‘certain proof,’ ‘proof beyond the possibility of doubt’; but I could form no idea of what sort of proof that was. I thought a great many things were proved beyond the possibility of doubt, without recourse to any such extraordinary process of reasoning as I understood demonstration to be. I consulted all the dictionaries and books of reference I could find, but with no better results. You might as well have defined blue to a blind man.
At last I said,- Lincoln, you never can make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate means; and I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what demonstrate means, and went back to my law studies.

In the fourth Lincoln Douglas debate Lincoln used Euclid to illustrate a point:

If you have ever studied geometry, you remember that by a course of reasoning, Euclid proves that all the angles in a triangle are equal to two right angles. Euclid has shown you how to work it out. Now, if you undertake to disprove that proposition, and to show that it is erroneous, would you prove it to be false by calling Euclid a liar?

In a speech in Columbus, Ohio in 1860, Euclid came up again:

There are two ways of establishing a proposition. One is by trying to demonstrate it upon reason, and the other is, to show that great men in former times have thought so and so, and thus to pass it by the weight of pure authority. Now, if Judge Douglas will demonstrate somehow that this is popular sovereignty,—the right of one man to make a slave of another, without any right in that other, or anyone else to object,—demonstrate it as Euclid demonstrated propositions,—there is no objection. But when he comes forward, seeking to carry a principle by bringing it to the authority of men who themselves utterly repudiate that principle, I ask that he shall not be permitted to do it.

However Lincoln did not merely cite Euclid in speeches, but used him in his private thoughts about slavery.  In an unpublished note from 1854 on slavery:

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B. — why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?–
You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly?–You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
 But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

Lincoln throughout his life was fascinated by logic and mathematics.  In considering him as a thinker, it is always best to keep this in mind when looking at his thought processes as reflected in his writings and his speeches.

Published in: on May 18, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (7)  
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7 Comments

  1. Lincoln was not a historian, but in reading the published version of the Cooper Union speech (I read somewhere that in speaking it he added a good deal of powerfully emotional material) I was simply stunned by the thorough and brilliant way in which he proved that the doctrine being propounded by the advocates of slavery had no historical foundation and had never been advocated by any of the Founders. That was when I realized the real quality of the man’s mind; in another country, he’d have been a leading historian or writer or philosopher – and I mean the kind whose work outlives him. The sublime simplicity of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural rests on a bed of formidable and keenly sharpened intellect and a knowledge that, while below the average professor’s, had been much better metabolized and “only connected”. The man was a genius.

    • Lincoln’s folksy image obscures just how sharp an intellect he possessed Fabio. Additionally he had the trait of quite a few very smart people who go into politics of concealing how intelligent he was. Whenever I read Lincoln I find myself in an intellectual feast, and rereading him I always come away with some new insight that I had passed by previously. Lincoln could put more thought into fewer words than any other writer in English I can think of.

      • GK Chesterton, as so often, put it very well: “As some men have a secret habit of drinking, Lincoln had a secret habit of thinking.”

  2. Would that presidents in our day wrote their own speeches… so we could get insight into the workings of their minds and not a heard of handlers.
    Lincoln and the timing of his rise to the office of presidency always fascinate me. While I do not agree with the degree of federalism he brought to the era that followed, I do wonder if he had lived if he would have returned authority to the states at least by degrees.
    Dennis McCutcheon

    • “so we could get insight into the workings of their minds”

      I shudder to think what we would find Dennis! 🙂

      Lincoln had high respect for the states Dennis, as demonstrated by his repeated contention prior to the War that he had no power and no intention to touch slavery in the States. If the states that seceded had taken him at his word how different our history would have been. However, I think the War was inescapable for the reason given by Lincoln in his Second Inaugural:

      “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.””

      • I definitely believe we would be in better shape as a nation if Lincoln had been allowed to finish his second term. I always see good balance in his political judgement, avoiding estremism. After the first flight of sothern democrats is there any other president that worked “across the aisle” better than this statesman? Dennis

      • Lincoln being murdered before Reconstruction even got started Dennis was a tragedy that the nation is still paying for.


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