President Obama’s dramatic quotation from Abraham Lincoln is drawing a lot of attention in post-mortems of the Democratic National Convention. “While I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together,” Obama told the assembled in Charlotte, “I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.” Among Lincoln scholars, a more pointed post-game analysis is unfolding: did the 16th president ever actually use those words? And if so, did he mean them the way Obama suggests?
Modern databases built from authentic original documents tell me today that Abraham Lincoln never used the singular “knee” in his written or public utterances. He used “knees” only four times: three of those in the same debate against Stephen Douglas in 18581, joking that Douglas had supposedly driven Lincoln’s knees to tremble at a previous debate; and once to describe how high the “seal fat” had got on a bony old horse2, in a speech in Hartford, CT, in 1860. In other words: men’s or animal’s knees were objects of comedy in Lincoln’s world.
What about “overwhelming conviction”? Nope. Lincoln never used that pair of words, either, at least in any surviving paper.
With one exception, and that is our problem today: Noah Brooks, scribe for the Sacramento Union, writing in the Harper’s Weekly for July 1865 (3 months after Lincoln had died), reported that the deceased once said this, at an unspecified date: “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.”
Brooks did not make clear whether he had heard this from Lincoln himself, or was reporting it third-hand. Brooks kept on writing about Lincoln for decades, and his “memories” got richer. Some of his “retrieved voices” of Lincoln are sort of accepted as likely by the scholarly community; many are not. Let us skip over Abraham and Mary’s supposed dialogue about how many “little pickaninnies” had been named for the Great Emancipator; Brooks first recalled that one in 1895.
Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher tirelessly, for years, assembled the Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Stanford Univ. Press, 1994) as recorded later by people who knew him (or said they did). The Brooks gem about “my knees” (p. 50) got a likelihood grade of D, based in part on Lincoln’s non-use of the word, seriously, in his own public utterances or writings; and on the generally comic way in which men’s knees were envisioned in those days; and due to Brooks’s overly elastic stories. Brooks wrote his article amidst the debate about whether Lincoln had been a true or orthodox Christian, implying that he was about to join a church formally, something he had never done.
Anyway, if Mr. Obama or an under-prepared speechwriter did in fact quote Lincoln in error, they shouldn’t feel too bad; his words have been misused and abused plenty over the years. “Whatever you are, be a good one,” Joe Biden and countless others have said, attributing the quotation to Springfield’s finest, despite similarly scant evidence that those words, in that order, ever passed Lincoln’s lips. Oh well. It’s the thought that counts.
1. William Reddick! another one of Judge Douglas’ friends that stood on the stand with him at Ottawa, at the time the Judge says my knees trembled so that I had to be carried away. [Laughter.] [Third Debate against S.A. Douglas, 15 Sept. 1858, Jonesboro, Illinois]
The very notice that I was going to take him down to Egypt made him tremble in the knees so that he had to be carried from the platform. He laid up seven days, and in the meantime held a consultation with his political physicians [same speech, quoting/jabbing at S.A.D. again]
My time, now, is very nearly out, and I give up the trifle that is left to the Judge to let him set my knees trembling again, if he can. [end of same speech]
2. It reminded him of the man who had a poor old lean, bony, spavined horse, with swelled legs. He was asked what he was going to do with such a miserable beast—the poor creature would die. “Do?'’ said he. “I'm going to fat him up; don’t you see that I have got him seal fat as high as the knees?'’ (Roars of laughter.) Well, they've got the Union dissolved up to the ankle, but no farther! (Applause and laughter.) [speech in Hartford, CT, 5 March 1860]