Lincoln and Euclid

Thursday, August 16, AD 2012

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.


4 Responses to Lincoln and Euclid

  • Lincoln said: “One person cannot own another person.” This post is wonderful. Thank you Donald McClarey. I want to dance.

  • My favourite story about Euclid’s Elements was when Blaise Pascal was asked to advise on the curriculum at the convent school of Port Royal.

    “Why,” he asked, “should the children study Euclid? If they are taught the axioms, they can work it out for themselves.”

    Alas! Not all that is self-evident is obvious.

  • And to this I would add another question. To force the man who has earned a dollar to give it to the man who can work but does not, is this not slavery?

  • I find it interesting that Lincoln’s quote from the 4th Lincoln/Douglas debate, on liars and triangles is directly pertinent to the “Bush lied, Soldiers died” accusation.