The Wrong End of the Dog: Abraham Lincoln as Storyteller

You’ve probably heard that Abraham Lincoln was rather fond of telling stories and jokes.  He sometimes told these simply to entertain, but there were often other reasons as well: to illustrate a point; to relieve tension or lighten the mood; to communicate a hard-to-accept lesson or rebuke in a more indirect, ‘softer’ manner; or to distract from the difficulties and hard realities of life, especially in the midst of the Civil War.

Judge H.W. Beckwith recalled a particularly memorable tale told by Lincoln while the latter was serving as a lawyer in the Circuit Court at Danville, Illinois, a tale which was “a good example of Lincoln’s skill in condensing the law and the facts of an issue in a story”.

Lincoln was defending a man who had been charged with assault and battery.  It happened that his client had only acted in self-defense, the other man having first provoked and then physically attacked him.  Rather than simply relate the facts of the case according to his client, however, Lincoln determined that the jury would better understand their plea if he explained it by way of a story.

The judge explained: “Mr. Lincoln … told the jury that his client was in the fix of a man who, in going along the highway with a pitchfork on his shoulder, was attacked by a fierce dog that ran out at him from a farmer’s dooryard.  In parrying off the brute with his fork, its prongs stuck into the brute and killed him.

“‘What made you kill my dog?’, said the farmer.

“‘What made him try to bite me?’

“‘But why did you not go at him with the other end of the pitchfork?’

“‘Why did he not come after me with his other end?’

“At this Mr. Lincoln whirled about in his long arms an imaginary dog, and pushed its tail end toward the jury.  This was the defensive plea of … ‘the other fellow brought on the fight,’ quickly told, and in a way the dullest mind would grasp and retain.

One can easily see how Abraham Lincoln became one of the most successful lawyers of his day while also acquiring a reputation for his wit and humor.  One can also suppose that when Lincoln was scheduled for a session of court, there was no shortage of men willing to serve on the jury!

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

April 30, 2016

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