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LINCOLN AND MATHEMATICS

HERE’S A TELLING commentary about Abraham Lincoln and his times: “He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress.”

The source of this Lincoln lore? None other than Abraham Lincoln himself.

Abraham Lincoln,1809–1865, 16th President of the United States. Photograph by Alexander Gardner, taken on November 8, 1863, eleven days before Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Abraham Lincoln’s Autobiographies. As described in the National Park Service article “Abraham Lincoln Autobiography,” Lincoln wrote three autobiographies in the two-year period, 1858–1860.

He wrote the first, just seven lines long, for the Dictionary of Congress in June 1858. It included the terse entry “Education defective.”

Lincoln’s second autobiographical effort was in December 1859, written for Jesse Fell, a fellow Republican, who got the piece incorporated into a Pennsylvania newspaper. Lincoln accompanied the four-paragraph piece with a note to Fell: “There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me.”

This second autobiography noted, however, “If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing on an average one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes—no other marks or brands recollected.”

In June 1860, The Chicago Press and Tribune asked him for an autobiography. His third-person account was the longest of these autobiographies, still a concise 3267 words.

This third document includes “What he has in the way of education he has picked up. After he was twenty-three and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar—imperfectly, of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he does now. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.”

The Elements of Euclid. Around 300 B.C. in Alexandria, the Greek mathematician Euclid put together 13 books on geometry, number theory, and what is now called geometric algebra. As noted here at SimanaitisSays, “The everlasting claim to fame of The Elements is its being the oldest extant treatment of mathematics that’s axiomatic and deductive.”

The Elements of Geometrie of the moſt auncient Philoſopher EVCLIDE of Megara, by Henry Billingsley, 1570; the first English translation. Below, Six Books of Euclid (Bibliotheca Universalis), By Oliver Bryne (1847 edition), Taschen, 2019.


Wikipedia notes the longevity of Euclid’s Elements: “Not until the 20th century, by which times its content was universally taught through other school textbooks, did it cease to be considered something all educated people had read.”

Lincoln’s Admiration. Subsequent amplifications of Euclidian admiration may or may not be attributed to Lincoln or to one of his biographers. Several sources, including E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, extend Lincoln’s quotation with the following: “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.”

Euclid’s Book III Proposition 1.

Lincoln’s having studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid is impressive indeed. And the next time some blowhard politico compares himself to Lincoln—by any measure—ask the blowhard to prove Euclid’s Book III, Proposition 1. It’s a straightforward demonstration determining the center of a given circle. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

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