From "Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History" by Richard Shenkman:


Abraham Lincoln has inspired so many myths that Americans may be surprised to learn some of the most delightful stories about the sixteenth President are essentially true.


As a defense lawyer Lincoln used a common almanac to show that his client had been framed for a murder. In a dramatic scene, replayed in a popular movie about the President, Lincoln proved that a key prosecution witness, who claimed to have seen the murder by the light of a full moon, couldn't have. The almanac showed the moon wasn't full that night.


Strongly superstitious, Lincoln once peered into an old mirror and, seeing two images of himself, took the incident to mean he would be elected to a second term but would not live to complete it.


He did indeed keep important letters and documents inside his hat.


And he grew his beard at the suggestion of an eleven-year-old girl.


What's more, he was tall. He really liked to crack jokes. He had been a rail splitter. He didn't like slavery. He didn't like to be called Abe, and nobody called him Abe. According to biographer Stephen Oates, "he loathed the nick-name." His wife, Mary, called him Mr. Lincoln or Father. Friends called him Mr. Lincoln or simply Lincoln. When writing to friends, Lincoln routinely signed off "A. Lincoln."


The famous failed love affair he is said to have had with Ann Rutledge - the "only woman" Lincoln ever loved - never happened. And he never said afterward, "My heart lies buried there." Oates says: "There is no evidence whatever that Lincoln and she ever had a romantic attachment. There is no evidence that theirs was anything more than a platonic relationship." He did have a relationship with one Mary Owens and in 1836 indicated he wanted to marry her. But in 1837 he backed out, saying he wasn't sure he could provide for her properly.


Lincoln's train trip to Washington for his first inaugural is shrouded in myth. At the time journalists reported that because of assassination rumors, he sneaked into the capital wearing a Scottish plaid cap and a long military coat. One cartoonist featured Lincoln doing a dance dressed in Scottish kilts; the cartoon was headlined "The Mac Lincoln Harrisburg Highland Fling." In the 1940's the Chicago Sun and the Chicago Tribune said that Lincoln had ridden into Washington hidden by "eye-shields" and armed with "iron fighting knuckles."


In actuality, Lincoln was smuggled into Washington aboard a special sleeping car which had been deceptively reserved in the name of his guard's invalid brother. The story about the Scottish cap was mischievously invented by a New York reporter, Joseph Howard.


That Lincoln hurriedly composed the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope while on his way to deliver the speech is not true. Nice as it might be for this most impressive of speeches to have been dashed off in a moment of inspiration, it seems rather to have been the result of more mundane efforts of writing and rewriting. Several drafts of the speech have been discovered; one draft is written in Lincoln's own hand on executive stationary.


Though Lincoln was a great orator, he gave far fewer speeches as President than is popularly believed. While his critics frequently and loudly bemoaned his handling of the war, he reacted usually by silence. As he explained to a Maryland crowd in 1862, "In my present position, it is hardly proper for me to make speeches." He seemed particularly afraid of saying something offensive in an off-the-cuff remark. When a crowd gathered to greet him at the Gettysburg train station, he refused to say anything lest he say something "foolish."       


In the years immediately after he was killed, Lincoln became enmeshed in dozens of religious myths. In the most famous one preachers ascribed significance to the fact that Lincoln died on Good Friday. A Connecticut clergyman declared that it was not "blasphemy against the Son of God" to announce "the fitness of the slaying of the Second Father of our Republic on the anniversary of the day on which He was slain. Jesus Christ died for the world, Abraham Lincoln died for his country."


Lincoln stories have become less apocalyptic. No one now would probably go so far as to describe Lincoln as a kind of George Washington-Moses-Christ figure all rolled into one the way people used to do. Today the main error is to regard Lincoln as something of a frontier folk hero.


Although he did tell jokes to relieve the burdens of his office, and he was a bit raw around the edges in a frontier kind of way, he was nothing like the sentimental character most people imagine. Friends like William Herndon reported that he was fiercely ambitious, that he appeared homely rather than heroic, and was, unlike the stereotypical westerner, subject to bouts of extreme hopelessness. Though he is remembered vaguely as a "people's lawyer," representing widows and orphans, he also defended corporations, including the Illinois Central Railroad.

Finally, there's the question of his attitude toward blacks. He disliked slavery, but he wasn't an abolitionist. Although he opposed the extension of slavery, he believed that to save the Union, slavery ought to be left untouched where it was, and although he is known as the Great Emancipator, his Emancipation Proclamation didn't end slavery since it applied only to the states that had rebelled, where Lincoln didn't have any authority. Moreover, though he had the support of many radicals, he was critical of radical abolitionists like John Brown and supported Brown's execution. After Elijah Lovejoy, the antislavery editor, had been killed by a proslavery mob, Lincoln made a little joke out of his death in an insensitive speech to a Worcester, Massachusetts, audience: "I have heard you have abolitionists here. We have a few in Illinois and we shot one the other day."