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‘If They Can Stand It I Can’ However loud his critics shouted their disapproval, Abraham Lincoln would neither deprive them of free speech nor change his opinions.
Music: Florence Beatrice Price

Winslow Homer (1836–1910) Source

About this picture …

‘Farmer with Pitchfork’ by American artist Winslow Homer (1836–1910), painted in about 1874. The Wade-Davis Bill passed the Upper House on July 2nd, 1864, after which Lincoln had ten days to sign it, veto it, or return it unsigned to Congress so it could become law. However, Congress was due to adjourn on July 4th, 1864, so Lincoln exercised a ‘pocket veto’ by making no decision before the House rose. Since legislation cannot carry over from one session of Congress to another, the Bill died and could not be forced through. Still no agreement had been reached when on Sunday April 9th, 1865, the Confederate army surrendered. Lincoln was assassinated the following Saturday.

‘If They Can Stand It I Can’
In 1864, as the American Civil War progressed, talk in Washington had turned to how rebellious Confederate States ought to be handled should the Union win. President Lincoln’s appeals for reconciliation were brushed aside by supporters of the Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill, a cock-a-doodle-do of victory designed to give Washington sweeping powers.
As recalled by Ward Hill Lamon

OUR friends, Wade, Davis, Phillips, and others are hard to please.* I am not capable of doing so. I cannot please them without wantonly violating not only my oath,* but the most vital principles upon which our government was founded.

As to those who, like Wade and the rest, see fit to depreciate my policy and cavil at my official acts, I shall not complain of them. I accord them the utmost freedom of speech and liberty of the press, but shall not change the policy I have adopted* in the full belief that I am right.

I feel on this subject as an old Illinois farmer once expressed himself while eating cheese. He was interrupted in the midst of his repast by the entrance of his son, who exclaimed, ‘Hold on, dad! there’s skippers* in that cheese you’re eating!’

‘Never mind, Tom,’ said he, as he kept on munching his cheese, ‘if they can stand it I can.’

* Benjamin Franklin ‘Bluff’ Wade (1800–1878), Senator for Ohio, and Henry Winter Davis (1817–1865), representing Maryland, sponsored the Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill in 1864, a year before the American Civil War ended. The Bill’s supporters piously demanded (among other things) that a majority of voters in any defeated State swear an ‘Ironclad Oath’ that they had never aided the Confederacy. They looked forward to the voters coming up short, so that Washington could justify stepping in and taking full control of their Governments.

* According to the US Constitution: “Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:— ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’”

* Lincoln asked only that 10% of the voters swear allegiance to the US Constitution and repudiate slavery, hence ‘The Ten Percent Plan’. His vision allowed each State to retain sovereignty while falling into line with Federal obligations. Wade, Davis and others believed the Confederate States had forfeited any such consideration.

* Cheese skippers are the larvae of cheese flies (Piophila casei), so named because they can jump when disturbed. If ingested, they can survive in the gut, hence the farmer’s grim vow. Not a flattering analogy for Wade, Davis and the rest.


In 1864, US President Abraham Lincoln came under fire for his plans for reconciliation after the Civil War, but vowed he would neither silence his critics nor change his course. He would be like the Illinois farmer who, on being warned of maggots in his cheese, grimly declared that if the maggots could take his punishment, he could take theirs. (59 / 60 words)


from ‘Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865’ by Ward Hill Lamon (1828-1893), edited by Dorothy Lamon Teillard (1858-1953). Ward Hill Lamon was Lincoln’s bodyguard and friend, Dorothy Teillard was Ward’s daughter.

Suggested Music

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor

III. Juba: Allegro

Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953)

Played by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

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You can use this passage to help improve your command of English.

IRead it aloud, twice or more. IISummarise it in one sentence of up to 30 words. IIISummarise it in one paragraph of 40-80 words. IVMake notes on the passage, and reconstruct the original from them later on. VJot down any unfamiliar words, and make your own sentences with them later. VIMake a note of any words that surprise or impress you, and ask yourself what meaning they add to the words you would have expected to see. VIITurn any old-fashioned English into modern English. VIIITurn prose into verse, and verse into prose. IXAsk yourself what the author is trying to get you to feel or think. XHow would an artist or a photographer capture the scene? XIHow would a movie director shoot it, or a composer write incidental music for it?

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