A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from October 29, 2012
“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow”

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) is frequently quoted for having said:

“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it, but the tree is the real thing.”

Character is what one has, but reputation is what others think one has. Both character and reputation are important, but one is most responsible for building one’s character.

An August 1879 “Lincoln’s Imagination” article in Scribner’s Monthly quoted, “perhaps a man’s character was like a tree, and his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of; the tree is the real thing.” It’s not stated at what date Abraham Lincoln said this.

“Character is the substance—reputation the shadow, only—sometimes longer, and sometimes shorter” was printed in several newspapers under the title “Fixed Habits” in November 1845. “Character is the substance—reputation is the shadow which it casts” is from a “Character” lecture by Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) in 1851.


Google Books
8 November 1845, Rural Repository (Hudson, NY), “Fixed Habits,” pg. 39, col. 1:
His general habits of life are fixed, and his character is shaped and fixed—fixed by the growth of years; if not it is not character at all. He is like a tree that has attained its full size—a permanent form and bearing.
(...)
Character is the substance—reputation the shadow, only—sometimes longer, and sometimes shorter.

21 February 1851, State Gazette (Trenton, NJ), pg. 2, col. 2:
For the State Gazette.
Henry Ward Beecher on Character.
On Tuesday evening I was one of a crowded audience who assembled in the Broadway Tabernacle to hear my eloquent friend, the Rev. Henry W. Beecher, repeat his celebrated lecture on Character. It had already been delivered in Boston and in Brooklyn, with hearty applause.
(...)
He commenced by saying “Character is what man is; reputation is, what other men think him to be. Character is the substance—reputation is the shadow which it casts. Character will yet bring reputation in after times, though it do not now. Reputation is often got, however, without real character.

Google Books
Annual Report of the Superintendent of Instruction, and Accompanying Documents, Made to the Legislature for the Year 1852
Bu Francis W. Shearman, Superintendent of Public Instruction
Lansing, MI: Geo. W. Peck, Printer to the State
1853
Pg. 132:
Reputation is the shadow of the man—character the substance.

Google Books
June 1878, The Educational Journal of Virginia, “Good Advice to Teachers,” pg. 355:
Character.—Reputation is but a shadow, which follows the man who moves toward the sun. Pursue reputation as an end, and you may be sure of walking into the darkness. Character may be better or worse than reputation. The shadow represents only the outward form of the substance. It is of the inner life I would speak, and I would command to you the possession of cool reason, calm judgment, unswerving fidelity to truth, resolute purpose to do and to maintain the right, warm sympathy, generous forbearance, willing self-denial, clear conscience, and, may I not add, intelligent trust in God—all of which are elements in the composition of a character which far transcends the best reputation.

It is a true character which gives vigor to loyalty, breath to fraternity, strength to individuality, stability to growth, steadiness to devotion, a curb to ambition, and value to reputation.— J. L. PICKARD.

Google Books
August 1879, Scribner’s Monthly, “Lincoln’s Imagination,” pg. 586:
Lincoln was a close observer of nature, as well as of men. he used natural objects to complete his similes. Into the wonderful alembic of his mind everything was received, to be brought forth again as an aphorism, parable or trenchant saying. In woodcraft, for example, he was deeply skilled, his habit of close observation leading him to detect curious facts which escaped the notice of most men. Riding through a wood in Virginia, he observed a vine which wrapped a tree in its luxuriant growth. “Yes,” he said, “that is very beautiful; but that vine is like certain habits of men; it decorates the ruin that it makes.” (...) The very next day, somebody was discussing with him the difference between character and reputation, when he said,—with a look at me, as if to remind of what he had been talking about the day before,—perhaps a man’s character was like a tree, and his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of; the tree is the real thing.

Google Books
Fundamentals of the English Language, or, Orthography and Orthoepy
By Frank V. Irish
Chicago, IL: The Henry O. Shepard Co., Printers
1888
Pg. 92:
Character—reputation.
Character is what we are; reputation is what others think we are. Our character is what God thinks of us; our reputation is what men consider us to be. Character is the substance; reputation, the shadow.

Google Books
Elementary Composition Exercises
By Irène Hardy
New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company
1890
Pg. 144:
Perhaps a man’s character is like a tree and his reputation is like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

Google Books
Washington in Lincoln’s Time
By Noah Brooks
New York, NY: The Century Company
1895
Pp. 302-303:
Lincoln was a close observer of nature, as well as of men. he used natural objects to complete his similes. Into the wonderful alembic of his mind everything was received, to be brought forth again as an aphorism, parable or trenchant saying. In woodcraft, for example, he was deeply skilled, his habit of close observation leading him to detect curious facts which escaped the notice of most men. Riding through a wood in Virginia, he observed a vine which wrapped a tree in its luxuriant growth. “Yes,” he said, “that is very beautiful; but that vine is like certain habits of men; it decorates the ruin that it makes.” (...) The very next day, somebody was discussing with him the difference between character and reputation, when he said,—with a look at me, as if to remind of what he had been talking about the day before,—perhaps a man’s character was like a tree, and his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of; the tree is the real thing.

Google News Archive
12 February 1897, Clinton (IA) Semi-Weekly Age, pg. 4, col. 6:
THE HARBOR OF HOME
REV. DR. TALMAGE PREACHES UPON A GRAND THEME.
(...)
Reputation is only the shadow of character, and a very small house will sometimes cast a very long shadow.
(Probably Thomas De Witt Talmage of the First Presbyterian Church of Washington, DC—ed.)

Google Books
May 1900, The University Studies (University of Illinois), “Abraham Lincoln: The Evolution of his Literature Style” by Daniel Kilham Dodge, vol. 1, no. 1, pg. 29:
According to Brooks, “Lincoln was a close observer of nature, as well as of men. Into the wonderful alembic of his mind everything was received, to be brought forth again as an aphorism, parable or trenchant saying. In woodcraft, for example, he was deeply skilled, his habit of close observation leading him to detect curious facts which escaped the notice of most men. Riding through a wood in Virginia, he observed a vine which wrapped a tree in its luxuriant growth. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that is very beautiful; but that vine is like certain habits of men; it decorates the ruin that it makes’...The very next day, somebody was discussing with him the difference between character and reputation, when he said,—with a look at me, as if to remind of what he had been talking about the day before,—‘perhaps a man’s character was like a tree, and his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of; the tree is the real thing."*
* Scribner’s Monthly, XVIII, 586.

28 April 1905, Fort Wayne (IN) Journal-Gazette, “Immortal Sayings of Lincoln,” pg. 4, col. 4:
A man’s character is like a tree, his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of, when the tree is the real thing.

Google Books
The Wonderful Story of Lincoln,
and the meaning of his life for the youth and patriotism of America

By Charles McClellan Stevens
New York, NY: Cupples & Leon Co.
1917
Pg. 149:
Speaking of the difference in meaning between character and reputation, he said, “Character is like a tree and reputation is like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it, but the real thing is the tree.”

Google Books
July 1978, The Rotarian, “Stripped Gears,” pg. 56, col. 1:
Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it, the tree is the real thing.
Helicon
MORAVIA, NEW YORK

Google Books
The Harper Book of Quotations (Revised Edition)
By Robert I. Fitzhenry
New York, NY: HarperPerennial
1993
Pg. 92:
Character is like a tree, and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.
Anon.

Google Books
The Speaker’s Quote Book:
Over 4,500 Illustrations and Quotations for All Occasions

By Roy B. Zuck
Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications
1997
Pg. 48:
Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it, but the tree is the real thing.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityWork/Businesses • Monday, October 29, 2012 • Permalink