Abraham Lincoln will forever be remembered as the Great Emancipator, who successfully carried the country through its darkest hours.
From his humble beginnings as a hired hand, teaching himself to become a lawyer, entering politics as a frontier congressman, finally arriving as President, and patching the country back together after its terrible separation, what was it that propelled Lincoln to his legendary status?
Over 150 years after his Presidency, Lincoln still consistently comes to the top of peoples’ and historians’ lists of the greatest Presidents of U.S. history. His name still stands as a byword for principled integrity and honesty.
Honesty means truthfulness to one’s self and to others about our strengths and shortcomings, earning the respect of others and judging them for their true worth, all of which allows us to be in good conscience about our lives before a Higher Power.
Lincoln’s famous words about the inevitable failure of dishonesty still ring true today: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
The early years of “Honest Abe”
The 16th President, commonly known as “Honest Abe,” had a colorful life full of stories about the importance of the truth.
As a young adult, Lincoln ran a country store in the settlement of New Salem, Illinois, where he became famous for giving exact change to all his customers, even if it meant tracking them down across miles of wild frontier whenever he had accidentally short-changed them by a tiny amount.
His commitment to telling and living the truth meant that he became a popular arbitrator in local disputes.
Local business owner Robert Rutledge attested to the fact that “Lincoln’s verdict was always the final verdict in the county.” People voluntarily went to him with their grievances, knowing they would find an honest judge.
Lincoln, a lone, honest lawyer
Later Lincoln became an elected member of the Illinois legislature, and his honesty continued to be his trademark, leading him to win four consecutive terms in the State House. He began to practice law in his own way, in spite of the poor reputation of the profession.
His advice to prospective lawyers showed a keen understanding of the dangers of professional dishonesty. “Let no young man choosing the law for a calling yield to the popular belief—resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”
Lincoln reminded young people that it was better not to take a job if it meant betraying their principles.
In the course of his job, Lincoln defended clients who had broken the law, but he always refused to take a case where the client was entirely in the wrong.
In one particular case, the prosecution provided solid proof that Lincoln’s client had been lying about his actions, at which point he walked out of the court, washing his hands of a dirty case.
For Lincoln, being honest was not just something one did in business, it meant being true to the most important people in his life. While Lincoln’s enemies, unable to say anything about his incontestable greatness as President, tried to insinuate unflattering stories about his personal life, historians have shown that none of these rumors have any basis in fact.
Rivals and reputation
Even Lincoln’s biggest political rival and the most famous orator of the time, Stephen Douglas, ultimately acknowledged that his adversary’s victory was due to his inherent qualities: “You have nominated a very capable and very honest man,” he said.
One of Lincoln’s oldest friends and advisers, who was with him for almost all of his political life, Leonard Swett, said it well: “He believed in the great Law of truth, its execution and his accountability to God, that truth will always triumph and lies will always be overthrown.”
Compassion: defending the defenseless
Besides his well-deserved title of “Honest Abe,” Lincoln is also reverently known as “The Great Emancipator,” the architect of the abolition of America’s greatest sin: slavery. He was a great reconciler, who laid the framework for the country’s reunification with his tolerance for the defeated South.
Lincoln perfectly understood the glaring contradiction at the heart of the American experiment posed by slavery. As he wrote to his close friend Joshua Speed in 1855 in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska act, “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’”
His compassion for the plight of enslaved people began to develop when he was a boatman and guided flatboats down the Mississippi River to New Orleans in 1828 and 1831, into the heart of the plantation South.
Lincoln’s travels exposed him to slavery on a massive scale, including the infamous slave auctions, where enslaved Africans were sized up, bought, and sold in much the same way as livestock. Seeing people treated as objects horrified Lincoln and helped inform his later efforts to end slavery.
In the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1856, he called upon the Declaration of Independence to support the fundamental equality of all people: “If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one’s man making a slave of another.”
Forbearance as the key to reconciliation
When the country stood on the brink of civil strife in 1860-1861, Lincoln did his utmost to preserve the Union for the benefit of all Americans, while always being willing to see things from his opponents’ side.
This quality was entirely lacking in his Southern counterparts, who could only focus on their states’ interests. When the Confederacy finally laid down its arms in 1865, Lincoln showed great openness to negotiations.
While many Northerners wanted to punish the South for secession, Lincoln saw further: “When they become our friends, isn’t the enemy destroyed?’
Lincoln implemented this policy by offering amnesty to the former Confederate Generals, embodying his view that there could be no winner in a war of brother against brother.
After a difficult wartime campaign, Lincoln won reelection in 1864 as the head of a newly formed National Unity Party.
In his inauguration speech, rather than chastise the South, he showed his forbearance and belief in a better future. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in,” he spoke.
“To bind up the nation’s wound; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln’s life shows us that forbearance comes from a place of strength, which allows those who are in the right to forgive the unjust actions of their opponents. It was this facet of his personality that made him a great man, and not only a great statesman.
Lincoln’s legendary tolerance guided his short, but profound time in office. His first goal was always reconciling conflicting elements within his party, the Congress, and the country. If Lincoln had thought first of himself and envied others, he never would have been able to see the importance of national unity and togetherness as paramount.
The lesson stands today: rather than turning a blind eye toward injustice or using violence against others, the best response is to promote harmony.
His wisdom was to know his own weaknesses, openly admit them, and consider others more worthy than himself. This humility set him out from his political peers at the time and continues to do so today. Rather than focus on his own career, Lincoln cared more about the well-being of the country.
Perhaps it was American historian and Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame who put it best: “The ability to surpass [his own] ego, as shown in his self-mockery and in many other ways, is not just the secret to his success as Commander-in-Chief, but also part of the precious legacy he left for his country.”
Lincoln remained true to the values of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance throughout his life. As he said, “I do the very best I know how—the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.”
Citizens of the U.S. and the world continue to be inspired by his life, and his example will always serve as an ideal for all.
*The cover photo: Lincoln in February 1865, Alexander Gardner – Library of Congress (Public Domain)