Reblogged from Marcus Brotherton’s Inspiring presidents series
Today, we’d say Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) had a disadvantaged childhood, a dysfunctional family and a deprived school experience.
He found ways around these issues to become the 16th president of the United States, called by many the greatest president ever. He led a troubled country through four years of the hell of civil war to become a strong and compassionate nation.
Lincoln used his childhood problems as stepping stones to reach his potential. Maybe we think it couldn’t happen in today’s complicated world: A man pulling himself up, self educating and rising to the top.
But the lights that guided Lincoln are still around. We may be surprised if we apply them to our own lives.
- 1. Honesty
We know him best as Honest Abe, and are inspired by pictures of him studying by firelight in the log cabin where he grew up. Born in Kentucky, he moved with his family to Indiana to wrestle a living out of trees and weeds. Abe and his sister Sally slept on corn husk beds. A school opened nine miles away when Abe was seven, and his mother insisted the children attend. They had to walk. This huge commitment started Abe’s love of learning.
His mother died when he was nine, and his father was apparently overwhelmed by the need to hunt for game daily and manage the farm and home. The father returned to Kentucky to find a new wife. The children, left alone, ate dried berries that their mother had stored away. A neighbour reported they were skinny, filthy and the house deplorable. The children thought they’d been abandoned, but six months after he left their father returned with a new wife and her three children. Abe ran to her and buried his face in her skirt.
One of his step-mother’s best gifts to Abe was the six books she brought, including Pilgrim’s Progress, the Bible and Aesop’s Fables. Another school opened about a mile away and Abe got three more months of schooling, adding up to about a year.
His relationship with his father was rocky, but he treasured his step-mother. At age 22, Abe moved to New Salem, Illinois.
One of my favorite stories is that of Lincoln working as a young clerk in a general store. Whoever told it to me did the telling well, for I can still hear the creak of the floorboards and smell the pickle barrel. At the end of a long day, Abe counted his earnings and realized he had shortchanged a customer by a couple of pennies. How tempting it must have been to pocket the extra pennies. Or at least to lock the store, go home to dinner, and resolve to return the money the next time the customer came in. But neither dishonesty nor delay won. The tired young clerk walked many miles to return the pennies to the customer that same day.
Later in his law practice on the Wabash Circuit, Lincoln was noted for honesty. In one case a witness lied under oath, clearing Abe’s client. But Abe asked that the testimony be stricken, saying, “I do not wish to win in this way.”
What would this kind of scrupulous honesty look like in our lives today? How would it change our business relationships? Our income tax returns?
- 2. Humility
Perhaps his lack of formal schooling made Lincoln a humble man. Certainly he worked hard to overcome, teaching himself a broad general education and law.
Deep losses contributed to his humble outlook. He experimented in business, got some military experience, practiced law, and then ventured into politics. He lost his first bid for the Illinois General Assembly. He later served four terms in the Illinois House of Representatives.
In 1846 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. After supporting General Zachary Taylor for president, Lincoln had hoped to be appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office, but the job went to a rival. Without bitterness, Lincoln returned to his law practice.
After a series of debates in 1858 in which Lincoln opposed the expansion of slavery, he lost the U.S. Senate race to Stephen Douglas, his archrival. But Abe didn’t quit, and in 1860 he won the presidency. Time to overthrow humility? Lincoln knew the inherent dangers of power, saying,
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
There would be no honeymoon. Immediately seven states left the union to form the Confederacy, and Civil War broke out. He led the nation through this anguished time, and during the worst of the darkness issued that great document, the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln’s personal losses were grievous. His first love, Ann Rutledge, died before they could become formally engaged. He nearly married Mary Owens, but both had second thoughts and ended the courtship. In 1842 he married Mary Todd, after an off-again-on-again courtship.
The couple had four sons. Edward died at age four; Willie at age 12, and Tad at age 18. Only Robert survived to have children of his own. The death of their sons had profound impact on Mary and Abe. He suffered from melancholy, now referred to as clinical depression, much of his life.
But for Abe, rather than hold him back, his losses made him a compassionate man who could put himself into another’s shoes.
What difference would it make in our lives if we met our losses with humility?
- 3. Simplicity
We’ve all known a person who can cut to the essentials. In a group discussion, when ideas are tossed about like unruly ocean waves, this person first listens, then speaks a few words that cut to the heart of the matter, outline it clearly and offer simple solutions.
Abraham Lincoln was that type of man.
Nowhere is that more evident than at Gettysburg. Edward Everett delivered a two-hour oration, customary in that day, which was eloquent and profound. Lincoln had been asked to say a few words, which he composed apparently on the train trip to Gettysburg. In 10 sentences he summarized the wrenching war and inspired a nation for ages to come.
Spoken on Nov. 19, 1863 at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a few months after the Union had defeated Confederate armies at the site, the speech defined the war as a struggle not just for the Union but to end slavery.
For 200 years school children have been memorizing: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . . “
In those few words, he cut through the rhetoric and the anguish.
Can we define our national struggles today in a few sentences? Can you cut to the heart of your personal struggles and state them simply?
Lincoln was wrong about one thing. He said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.”
Sorry, Mr. Lincoln, but we’re still noting and remembering what you said, with thoughtfulness and gratitude.
Honesty, humility, simplicity—qualities it’s easy to bypass in today’s fast-paced world. How do these qualities fit into your life today?
President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation:
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
A letter from the president of The Heritage Foundation:
A Day of ‘Public Thanksgiving and Prayer’
Most of us have heard or read at least part of Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation at some point. But even those who have heard it many times can overlook two important aspects of this important document.
The first is its timing: October 3, 1863. The nation had already endured two years of appalling carnage on the battlefields of the Civil War. And although Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg seemed to mark a turning point in favor of the Union, there was no clear light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, much more blood would be shed in the months ahead.
And yet President Lincoln paused at this time of unimaginable crisis not only to urge Americans to give thanks, but to note how blessed our nation is. “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” the first sentence reads. He lists those blessings in terms so strong and soaring one could almost forget this was one of our nation’s darkest hours.
Nearly 150 years later, this is a perspective check. If Lincoln could encourage his fellow Americans to give thanks at such a bleak time, how can any of us complain about our lot? How can we read about polls that suggest our best days are behind us, that all we can do is manage our “inevitable” decline? What nonsense.
That’s not to say we don’t have difficulties. We do — serious ones. And no, the answer isn’t to crack a phony smile and pretend everything’s great. We need to do what past generations have done: look our problems squarely in the eye, roll up our sleeves and get the job done. We make mistakes, but we learn from them. But to give up? No. Such a defeatist attitude is unworthy of a free people.
The second aspect of Lincoln’s proclamation that’s sometimes forgotten is the reason given for the holiday. To give thanks, yes, but not just in general — to give thanks to God. “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” he writes. “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
Whoa — hold on there. Somebody get the ACLU. How un-PC can a president get? Wasn’t Lincoln worried that he might offend some of his listeners?
Hardly. He was following in the hallowed footsteps of George Washington. Notice the date of Lincoln’s proclamation: October 3. On that same day in 1789, the nation’s first president gave his Thanksgiving proclamation. And like Lincoln, he was clear about who deserved our gratitude.
Washington called that day on all Americans to observe a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. “Of the many influences that shaped the American concept of liberty, the first and most formative was faith,” writes author and Washington scholar Matthew Spalding. The Founding Fathers knew the First Amendment didn’t forbid public mention of God. It simply meant there could be no official state church.
They also knew that, whatever church an American belonged to, he ought to give thanks to Almighty God. Not because we’re living in some heaven on earth — that’s impossible. But because despite our problems, we’re incredibly blessed. We live in a land that recognizes our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In a world beset with death, tyranny, disease and famine, that’s nothing short of a miracle.
We need to act like we believe that. And the best way to start is to say thanks.
Edwin J. Feulner
President, The Heritage Foundation