What Abraham Lincoln knew about being a man

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?

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  • Y. A. Warren

    We should all practice these virtues, first, at home with family.

  • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

    The best example of honesty I’ve ever seen is my father. Back in the 80′s, a hail storm marched a path right over our house, with extensive damage to many homes.

    A Home Insurance agent came out to look at the roof, and cut a check, a big one, because roofing companies were going to be rather busy. Dad wanted the job done correctly, so he bought shingles at the lumber store and laid a new roof, and I helped. He paid me a wage, paid himself a going rate for carpentry, and then….

    He sent the remainder of the money back to the insurance company.

    (Photo: my dad with my boys grinding apples for the cider press on my farm.)