Today being President’s Day, it seems fitting to consider a quotation by Abraham Lincoln, a president we especially honor on the holiday. Lincoln was not just a remarkable president, he was a man of extraordinary insight. His many quotations reflect a man with first-hand knowledge of the limitations, foibles, and tendencies of human beings. Most of the quotations I’ve read by Lincoln express some timeless truth about human nature, while bringing the words together in a memorable style.
Lincoln, the man
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. His family was poor, and his mother died when Lincoln was only nine years old. He worked diligently to educate himself while working on a farm, splitting rails for fences, and keeping store at New Salem, Illinois.
He eventually became a self-taught lawyer, tirelessly reading and studying the classic legal books of the day, including Blackstone’s Commentaries, Greenleaf’s Evidence, and Joseph Story’s Equity Jurisprudence.
Lincoln married Mary Todd on November 4, 1842. She was 23 and he was 33. Todd came from a wealthy family, while Lincoln was born in a log cabin. They would go on to have four boys, though only one of them reached adulthood. Abraham and Mary had been married 22 years when Lincoln was assassinated.
In 1858, Lincoln lost his bid for United States Senator to the famous Stephen A. Douglas. But as a result of his seven debates with Douglas, Lincoln gained national attention that would help him gain the Republican nomination for president in 1860.
Lincoln understood that a divided nation could not endure, so he fought relentlessly to restore its unity. In one of the greatest speeches in American history at the battlefield cemetery in Gettysburg, Lincoln captured the essence of the aim of victory in the Civil War:
“…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain— that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln strongly desired that the nation restore the Confederacy to the union with kindness, magnanimity, and grace. In his Second Inaugural address in 1865 he said:
“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, to bind up the nation’s wounds, 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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
But his dream for a peaceful and gracious reunification ended on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. While attending a play with Mary at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., he was shot by the well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln died the following day at the age of 56.
Lincoln, the fair-minded
Lincoln was unusually fair-minded and kind to people. He generously granted others any benefit of the doubt he might have—in spite of prevailing judgment. He was quick to forgive and was famous for not holding grudges against those who had wronged him in some way.
He astounded political operatives when he staffed his presidential cabinet with several men who had been his former political rivals or enemies. What mattered to Lincoln was their competence and qualification for the post—not his past slights, petty bitterness, or personal grudges.
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why Lincoln would have uttered the words in the above quotation. When he found himself not liking a particular individual, he didn’t firm his position of dislike. Rather, he sought to get to know the person better. A practice we all might take to heart.
But what of this practice? What do we learn from it? It seems we should learn 3 things.
What we don’t yet know about someone might cause us to like them
Lincoln understood that when he didn’t like someone, it might be the result of not knowing the person well enough. His opinion and assessment of the unliked person may have been formed in ignorance or prejudice. Why not learn more about the person, and discover truths that might alter his current opinion? This seemed reasonable to Lincoln.
So, if he found himself not liking someone, he saw it as a call to get to know the person better. The result might be to change his opinion entirely, and the person might then become someone he DID LIKE. They might even become his friend.
Further knowledge might confirm the original assessment
But Lincoln was not some doe-eyed idealist. He understood that his initial assessment of a person might be spot-on. That his dislike for a particular individual might be well-founded. That he might dislike the person simply because the person was…unlikable.
But getting to know the person better seemed to Lincoln to carry no risk. If his deeper knowledge of the person brought about a change in his attitude toward them—then so be it. If it resulted in his retaining his original assessment of the person—then so be it. He figured that pursuit of such knowledge was valuable, regardless of where it took him.
This made Lincoln unusual. What made Lincoln extraordinary was his tendency to accept others regardless of what he discovered about them. He believed that men and women could do well if accepted for who they were with an understanding that they could grow and change. He had done the same himself.
It might help us better understand their uniqueness and potential
Getting to know someone better to determine whether the original assessment is accurate or misplaced is beneficial. But Lincoln saw another value. His knowledge would help him better understand the person’s unique personality, character, and potential.
Though Lincoln butt heads with many on his political journey, he never seemed to let it negatively impact his impression of them. Lincoln was quick to accept blame for his mistakes. But he was slow to blame others for their mistakes. He took sole blame for his own errors. But he shared blame for the mistakes of others.
In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s award-winning book, Team of Rivals, she notes that in 1860, the former one-term congressman and prairie lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, stunned the country by besting his three prominent rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. These men were William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates.
Being victorious over these seasoned politicians was surprise enough. But perhaps more surprising was that Lincoln appointed all three of these former opponents to his cabinet. In fact, they were the most significant of the cabinet positions—Seward became Secretary of State, Chase was appointed Secretary of the Treasury, and Bates became Lincoln’s Attorney General.
Lincoln clearly lived out the creed of his Second Inaugural Address of malice toward none and charity for all.
Most people tend to write off those they don’t initially like. Most people tend to hold grudges against those they believe have wronged them. Abraham Lincoln did neither. He believed that if he didn’t like someone, he should make an effort to get to know them better. He might find out something that would reverse his former sentiment.
He also believed that by getting to know someone better, he might be confirmed in his original assessment. He might realize that he didn’t like the person because the person was eminently unlikable.
But no matter what he might learn, the process of getting to know the person better seemed good and wise to Lincoln. He might discover the person had some hidden good qualities. Qualities that made them suitable for important and valuable work. Qualities that might lead him to like the person he had formerly disliked. Possibly to make them his friend. Maybe for life. As he often did.
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