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On Character: Lincoln

I recently read a wonderful story about Abraham Lincoln told by the great historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. It was 1855 and Edwin Stanton was an extremely prominent lawyer out of Ohio. Stanton was involved in a significant law case that would be tried in Chicago. There was word that an up-and-coming lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln had meaningful insights into the judges in Chicago and Stanton directed his staff to reach out to Lincoln for his insights. Lincoln obliged and spent considerable time preparing. However, the case moved to Cincinnati and Lincoln’s insights were no longer needed. However, Lincoln visited Stanton’s law offices to make the case that his services could still be needed. He showed up disheveled with stains on his shirt that was much too short for his long arms. Stanton directed his staff to get rid of Lincoln with the words, “We have to lose this long-armed ape.” Lincoln’s work was never looked at and he was humiliated. However, he turned this "failure" into a learning opportunity. He stayed the entire week to listen to Stanton plead the case and was so inspired by Stanton’s capabilities that he went back to Illinois determined to educate himself more and become an even better lawyer.  

LIncoln in November 1863

Goodwin tells us that Lincoln wrote these words in reflection of his humiliation, “I’m going to become even more than I was.” The rest of this story is that Lincoln eventually let go of his resentment against Stanton and made him his Secretary of War. For the duration of the Civil War, they were bound by deep respect, keen admiration, and an abiding purpose.

Stanton as Secretary of War

What a marvelous story of character in action as Lincoln used the humiliating experience with Stanton as a catalyst for his growth and transformation. Lincoln was able to let go of his resentment against Stanton so that the two men could later serve the nation during an immense crisis. Lincoln prioritized what he thought would be the best thing for the country over his own personal feelings. It was this strength of character that led him to time and time again support his Secretary of the Treasury,

, even though they had a difficult relationship and Chase made incessant critiques of Lincoln’s administration. Lincoln would later make him a Supreme Court Justice despite Chase’s constant disloyalty and open hostility against Lincoln.

Chase as Chief Justice

I believe there is a lesson we can all learn from this, especially during this time of great upheaval due to the pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and certainly the social and civic unrest. It brings to mind another wonderful line from the West Point Cadet Prayer. It reads, “Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life.”  I believe that Lincoln endeavored to ‘live above the common level of life’ through his actions. He gave us a guidebook for how we can live our lives in times of great crisis and challenge and to never let things like pettiness, jealousy, and selfishness keep us from choosing the harder right over the easier wrong.


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