Content Provided by The Lincoln Institute
More information on Abraham Lincoln can be found on their website:
www.abrahamlincoln.org

"Abraham Lincoln's Personality"
From Abraham Lincoln's Classroom

Abraham Lincoln & Family. Source: Abraham Lincoln's Classroom

Featured Book: Mr. Lincoln's Personality, By Richard J. Behn

The following article is an abridged version. The full article can be found on the Abraham Lincoln's Classroom website.

Much of Mr. Lincoln’s character was framed in early manhood when he moved to New Salem, Illinois to work for shopkeeper Dennis Offut. Lincoln chronicler Edward J. Kempf wrote: “A long, lean, lanky, easy-going, smiling, awkward young stranger, wearing tight, home made pants shrunken far above his shoe tops, with a summer day into the straggling village of some 20 log cabins and 100 souls, on the bank of the Sangamon.

He quickly made new friends and found employment until Offut arrived with the merchandise.” (3) Historian James A. Rawley wrote: “The new community, with its merchants, professional men, artisans, and mostly Southern population, framed a new life for Lincoln. He played the roles of merchant, odd jobs man, student of grammar, reader of Shakespeare and Robert Burns, spinner of stories, and soldier.” (4) New Salem friend Mentor Graham noted that Mr. Lincoln was often solicited to write letters for his less literate friends. He told Graham that “he learned to see other people thoughts and feelings and ideas by writing their friendly confidential letters.” (5)

New Salem resident Caleb Carman recalled: “He was liked by every person who knew him. While he boarded with me he made himself useful in every way that he could. If the water-bucket was empty he filled it; if wood was needed he chopped it; and was always cheerful and in a good humor. He started out one morning with the axe on his shoulder, and I asked him what he was going to do. His answer was: ‘I am going to try a project.’ When he returned he had two hickory poles on his shoulders, and in a very short time two of my chairs had new bottoms.” (6)

Lincoln attracted friends of all ages. “We were thrown much together,” businessman Gurdon S. Hubbard later related, “our intimacy increasing. I never had a friend to whom I was more warmly attached. His character was almost faultless. Possessing a warm and generous heart, genial, affable, honest, courteous to his opponents, persevering, industrious in research; never losing sight of the principal point under discussion.” (9) A fellow rail-splitter, George Close, told an early researcher that “Lincoln had nothing only plenty of friends -- has always had them.” Close, who knew Mr. Lincoln when he came to Illinois in 1929, said Mr. Lincoln had “not be with a man more than an hour to gain his good will.” Close noted that his early appeal was bipartisan and that in the 1832 election he received more votes in Springfield that the Democratic and Whig candidates for Congress received together. (10)

Despite his friendliness, it was not easy truly to get to know Mr. Lincoln. Even those who did often professed not to understand him. Pennsylvania Republican leader Alexander K. McClure wrote: “I regard Lincoln as very widely misunderstood in one of the most important attributes of his character. It has been common, during the last twenty-five years, to see publications relating to Lincoln from men who assumed that they enjoyed his full confidence. In most and perhaps all cases the writers believed what they stated, but those who assumed to speak most confidently on the subject were most mistaken. Mr. Lincoln gave his confidence to no living man without reservation. He trusted many, but he trusted only within the carefully-studied limitation of their usefulness, and when he trusted he confided, as a rule, only to the extent necessary to make that trust available. He had as much faith in mankind as is common amongst men, and it was not because he was of a distrustful nature or because of any specially selfish attribute of his character that he thus limited his confidence in all his intercourse with men.” (11)

Jacob W. Bunn, a Springfield banker who was close to Mr. Lincoln politically, recalled that Mr. Lincoln “had his personal ambitions, but he never told any man his deeper plans, and few, if any, knew his inner thoughts. What was strictly private and personal to himself he never confided to any man on earth. When men have told of conversations with Lincoln in which they represent him as giving out either political or family affairs of a very sacred and secret character, their tales may be set down as false.” (13)

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that Mr. Lincoln “possessed extraordinary empathy – the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.” (15)

Mr. Lincoln had a strong appreciation for the motivation of others. Herndon argued: `Mr. Lincoln believed that the great leading law of human nature is motive. He reasoned all ideas of a disinterested action out of my mind..." (17) Although it is hard to fathom the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of Abraham Lincoln’s character, some generalizations can be made from the observations of his contemporaries.

In January 1863 Mr. Lincoln appointed General Joseph Hooker to replace Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Nowhere is Mr. Lincoln’s understanding of human nature better revealed than in letter of January 26, 1863 to the new commander of the Army of the Potomac:

“I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable, quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside's command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command...”

Mr. Lincoln was honest. “I hain’t been caught lying yet, and I don’t mean to be,” President Lincoln reportedly said during the Civil War. (22) Indeed, his honesty became a cliché. Attorney Samuel C. Parks wrote “that for a man who was for the quarter of a century both a lawyer & a politician he was the most honest man I ever knew. He was not only morally honest but intellectually so--he could not reason falsely--if he attempted it he failed”. (24)

Friend Jesse W. Fell wrote that Mr. Lincoln was, "utterly incapable of incincerity.” (25) Congressman Isaac Arnold maintained that truth and integrity “were indeed the basis of his character”. (26) Law partner William H. Herndon wrote that Lincoln's love of the truth "loomed up over everything else." "His life is proof of the assertion that he never yielded in his fundamental conception of truth to any man for any end."

Mr. Lincoln was forthright and unassuming. Journalist Noah Brooks, observed: “It was noticeable that Mr. Lincoln’s keenest critics and bitter opponents studiously avoided his presence; it seemed as though no man could be familiar with his homely, heart-lighted features, his single-hearted directness and manly kindliness and remain long an enemy, or be any thing but his friend..." Lincoln scholar Waldo Braden wrote: “In the presidential role, he did not change; he continued to come across as a modest, down-to-earth, ordinary Westerner who was struggling to do the best that he could in the face of a fearsome burden..." (30)

Mr. Lincoln was resilient. Mr. Lincoln’s mother died when he was seven; it was one of many personal and political reverses that Mr. Lincoln suffered in the five decades before his election to the presidency in 1860--ranging from the death of one son in 1850 and another in 1862 to two defeats for the U.S. Senate. Other reverses included crushing debts from the failure of his attempts to run a general store, the death of a woman he hoped to marry and the breakup of engagements to two other women.

Mr. Lincoln was charitable. He never sought land for land’s sake or wealth for wealth’s sake. Attorney Joseph Gillespie recalled: “He never hoarded nor wasted but used money as he needed it and gave himself little or no concern about laying up.” (34) Contemporary Harvey Lee Ross recalled Mr. Lincoln’s work for him on a title case: “I then took out my pocket book to pay him and supposed he would charge me about $10, as I knew he was always moderate in his charges. ‘No, Mr. Lincoln,’ said I, ‘how much shall I pay you for this work and the long walk through the hot sun and dust?’ He paused for a moment and took the big silk handkerchief and wiped the perspiration off that was running down his face, and said: ‘I guess I will not charge you anything for that. I will let it go on the old score.’ When he said that it broke me all up and I could not keep the tears from running down my face, for I could recall many instances where he had been so good and kind to me when I was carrying the mail; then for him to say he would charge me nothing for this work was more kindness than I could stand. I suppose what he meant by the old score was that I had occasionally helped him in his store and post office and my father had assisted him some when he got the post office.” (35)

Mr. Lincoln did, however, seek a way out of the endless drudgery of manual labor. Dr. William Jayne remembered: “There was not a particle of avarice in Lincoln’s mental make-up. Greediness of wealth was absolutely foreign to his nature. He wanted money sufficient to pay the ordinary living expenses of his household, but he did not care for gold just because he loved to have and handle it..." Jayne illustrated his observation with a time after Lincoln gave a lecture to a small audience at Illinois College where he knew that the receipts from the eveneing would not help the college buy many books for the library. Lincoln simply aske for his railroad fare and his supper in return for his service. "That showed our subject’s kindness and liberality all over, yet at that day he was not burdened with cash and could have found good use for a few extra dollars. He thought our poor society needed the money more than he did,” wrote Jayne. (36)

A Chicago attorney, Lambert Tree, remembered President-elect Lincoln stopping by his office to collect his fee on a legal case in which he had assisted the year before. Mr. Lincoln charged $100, which Tree considered insufficient. Mr. Lincoln responded that “there was not much to be done. You drew the declaration yourself, the defendant substantially made default, and after he paid us the judgment, we had only to buy a draft and remit you the money, and I think seventy-five dollars more is about enough for what we did in the case.” Since Mr. Lincoln had prepared for a much more intense litigation, Tree thought the charge “extremely modest.” (37)

Mr. Lincoln was instinctively cautious. He thought before he acted or talked. One correspondent found a clue to Lincoln’s hush-mouthed caution in the way he played chess -- not boldly but defensively, keeping his next move entirely to himself: ‘While playing chess Mr. Lincoln seems to be continually thinking of something else. Those who have played with him say he plays as if it were but a mechanical pastime to occupy his hands while his mind is busy with some other subject.He plays what chess-players call a ‘safe game.’ Rarely attacking, he is content to let his opponent attack while he concentrates all his energies in the defense -- awaiting the opportunity of dashing in at a weak point or the expenditure of his adversary’s strength.’” (41)

Mr. Lincoln was of the people. “Abraham Lincoln was eminently human,” wrote Pennsylvania journalist Alexander K. McClure. “Although much as other men in the varied qualities which go to make up a single character, taking him all in all, ‘none but himself can be his parallel.’ Of all the public men I have met, he was the most difficult to analyze. His characteristics were more original, more diversified, more intense in a sober way, and yet more flexible under many circumstances, than I have ever seen in any other.” The Pennsylvania Republican wrote: "He was a stranger to deceit, incapable of dissembling; seemed to be the frankest and freest of conversationalists, and yet few understood him even reasonably well, and none but Lincoln ever thoroughly understood Lincoln.” (43) Unquestionably, his personality was both complex and simple.

“Lincoln’s greatness arose from a combination of qualities in a balanced personality,” wrote biographer James G. Randall. One could never define his conduct as springing from mere automatic reaction. It came rather from informed study and mature reflection. Mere slogans and stereotypes did not impress him. He was a simple man – he was unpretentious in manner and straightforward in expression -- but he was never naive. He could be enthusiastic, but he was never extravagant.” (44)

Mr. Lincoln was a listener. “Lincoln listened with the same energy that sparked his interest in books,” wrote historian Charles B. Strozier. (45) Massachusetts Republican Henry L. Dawes recalled Lincoln as “as the man open to human and humane influences, pained by the distress and sorrow which filled the land, shedding tears over the terrible sacrifice of life which was the price paid for victories that filled others with exultation.” (46) California Senator Cornelius Cole observed: “His deportment never missed, because it was the expression of his friendly feeling for all. He did not offend because in his heart he felt no animosity for anyone. Always in consultation he was argumentative, but not dictatorial. He was one of the best listeners and was always open to conviction, yet if his own reasons were well founded, and no one had a better reason to offer, he could not be moved. But he was never offensively opinionated.” (47)

Journalist Benjamin Perley Poore wrote: “Mr. Lincoln used to wear at the White House, in the morning and after dinner, a long-skirted, faded dressing-gown, belted around his waist, and slippers. His favorite attitude when listening – and he was a good listener -- was to lean forward and clasp his left knee with both hands, as if fondling it, and his face would then wear a sad, wearied look. But when the time came for him to give an opinion on what he had heard, or to tell a story, which something said ‘reminded him of,’ his face would lighten up with its homely, rugged smile, and he would run his fingers through his bristly black hair, which would stand out in every direction like that of an electric experiment doll.” (49) The Rev. Phineas Gurley recalled being present when a Cabinet member asked President Lincoln what was “the proper manner of telling a story. How is it yours are so interesting?” Mr. Lincoln replied that “there are two ways of relating a story. If you have an auditor who has the time, and is inclined to listen, lengthen it out, pour it out slowly as if from a jug. If you have a poor listener, hasten it, shorten it, shoot it out of a pop--gun.” (50)

Lincoln chronicler Francis Fisher Browne wrote: “As each visitor approached the President, he was greeted with an encouraging nod and smile, and a few moments were cordially given him in which to state the object of the visit; the President listening with the most respectful and patient attention, and deciding each case with the greatest tact, delicacy, and clearness. ‘His Yes,’ says Mr. Albert Gallatin Riddle, ‘was most gracious and satisfactory; his No, when reached, was often spoken by the petitioner, and left only a soothed disappointment. He saw the point of a case unerringly. He had a confidence in the homely views and speech of the common people, with whom his heart and sympathies ever were.’” (53)

Although Mr. Lincoln was a deep thinker, his most obvious quality was his willingness to listen to others before he ventured his own ideas. Novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote: “He saw through other men who thought all the while they were instructing or enlightening hm, with a sort of dry, amused patience. He allowed the most tedious talker to prose to him, the most shallow and inflated to advise him, reserving only to himself the right to a quiet chuckle far down in the depths of his private consciousness. Thus all sorts of men and all sorts of deputations saw him, had their talks, bestowed on him al their tediousness, and gave him the benefit of their opinions; not a creature was denied access, not a soul so lowly but might have their chance to bore the soul of this more lowly servant of the people.” (56)

Union officer William E. Doster recalled: “In conversation, he was a patient, attentive listener, rather looking for the opinion of others, than hazarding his own, and trying to view a matter in all of its phases before coming to a conclusion. On ordinary affairs, his conversation was such as one would expect from a Western lawyer who had been a good deal in politics, full of stories drawn from his experiences as farmer, flatboatman on the Mississippi, storekeeper, and riding the circuits when practicing law in Illinois.” Doster noted: “When conversation took a wider range, he disclosed a mind singularly free from the delusions of vanity which turn people’s heads in high places, and a level head, incapable of fooling itself, or being fooled by others.” (58)

Mr. Lincoln was a man of logic. Law partner William H. Herndon wrote: “The great predominating elements of Mr. Lincoln’s peculiar character were: first, his great capacity and power of reason; second, his conscience and his excellent understanding; third, an exalted idea of the sense of right and equity; fourth, his intense veneration of the true and the good....He lived and acted from the standard of reason -- that throne of logic, home of principle -- the realm of deity in man. It is from this point Mr. Lincoln must be viewed. Not only was he cautious, patient, and enduring; not only had he concentration and great continuity of thought; but he had profound analytical power.

"His vision was clear, and he was emphatically the master of statement. His pursuit of the truth, as before mentioned, was indefatigable. He reasoned from well-chosen principles with such clearness, force, and directness that the tallest intellects in the land bowed to him. He was the strongest man I ever saw, looking at him from the elevated standpoint of reason and logic...The office of reason is to determine the truth. Truth is the power of reason, and Lincoln loved truth for its own sake. It was to him reason’s food.” (59)

Mr. Lincoln was as curious as he was attentive -- especially concerning human nature. Mr. Lincoln sought out other venues for gaining information and insight. New Salem contemporary Philip Clark wrote: “Lincoln took a great interest in every public question. He was a special attendant at debating schools and always took part. There was a debating club formed in Springfield soon after he came to town and had gone into partnership with ‘Bill’ Herndon, where he could be found at every meeting.” (63)

There was much of “Everyman” in Abraham Lincoln. Friend Joseph Gillespie wrote: “Mr. Lincoln was a great common man. He was a giant but formed & fashioned like other men. He only differed from most men in degree. He had only their qualities but then he had them in larger measure than any man of modern times.” (64) Sculptor Thomas D. Jones recalled: “Before the public Lincoln was a very grave and earnest man; in private, kind, modest, and replete with wit and humor. Whenever told a story for its zanyism, but purely for good humor, illustration, or ‘adornment of his speech,’ as Rabelais would say. As an evidence of Lincoln’s kindly nature in domestic life, an old milkman called to see his bust. He said he had served Lincoln with milk for several years; that Lincoln would walk over to his place in the morning barefooted with a little milk bucket in one hand, and his oldest boy sitting astride of his shoulders, chirping like a bird.” (65)

Aide William O. Stoddard wrote, “The ‘plain people’ understood him better than did the politicians; and he in turn had a wonderful perception of the real condition of the popular heart and will.” (66) Fellow attorney Milton Hay observed: “He was never a commonplace man. He never went into any company or community that he did not do or say something which marked him as a popular man.” (67) Springfield merchant Jacob Bunn wrote that Mr. Lincoln “appreciated intellectual and educated men, but he was at the same time a commoner – a man of the people. He never, however, went out and told the people, in terms, that he was one of them. They knew this without any assertions of the fact.” (68)

In his memoirs, General John Pope wrote that Mr. Lincoln “was one of the people, familiar with their ideas and their ways and thoroughly acquainted with every detail of their home lives and their methods of thought and action. He was always with them; moved forward when they were ready; halted when they wished to halt and drew back when they thought it better to retire. It was not because ‘he felt their pulse,’ and learned what they wanted and would support or indeed that he asked any questions on the subject, but because he was literally one of them, moved by the same impulses and guided by the same instincts. It was himself he consulted when any great or novel thing was to be tried, knowing well enough that what he felt about the matter the great mass of his countrymen would think also and he never was deceived or misled in this matter. It was not because he was one of the people that he possessed such power, but because he was the absolute embodiment of the people in his own person and naturally in his high place their complete exponent.” (69)

William Herndon wrote: “He was modest, quiet and unobtrusive in manner, sympathetic and cordial in social contact. He was commonplace and winsome, yet dignified, but not repelling, and was entirely assimilated: no person could feel any restraint or backwardness in his presence: the latch-string to his sympathy was always out, and, when not handicapped with melancholy, the door to his genial, hearty and sunshiny nature was always wide open. His sad countenance aroused universal sympathy: his bonhomie, geniality and humor drew all men involuntarily to him: his physiognomy was indicative both of great perception and equally of great reflection: his wonderfully expressive eyes indicated keen, shrewd discernment, deep penetration and patient and continuous reflection, as well as life-long and earnest sorrow.” (70) Jacob Bunn noted that “he was a most genial man and. he was easily approachable. He was in fact a popular man with all who knew him and was generally well liked, personally, not only by his own supporters, but by the members of the party opposed to him, or at least by those members of the opposing party who were sufficiently broadminded not to be very bitter partisans.”

General Carl Schurz noted wrote a friend in October 1864: “Lincoln’s personality, however, has in this crisis a quite peculiar significance. Free from the aspirations of genius, he will never become dangerous to a free commonwealth. He is the people personified; that is the secret of his popularity. His government is the most representative that has ever existed in world history. I will make a prophecy which may perhaps sound strange at this moment. In fifty years, perhaps much sooner, Lincoln’s name will stand written upon the honor roll of the American Republic next to that of Washington, and there it will remain for all time. The children of those who now disparage him will bless him.” (72)

Mr. Lincoln managed to be superior to his peers without acting superior to them. Springfield lawyer Charles S. Zane, wrote “how well he adapted his conversation and ways to the company and the surroundings. His readiness and willingness to accommodate himself to the people around him, his apparent desire to contribute his part toward rendering social intercourse enjoyable, always made him a welcome figure. In conversation he did not antagonize others, nor did he ever contend about trifles, and as to essentials he treated those differing from him with consideration.” (75)

In his eulogy, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed: “A plain man of the people, an extraordinary fortune attended him. He offered no shining qualities at the first encounter; he did not offend by superiority. He had a face and manner which disarmed suspicion, which inspired confidence, which confirmed good will. He was a man without vices. He had a strong sense of duty, which it was very easy for him to obey. Then, he had what farmers call a long head; was excellent in working out the sum for him-self; in arguing his case and convincing you fairly and firmly. Then, it turned out that he was a great worker; had prodigious faculty of performance; worked easily. A good worker is so rare; everybody has some disabling quality. In a host of young men that start together and promise so many brilliant leaders for the next age, each fails on trial; one by bad health, one by conceit, or by love of pleasure, or lethargy, or an ugly temper, - each has some disqualifying fault that throws him out of the career. But this man was sound to the core, cheerful, persistent, all right for labor, and liked nothing so well.” (77)

Mr. Lincoln was a true westerner. Biographer Benjamin Thomas maintained: “Courage, honesty, self-reliance, democracy, and nationalism were the ideals of the frontier. Lincoln absorbed these qualities to the full, and benefited by the opportunities that the frontier afforded. But at the same time he avoided the weaknesses of the frontier, or at least outgrew them in time. He became self-reliant without becoming boastful – boastfulness was a common weakness of our frontier – and without overestimating himself; analytical and conservative rather than impulsive and opportunistic; respectful for law and traditions in a region where people often took the law into their own hands and where most men were concerned about the future and more or less indifferent about the past.” (78)

Lincoln scholar F. Lauriston Bullard wrote: “One of the finest things about Abraham Lincoln is that he never tried to gloss his simple ways with any varnish of artificiality. His life in the West may have saved him from the hypocritical veneer which not seldom marks the ceremonies of fashion. We need not worry about the occasional outcropping of the habits of the prairie lawyer. At no public function was he found wanting in the gravity and dignity that benefited his rank. All undazed by power and position he put visitors of every class at ease and this in itself is a test of refinement.” (79)

Mr. Lincoln had a westerner’s love of stories. General Egbert L. Viele recalled that “Mr. Lincoln always used with great effect any anecdote which he possessed for the purpose of enforcing and exemplifying a higher form of argument and impressing a fact upon the minds of his hearers.” Viele noted that Mr. Lincoln’s humor exemplified the Mississippi Valley frontier. “Few people understand precisely the condition of Western life. They are crude and rude, though fast becoming otherwise. In Lincoln’s time it was the life of the pioneer that is struggling with nature; and while people were working to obtain the food necessary for their absolute existence, there was little time for the cultivation of the graces and for the refinement of the intellect. So we must look at that country from the point of view of development.” (80)

President Lincoln even used his sense of humor on members of his cabinet like Montgomery Blair, who were not known for possessing a sense of humor. According Union officer E. W. Andrews, Mr. Lincoln entertained his entourage on the railroad trip to Gettysburg in November 1863:

After cordially greeting us and directing us to make ourselves comfortable, the President, with quizzical expression, turned to Montgomery Blair (then Postmaster-General), and said:

“Blair, did you ever know that fight has sometimes proved a sure cure for boils?”

“No, Mr. President. How is that?”

“I’ll tell you. Not long ago, when Colonel ___, with his cavalry, was at the front, and the Rebs were making things rather lively for us, the colonel was ordered out on a reconnaissance. He was troubled at the time with a big boil where it made horseback riding decidedly uncomfortable. He hadn’t gone more than two or three miles when he declared he couldn’t stand it any longer, and dismounted and ordered the troops forward without him. He had just settled down to enjoy his relief from change of position when he was startled by the rapid reports of pistols and the helter-skelter approach of his troops in full retreat before a yelling rebel force. He forgot everything but the yells, sprang into his saddle, and made capital time over the fences and ditches till safe within the lines. The pain from his boil was gone, and the boil too, and the colonel swore that there was no cure for boils so sure as fright from rebel yells, and that the secession had rendered to loyalty one valuable service at any rate.” (81)

Psychobiographer Charles B. Strozier noted: “Lincoln’s was a raucous, infectious, charming humor, a bubbling over of story, joke, anecdote, and tale that became a part of his every action and experience. It defined his style in law, politics, and in personal relationships. Nothing escaped, not even his famous tendency to pardon soldiers for desertion, cowardice or failure to perform adequately in the army.’” Strozier wrote: “Humor...served therapeutic purposes for Lincoln, though it also relaxed his clients, helped keep political opponents in their place, won many friends and much influence, and facilitated his leadership as President. Humor seemed to provide a kind of vitality for Lincoln, a zest that kept his depression at bay.” (88)

Mr. Lincoln genuinely liked people. Attorney Charles Zane recalled: ”One morning I happened to be passing, when Mr. Lincoln, on his way to the supreme court, met Governor John Reynolds, who was an ardent Democrat and pro-slavery man; they shook hands very cordially and Reynolds said ‘I have not met you for a long time. After a few words Mr. Lincoln excused himself by saying, ‘I have a case to argue in the Supreme Court this morning, and must go on.’ And as he passed on the old Governor said to us: ‘There goes a man I have never agreed with politically, and whom I have always opposed, but I would rather shake hands with him than any man living. I always feel when he shakes hands that he means just what the greeting should indicate, that he is my personal friend and wishes me well.” (90) Another Illinois resident recalled his father telling him after watching Mr. Lincoln in action in the local courtroom in 1842: “I wish I could raise a Son as big as Lincoln is bound to be if he lives -- I have heard all three men Stephen Douglas, John A. Logan, John Todd Stuart at the bar and on the stump for some years and Lincoln is the greatest of them all. I say this to you, my son, though I am a democrat.” (91)

In the years after President Lincoln’s assassination, White House security guard William Crook was often asked about Mr. Lincoln’s personality. Crook wrote: “He is the only man I ever knew the foundation of whose spirit was love. That love made him suffer. I saw him look at the ragged, hungry prisoners at City Point, I saw him ride over the battle-fields at Petersburg, the man with the hole in his forehead and the man with both arms shot away lying, accusing, before his eyes. I saw him enter into Richmond, walking between lanes of silent men and women who had lost their battle. I remember his face...And yet my memory of him is not of an unhappy man. I hear so much to-day about the president’s melancholy. It is true no man could suffer more. But he was very easily amused. I have never seen a man who enjoyed more anything pleasant or funny that came his way. I think the balance between pain and pleasure was fairly struck, and in the last months when I knew him he was in love with life because he found it possible to do so much.” (92) Friend William Jayne wrote: “I venture to say that no man was less elated by prosperity, or depressed by adversity. He was so mentally balanced, that he could calmly share the triumph or endure defeat.” (93)

Mr. Lincoln’s humanity sometimes obscured his depth. Biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote: “Though Lincoln’s complex and sometimes contradictory personality made him difficult to understand, his warm human qualities drew people to him, and he could count a host of friends.” (94) Journalist Donn Piatt wrote: “The man who could open a Cabinet meeting called to discus the Emancipation Proclamation by reading Artemus Ward, who called for a comic song on the bloody battle-field, was the same man who could guide with clear mind and iron hand the diplomacy that kept off the fatal interference of Europe, while conducting at home the most horrible of all civil wars that ever afflicted a people. He reached with ease the highest and the lowest level.” (95)

There was a curious balance to his personality that less secure men could not fathom. German-American politician Carl Schurz recalled that President “Lincoln had great respect for the superior knowledge and culture of other persons. But he did not stand in awe of them.” (96) Friend Joshua F. Speed observed that “True to himself, he was true to everybody and every thing about and around him -- When he was ignorant on any subject no matter how simple it might make him appear he was always willing to acknowledge it. His whole aim in life was to be true to himself & being true to himself he could be false to no one.” (97)

Mr. Lincoln’s personality was open and closed at the same time. Historian Earl Schenck Miers wrote: “Lincoln was an open-minded man, liking all classes of people and meeting them with candor and good humor. Thus, one Sunday morning, standing within the gates of the White House, he called out to a strange passer-by, ‘Good morning, good morning! I am looking for a newsboy; when you get to the corner I wish you would start one up this way.”104 California Senator Cornelius Cole recalled a White House reception where “Mrs. Cole and I waited in the long line to be received. She somehow dropped one of her white gloves and was not conscious of it until we had moved up and it was our turn to greet the President and Mrs. Lincoln. She stood looking about her in dismay for the missing glove, and the President, seeing what had happened, watched her with an amused smile. In a moment he said: ‘Never mind, Mrs. Cole, I shall have a search made for it tomorrow, and shall preserve it as a souvenir.’ This remark, coming from a man to whom book etiquette was a thing unknown, proved him to be an inborn gentleman. His deportment never missed, because it was the expression of his friendly feeling for all. He did not offend because in his heart no animosity for anyone. (105) Presidential aide Edward Duffield Neill, who had an opportunity to observe President Lincoln up close for a year, observed: “Mr. Lincoln’s manner were never repulsive. While he could not grace a ball-room nor compete with the perfumed and spangled representative of a foreign court in knowledge of the laws of fashion, yet in his heart there was always kindly feeling for others; and thus, in the best sense, he was a gentleman.” (106)

At heart, Mr. Lincoln was a true democrat. At the same time he preserved and exercised real executive power. Presidential aide William O. Stoddard noted that if President Lincoln “met a governor, a general, a foreign diplomat, a visitor of especial distinction, it was out of his power to look upon the great personage before him as other or more or less than a human being like himself or any other man so to be met and spoken to.” But Stoddard also noted that the President possessed the assurance of his role as the country’s “revolutionary dictator.” Stoddard wrote that Mr. Lincoln “was ready and willing to use all ‘powers given him by his unwritten commission to “See to it that the Commonwealth suffers no harm.” (108) That applied to members of Congress and generals in the army. Stoddard described his management of army commanders “as a persistent effort by him to put each man, as nearly as might be, in the place for which he was best fitted and wherein he could perform the most effective service. If, having appointed any man to an especial duty, he found him insufficient for it, he was quite willing to transfer him to another.” (109)

Mr. Lincoln was a creature of his own commitment to duty. Historian Allan Nevins wrote that an “element in Lincoln’s strength was his manifest devotion to all his duties. He toiled nearly to exhaustion, giving an average of not less than fourteen hours a day, as Greeley recorded, to his public functions -- not including state dinners. It was said that he entered the White House conservatory only once in his four years. His life, as John Hay testifies, was almost devoid of recreation, and most evenings he spent in his office, working or conferring with business callers. With difficulty his wife would sometimes carry him to Shakespeare or a concert. He felt keenly his responsibility as military commander-in-chief as well as head of the civil government, studying military treatises, scrutinizing every important dispatch from the field to the War Department, talking with generals, and making himself almost a one-man bureau for the examination of new weapons which offered some promise of shortening the contest. Endorsements on papers of the quartermaster bureau, some never published, show his interest in the flow of supplies. He was not a talented administrator, deputed labor poorly, and never organized the office of the President as it needed to be organized for war; but his vigilant attention to business was untiring.” (111) Hay’s assistant, William O. Stoddard, noted that Mr. Lincoln “had vast capacity for work, and also the exceedingly valuable faculty of putting work upon others. He could load, up to their limit or beyond it, his Cabinet officers, generals, legislative supporters, and so forth. He could hold them responsible, sharply; but he never interfered with them, ‘bothered them,’ at their work, or found undue fault with its execution.” (112)

Henry C. Whitney, who was a longtime political and legal associate of Mr. Lincoln, wrote: “My judgement is that Lincoln regarded his obligation to duty as a stronger obligation than that to friendship and that in his distribution of patronage, as well as in his other public acts, he must so act, as to gain and hold, for the good of the cause, the most influential, and greatest number of, adherents and that he especially must gain and hold those who affinities and interests might impel them to the other side.” (113)

He was a grower and a learner. Growth was a key to Mr. Lincoln’s personality. “As the child of progress, Mr. Lincoln’s character grew and developed in obedience to its surroundings. His was a life of growth and expansion from the cradle to the grave,” recalled Attorney General James Speed.” (114) Mr. Lincoln learned from his mistakes -- from his debt problems, from his courting problems, from his problems with language, from his problems with friends. California journalist Noah Brooks recalled Mr. Lincoln saying: “I am very sure that if I do not go away from here a wiser man, I shall go away a better man for having learned here what a very poor sort of a man I am.” (115)

Mr. Lincoln was not so focused as to close his mind to possible sources of wisdom. John H. Littlefield recalled: “Lincoln displayed great eagerness to learn on all subjects from everybody. When he was introduced to persons his general method was to entertain them by telling them a story, or else cross-question them along the line of their work, and soon draw from them about all the information they had.” (116) William H. Herndon wrote: “The convolutions of his brain were long; they did not snap off quickly like a short, thick man’s brain. The enduring power of Mr. Lincoln’s thought and brain was wonderful. He could sit and think without food or rest longer than any man I ever saw.” (117)

His learning found expression in words and language. “It is very common in this country to find great facility of expression and less common to find great lucidity of thought. The combination of the two in one person is very uncommon; but whenever you do find it, you have a great man,” Mr. Lincoln told English journalist Edward Dicey. (118) A Frenchman, the Marquis de Chambrun, wrote: “No one who heard him express personal ideas, as though thinking aloud, upon some great topic or incidental question, could fail to admire his accuracy of judgment and rectitude of mind. I have heard him give opinions on statesmen and argue political problems with astounding precision. I have heard him describe a beautiful woman and discuss the particular aspects of her appearance, differentiating what is lovely from what might be open to criticism, with the sagacity of an artist. In discussing literature, his judgment showed a delicacy and sureness of taste which would do credit to a celebrated critic. Having formed his mind through the process of lonely meditation during his rough and humble life, he had been impressed by the two books which the Western pioneer always keeps in his log-cabin, the Bible and Shakespeare.” (119)

Mr. Lincoln was a realist, not an egotist. Mr. Lincoln was not born to be egotistical. He had no pushy parents. He learned he had much to be self-conscious about. His life was a triumph of ambition and faith over self-doubt. Historian Allan Nevins noted that Mr. Lincoln “was himself a stern realist. He was a realist about his associates, Chase, Seward, Stanton, McClellan. He was a realist about himself and his limitations.” (121) At the end of the 1858 campaign for the Senate, Mr. Lincoln determined he would lose before the election results came. He told political associates gathered at his home. “Boys, you can put in your best licks, but I am not going to be elected.” (122)

As President, Mr. Lincoln surrounded himself with men of strong egos. He was not threatened by the cosmopolitan William H. Seward, the blunt Edwin M. Stanton or the moralist Salmon P. Chase. Allan Nevins wrote: “As his secretaries John Hay and John G. Nicolay put it, he was a great opportunist in the good sense of the word, before the term opportunism was invented; in modern parlance, he was blessed with an uncanny sense of timing. He was, as Walter Bagehot said of Sir Robert Peel, the uncommon man of common opinions.” (123) Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that “Lincoln, as would be evidenced throughout his presidency, was a master of timing.” Friend Leonard Swett recalled: “It was by ignoring men, and ignoring all small causes, but by closely calculating the tendencies of events and the great forces which were producing logical results.” (125)

Mr. Lincoln had an uncommon sense of and commitment to justice. It motivated his whole approach to emancipation. But it also affected his other relationships. In August 1861, President Lincoln wrote Secretary of War Simon Cameron: “It is said Capt. McKnabb, or, McNabb, in Utah, has been dismissed from the Army on the charge of being a disunionist; and that he wishes a hearing to enable him to show that the charge is false. Fair play is a jewell. Give him a chance if you can.” (127)

Mr. Lincoln was a friendly man – but a loner. Historian William E. Gienapp wrote that Mr. Lincoln “had many acquaintances but few friends, bared his soul to no one, and throughout his political career made crucial decisions alone. These qualities continued after he went to Washington. As president he did not surround himself with a group of political cronies and had no close personal associates or intimate advisers. Instead, he gathered advice from various quarters, listened patiently to friend and foe, and then made up his mind in solitude.” (131)

Mr. Lincoln was loyal – even to those who were not loyal to him.
He defended friends and associates -- from Herndon to Lamon from Stanton to Seward. Mr. Lincoln also admired loyalty. He said of Democrat William A. Richardson: “I regard him as one of the truest men that ever lived; he sticks to Judge Douglas through thick and thin -- never deserted him, and never will. I admire such a man!”132 General John Pope wrote: “In his personal character Mr. Lincoln was a faithful friend, true to those he loved and without malice or hatred for his enemies. Nothing could be more touching than his affection for his family and his devotion and forebearance to them.” (133) Mr. Lincoln continued to consider himself a Whig long after the terminal nature of the party was evident. Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller wrote: “Lincoln, the loyal party man, had a particular scorn for politicians in Illinois, who switched from the Whigs to the more dominant Democrats. John T. Stuart told Herndon that from 1830 to 1837 the tendency in Illinois was for every man of ambition to turn Democrat.” (134)

Lincoln was a storyteller. Treasury Hugh McCulloch recalled: “The habit of story-telling became part of his nature, and he gave free rein to it, even when the fate of the nation seemed to be trembling in the balance. Some eight or ten days after the first battle of Bull Run, when Washington was utterly demoralized by its result, I called upon him at the White House, in company with a few friends, and was amazed when, referring to something which had been said by one of the company about the battle which was so disastrous to the Union forces, he remarked, in his usual quiet manner, ‘That reminds me of a story,’ which he told in a manner so humorous as to indicate that he was free from care and apprehension. This to me was surprising. I could not then understand how the President could feel like telling a story when Washington was in danger of being captured, and the whole North was dismayed; and I left the White House with the feeling that I had been mistaken in Mr. Lincoln’s character, and that his election might prove to have been a fatal mistake. This feeling was changed from day to day as the war went on; but it was not entirely overcome until I went to Washington in the spring of 1863, and as an officer of the government was permitted to have free intercourse with him. I then perceived that my estimate of him before his election was well grounded, and that he possessed even higher qualities than I had given him credit for; that he was a man of sound judgment, great singleness and tenacity of purpose, and extraordinary sagacity; that story-telling was to him a safety-valve, and that he indulged in it, not only for the pleasure it afforded him, but for a temporary relief from oppressing cares; that the habit had been so cultivated that he could make a story illustrate a sentiment and give point to an argument.” (156)

Lincoln was respectful of others. Lincoln chronicler H. Donald Winkler noted that Mr. Lincoln’s manners were evident even in rough years of young adulthood in New Salem: “Lincoln’s respect for New Salem women was demonstrated by his reaction when Charlie Reavis cursed around women shoppers. Lincoln demanded that Reavis desist, saying he would not tolerate such language in his store when ladies were present. When Reavis continued the vulgarity, Lincoln admonished him: ‘I have spoken to you a number of times about swearing in the presence of ladies, and you have not heeded. Now I am going to rub the lesson into you so that you will not forget again.’ Thereupon he seized Reavis by the arm and led him out of the store to the side of the street where there was a patch of smartweed. Throwing Reavis on his back and putting his foot on his chest, Lincoln grabbed a handful of the stinging weeds and rubbed Reavis’s face, mouth, and eyes with them until he yelled for mercy.” (158)

Biographer Jesse W. Weik wrote: “He detested and never would repeat neighborhood scandal. The savory morsels which some people find so toothsome and delicious under their tongues were wholly unpalatable to him. If he happened to narrate a story in which the wit or weakness of woman was a factor, it was invariably located in the wilds of Kentucky or southern Indiana or some other region equally remote. Besides, the story itself was so ingeniously told and the point or moral so obvious and suggestive, no one present could identify the heroine by name because no name was used or needed. Thus, it will be observed the reputation of every woman he knew was safe in his hands.” (159)

But Mr. Lincoln did not stand on ceremony. Treasury official Maunsell B. Field observed “With civility the President was not overburdened, and his manners were any thing but acceptable to the fair sex. I used constantly to observe in Washington during the war, that, whereas all men appeared more or less abashed on approaching, at least for the first time, the nation’s leaders, the ladies shared in none of this diffidence. On one occasion a lady was talking to Mr. Lincoln, asking a favor at that, and he remained sitting while she stood. After a while he arose and drew up another chair, as she supposed with the intention of offering it to her. Nothing of the sort. He stretched out his own long legs upon it. This was more than female patience could endorse. ‘Mr. Lincoln,’ exclaimed the lady,’I think you are the worst-bred man in the world.’ ‘Halloo,’ asked the President, ‘what have I done now?’ The lady explained, and Mr. Lincoln, in the best temper, admitted that he believed he believed she was right.” (160)

Hay may have overstated Hawthorne’s contempt. But Mr. Lincoln never sought to be treated with special deference. “The simplicity of manner which shone out,” noted Brooks, “was marked in his total lack of consideration of what was due his exalted station. He had an almost morbid dread of what he called ‘a scene’ – that is a demonstration of applause such as always greeted his appearance in public. The first sign of a cheer sobered him; he appeared sad and oppressed, suspended conversation, and looked out into vacancy; and when it was over resumed the conversation just where it was interrupted, with an obvious feeling of relief.” (161)

Friend Joseph Gillespie recalled: “If Mr. Lincoln studied any one thing more than another and for effect it was to make himself understood by all classes. He had great natural clearness and lucidity of statement and this faculty he cultivated with marked assiduity. He despised everything like ornament or display & confined himself to a dry bold statement of his point and then worked away with sledge hammer logic at making his case." (162) Henry Clay Whitney wrote: “He had no regard for trivial things, or for mere forms, manners, politeness, etiquette, official formalities, fine clothes, routine, or red tape; he disdained a bill-of-fare at table; a programme at theatre; or a license to get married. The pleadings in a law suit, the formal compliments on a social introduction, the exordium of peroration of a speech, he either wholly ignored or cut as short as he could.” (163)

There was a clear social side to Mr. Lincoln despite his solitary dignity. Whitney wrote: “Except when he was in a melancholy mood, he was very fond of society and his business was largely done in concert with others, but he was at his best, and his effective work was done, when alone. His chief work of law, politics, diplomacy or statesmanship was done, by himself, in solitude; the highest efforts of his great life were achieved by solitary reflection; he relied more on the unaided results of self-introspection, probably, than any man of his age, if not of any age.” (164) Congressman Isaac N. Arnold recalled: “He had no equal as a talker in social life. His conversation was fascinating and attractive. He was full of wit, humor, and anecdote, and, at the same time, original, suggestive, and instructive.” (165) In a eulogy of President Lincoln delivered seven weeks after his death, Charles Sumner said: “While social in nature and enjoying the flow of conversation, he was often singularly reticent. Modesty was natural to such a character. As he was without affectation, so he was without pretense or jealousy. No person civil or military can complain that he appropriated to himself any honor that belonged to another.” (166)

Mr. Lincoln was slow to anger and slow to act. Justice Department official Titian J. Coffey recalled: “One of Mr. Lincoln’s most amiable qualities was the patience and gentleness with which he would listen to people who thought they had wrongs to redress or claims to enforce. But sometimes, when his patience had been abused for selfish or unworthy purposes, he was quite capable of administering a caustic rebuke in his own way.” (172) Mr. Lincoln’s patience was remarkable, but it could be strained. When confronted by an army officer who complained about Mr. Lincoln’s failure to rule favorably on his case: “Sir, I give you fair warning never to show yourself in this room again. I can bear censure, but not insult!’” (173) Even President Lincoln's occasional fits of temper were quickly regretted. On the night he was murdered, Mr. Lincoln had a brief encounter at the White House before he left for Ford’s Theater:

Massachusetts Republican politician George Ashmun referred to a matter of business connected with a cotton claim, preferred by a client of his, and said that he desired to have a 'commission' appointed to examine and decide upon the merits of the case. Mr. Lincoln replied with considerable warmth of manner, "I have done with 'commissions.' I believe they are contrivances to cheat the Government out of every pound of cotton they can lay their hands on." Mr. Ashmun's face flushed, and he replied that he hoped the President meant no personal imputation.

Mr. Lincoln saw that he had wounded his friend, and he instantly replied: "You did not understand me, Ashmun. I did not mean what you inferred. I take it all back." Subsequently he said: "I apologize to you, Ashmun."

He then engaged to see Mr. Ashmun early the next morning. (174)

Lincoln’s anger was rare although partner Herndon testified to Lincoln’s “righteous indignation when aroused.” (175) Attorney Samuel C. Parks recalled: “Mr Lincoln’s temper both as lawyer & politician was admirable. But when thoroughly roused & provoked he was capable of terrible passion & invective. His ‘skinning of one of his political opponents is still spoken of by those who heard it as awfully severe. And his denunciation of a defendant (before a Jury in Petersburg) who had slandered an almost friend school mistress was probably as bitter a Philippic as was ever uttered.” (176)

Secretaries Nicolay and Hay wrote: “Oftentimes, when men came to him in the rage and transport of a first indignation over some untoward incident, they were surprised to find him quiet, even serene, – perhaps with a smile on his face and jest on his lips, – engaged in routine work, and prone to talk of other and more commonplace matters. Of all things the exhibition of mock-heroism was foreign to his nature.” Generally it happened that when others in this mood sought him, his own spirit had already been through the fiery trial of resentment – but giving no outward sign, except at times with lowered eyebrow, a slight nodding and shaking of the head, a muttering motion or hard compression of the lips, and, rarely, an emphatic downward gesture with the clenched right hand.” (178)

Historian Michael Burlingame noted: “Lincoln allegedly said that he grew angry only when frustrated intellectually: ‘When a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way that I could not understand. I do not think I ever got angry at anything else in my life; but that always disturbed my temper, and has ever since. Nearly the end of the Civil War, he acknowledged that he could become deeply infuriated at people as well. He told Virginia Governor Francis H. Pierpont that, amid the trials he had endured, ‘I have been angry once since I came to the White House. Then, if I had encountered the man who caused my anger, I certainly would have hurt him.” Actually, noted Burlingame, “In the White House, Lincoln lost his temper more than once, despite what he may had told Governor Pierpont of Virginia. Although long-suffering, he found it difficult to tolerate insolence.” (179) As a young man Mr. Lincoln nursed a mean streak Sometimes his earnestness gave way to sarcasm.

Secretary William O. Stoddard noted that the President’s temper frayed with time. “Mr. Lincoln did not retain the external equanimity of his earlier days under the galling pressure of the burdens laid upon him in 1863. The goading irritations were too many, and they gave him no rest whatever.” (180) There were plenty of opportunities during his presidency that would have provoked ordinary mortals to a fit of temper. However, John W. Forney, secretary of the Senate and a frequent White House visitor noted “I never saw him out of temper but once, and that was when I presented him the unanimous confirmation of a certain personage for a high office. ‘Why did the Senate not confirm Mr. ____ and Mr. ____? My friends knew I wanted this done, and I wanted it done to-day;’ and then he used certain strong expressions against the successful person. I looked at him with some surprise, never having seen him in such a mood, and said, ‘Why, Mr. Lincoln, you seem to hold me responsible for the act of the Senate, when you must be aware of the custom under which that body acted.’ ‘Oh, no,’ was his reply; ‘I was not scolding you, my friend, but I fear I have been caught in a trap.’” (181)

Mr. Lincoln “was essentially a nice man. Academic historians cannot allow themselves such flip idiomatic judgments, but to an outsider like me that seems about the truth of it,” observed 20thth century journalist Jan Morris. “He could be scheming, irritable, disingenuous, but he was never pompous or overbearing. Who but an Abe Lincoln would have been found lying on a sofa in the White House with a telescope propped between his big feet, watching the ships sail by on the Potomac? What other President would have been so heartrendingly fond of the little scamp Tad as to take him to official functions and parades, even into cabinet meetings or on presidential visits to the war zone? Would any other chief executive be given a present of kittens by his secretary of state?” (184) Journalist John Forney wrote: “Many a fierce conflict took place in his presence between angry politicians, but it required a very strong provocation to overbalance his judgment or his equanimity. Not so, however, with an appeal for mercy; not so with a petition from the poor. Here he was as weak as woman, and more than once mingled his tears with the gentler sex.” (185)

“If I have one vice, and I can call it nothing else, it is not to be able to say no!” President Lincoln told General Egert Viele one morning. “Thank God for not making me a woman, but if He had, I suppose He would have made me just as ugly as He did, and no one would ever have tempted me. It was only the other day, a poor parson whom I knew some years ago in Joliet came to the White House with a sad story of his poverty and his large family – poor parsons seem always to have large families – and he wanted me to do something for him. I knew very well that I could do nothing for him, and yet I couldn’t bear to tell him so, and so I said I would see what I could do. The very next day the man came back for the office which he said that I had promised him – which was not true, but he seemed really to believe it. Of course there was nothing left for me to do, except to get him a place through one of the secretaries. But if I had done my duty, I should have said ‘no’ in the beginning.”186 Friend Joshua Speed recalled a conversation with President Lincoln at the White House after he had just granted a favor to two Pennsylvania women: “It is more than one can often say that in doing right one has made two people happy in one day. Speed, die when I may, I want it said of me by those who know me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower when I thought a flower would grow.” (187)

Good humor for Mr. Lincoln was an occupational necessity. Henry C. Whitney wrote: “Mr. Lincoln had to perform many unpleasant duties, and to placate every variety of unreasonable man, there was the imperious Stanton, the dictatorial Greeley, the sardonic Stevens, the sarcastic Conkling, the prejudiced Sumner, the facile Seward, the sleek Fernando Wood – and they were but types of thousands with whom he must deal, disarm and conquer. He must refuse many reasonable requests – must lay his hand heavily upon many worthy communities – must force unpalatable policies upon the country: good humor must be restored to irascible spirits who came to him ‘fighting mad:’ and many who came on ardent missions must be sent empty, but good-naturedly, away. Neither reason nor force were the needed weapons, but pleasantry was: and one stroke of the President’s ready and facile wit was often more utility than a whole day’s debate in Congress.” (188)

Mr. Lincoln did not carry grudges -- even for the roles played by Democrats Norman B. Judd and John Palmer in Lyman Trumbull’s victory over him in the 1855 legislative election for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller wrote: “Lincoln’s suppression of any resentment toward Judd, Trumbull, and Palmer was an early sample of a mode of conduct that was becoming characteristic; his praise of General Taylor for not seizing an opportunity for revenge showed that this was a matter of reflection on his part. In the years to come he would make explicit reference to avoiding malice and to not seeking revenge and to not planting thorns often enough both in public speeches and in private letters, both in informal comment and in formal orders, to indicate that it was a settled conviction. He thought or was thinking about the matter sufficiently often, and sufficiently deeply, for the words and ideas to come to his pen and his lips repeatedly and to be reflected in his deeds repeatedly.” (189) Unlike James Buchanan, whose grudge match with Senator Stephen Douglas doomed his presidency to failure, Lincoln had no grudge matches. Although personally not vindictive, Mr. Lincoln often found himself surrounded by people who were anathemas to each other -- William Herndon and Mary Todd, Montgomery Blair and Salmon P. Chase, Ward Hill Lamon and James Wadsworth.

Mr. Lincoln was a master manipulator of Seward, of Chase, Blair, of Chase, of Greeley and Confederate emissaries. He out-thought and out-maneuvered his adversaries. But his mastery did not come through trickery. Springfield businessman Jacob Bunn wrote that Mr. “Lincoln may have kept many things to himself, and in many matters it may be said he was secretive, but, whenever he did speak, he said what he really thought. He never dealt in double meanings or used language for the purpose of concealing his opinions.” (194) In his memoirs, Maine Congressman James G. Blaine argued: “There was never the slightest lack of candor or fairness in his methods. He sought to control men through their reason and their conscience. The only art he employed was that of presenting his views so convincingly as to force conviction on the minds of his hearers and his readers.” (195)

Historian Glyndon Van Deusen wrote: “From the beginning a sense of strain hovered over the meeting of the Cabinet, for all the members early developed real or fancied grievances. Each man was eager to obtain his full share of the patronage, and more if possible; all resented poaching by the others on what they regarded as their own preserves. Seward was peculiarly vulnerable to this accusation because the jurisdictional limits of the departments were poorly defined and State had developed a habit of assuming the duties not specifically assigned to others.” (196)

Allen C. Guelzo wrote: ”Lincoln’s cabinet...began to find that Lincoln’s early awkwardness in failing to use his cabinet as a decision-making body had been converted into a conscientious and highly effective policy of allowing cabinet secretaries only the amount of leash they required for their jobs. ‘Each member of the cabinet was responsible for the manner of conducting the affairs of his particular department,’ Lincoln explained to the Missouri Radical James Taussig in May, 1863, “There was no centralization of responsibility for the action of the cabinet anywhere, except in the president himself.’ As a result, ‘No President ever leaned so lightly upon his Cabinet,’ wrote Connecticut congressman Henry Deming. ‘No man reproduces less in official documents, the argument and thought which he imbibes at consultations, and it is a marvelous fact that no sentence is to be found in any of his state papers, which suggests the suspicion of any other impress but that of his own mint.’” (197)

William H. Herndon wrote: “Mr. Lincoln had a deep, broad, living conscience. His reason, however, was the real judge; it told him what was true or false, and therefore good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust, and his conscience echoed back the decision. His conscience ruled his heart; he was always just before he was generous. It cannot be said of any mortal that he was always absolutely just. Neither was Lincoln always just; but his general life was. It follows that if Mr. Lincoln had great reason and great conscience he must have been an honest man; and so he was. He was rightfully entitled to the appellation ‘Honest Abe.’ Honesty was his polar star. (198)

A Springfield minister wrote during the 1860 election: “His moral character stands among us here without reproach or blemish. I have known him for twenty years, and latterly as circumstances have made him more prominent I have become well acquainted with him, and have watched the course of pubic opinion in these parts, both among his friends and his foes. Abraham Lincoln has been here all the time, consulting and consulted by all classes, all parties, and on all subjects of political interest, with men of every degree of influence and every degree of corruption and yet I have never heard even an enemy accuse him of intentional dishonesty or corruption.” (200)

In Alexander K. McClure’s judgment, “I have seen Lincoln many times when he seemed to speak with the utmost candor, I have seen him many times when spoke with mingled candor and caution, and I have seen him many times when he spoke but little and with extreme caution. It must not be inferred because of the testimony borne to Lincoln’s reticence generally and to his singular methods in speaking on subjects of a confidential nature, that he was ever guilty of deceit. He was certainly one of the most sincere men I have ever met, and he was also one of the most sagacious men that this or any other country has ever produced. He was not a man of cunning, in the ordinary acceptation of the word; not a man who would mislead in any way, unless by silence; and when occasion demanded he would speak with entire freedom as far as it was possible for him to speak at all. I regard as one who believed that the truth was not always to be spoken, but who firmly believed, also, that only the truth should be spoken when it was necessary to speak at all.” (202)

Mr. Lincoln’s judgment was not infallible but it was perceptive. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote: “He is sometimes, but not often, deceived by heartless intriguers who impose upon him. Some appointments have been secured by mischievous men, which would never have been made had he known the facts. In some respects he is a singular man and not fully understood. He has great sagacity and shrewdness, but sometimes his assertion or management is astray. When he relies on his own right intentions and good common sense, he is strongest. So in regard to friends whom he distrusts, and mercenary opponents, in some of whom he confides. A great and almost inexcusable error for a man in his position.” Robert L. Wilson knew Mr. Lincoln three decades earlier in Sangamon County: “His practical common sense, his thorough knowledge of human nature made him an overmatch for his compeers, and for any man that I have ever known” (203)

Contemporary Robert G. Ingersoll wrote: ““Lincoln was an immense personality – firm but not obstinate. Obstinacy is egotism – firmness, heroism. He influenced others without effort, unconsciously; and they submitted to him as men submit to nature, unconsciously. He was severe with himself, and for that reason lenient with others. He appeared to apologize for being kinder than his fellows. He did merciful things as stealthily as others committed crimes. Almost ashamed of tenderness, he said and did the noblest words and deeds with that charming confusion – that awkwardness – that is the perfect grace of modesty.” (210) Henry C. Whitney wrote that Mr. Lincoln “was one of the most uneven, eccentric, and heterogeneous characters, probably, that ever played a part in the great drama of history; and it was for that reason that he was so greatly misjudged and misunderstood.” (211)

Mr. Lincoln’s character was central to efforts to preserve the Union. New York attorney George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary on December 11, 1863, after the Presidential Proclamation Amnesty, “Uncle Abe is the most popular man in America today. The firmness, honesty, and sagacity of the ‘gorilla despot’ may be recognized by the rebels themselves sooner than we expect, and the weight of his personal character may do a great deal toward restoration of our national unity.” (212)

Mr. Lincoln’s personality was understood by many critics only after his murder. Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson praised the martyred President after his death: “The nation has failed to comprehend fully the character of Abraham Lincoln in all its proportions, but now that he has suddenly fallen, the people are beginning to do justice towards their fallen leader. He will pass into history as the foremost man of the age.” Earlier in the war, Wilson wrote: “As I have witnessed his tender mercy, his charity, his considerable kindness towards these men whose hands are dripping with blood of our loyal countrymen, I have prayed for one hour of Andrew Jackson.” (213)

The President worked through his problems. As aide Stoddard wrote: “The White House is deserted, save by our faithful and untiring Chief Magistrate, who, alone of all our public men, is always at his post. He looks less careworn and emaciated than in the spring, as if, living only for his country, he found his own vigor keeping pace with the returning health of the nation.”214 Fellow attorney John Scott remembered: “When you come to analize [sic] his character, the elements that entered into, you will find that he possessed no one element of character in any higher degree than many of his contemporaries. His greatness sprang from a strange combination of all the essentials of character entering into and forming a grand and heroic character, independent of any one great essential -- And such a character is always Self-reliant – He would gather up difficulties, though they were mountainous, in their proportions and would toss them out of his way as lightly as a boy would his Shuttle-cock.” (215)

Historian George Bancroft, previously not a Lincoln admirer, eulogized that Mr. Lincoln “was scoffed at by the proud as unfit for his station, and now against the usage of later years and in spite of numerous competitors he was the unbiased and the undoubted choice of the American people for a second term of service. Through all the mad business of treason he retained the sweetness of a most placable disposition; and the slaughter of myriads of the best on the battle-field, and the more terrible destruction of our men in captivity by the slow torture of exposure and starvation, had never been able to provoke him into harboring one vengeful feeling or one purpose of cruelty.” (216)

For Full Article, References & Footnotes, please see
Abraham Lincoln's Classroom.

ABOUT The Lincoln Institute

"The Lincoln Institute promotes the development and dissemination of printed materials, broadcast products, conferences and Internet resources on Mr. Lincoln. It encourages scholars to cooperate with one another and to contribute to the development of historical materials and the transcription of primary sources for both physical and virtual display. The work of The Lincoln Institute is funded by The Lehrman Institute."


This particular article is from one of The Lincoln Institute's project sites, Mr. Lincoln & Friends. Visit their website for more articles on President Lincoln.

Lincoln Bicentennial home | Our Partners | Looking for Your Lincoln Hero | Lesson Plans | More Lincoln Stories | Abraham Lincoln Biography
©2007 The MY HERO Project, Inc. All rights reserved. Please read our privacy policy.
Questions? Contact: support@myheroproject.org

Check out...
THE MY HERO PROJECT Global Exchange