Forgiving Others: The Example of Abraham Lincoln

I recently finished reading “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”  the remarkable biography of Abraham Lincoln (as well as Seward, Chase, and Bates his three rivals for the Republican party nomination in 1860) by  Doris Kearns Goodwin and was deeply touched by the portrayal of Lincoln. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it to any that have not read it (though it seems that everyone from President Obama down has already done so).

Though I took a fantastic course at Brandeis  on the American Civil War taught by Pulitzer Prize winner David Hackett Fisher, I hadn’t come away especially impressed by Lincoln’s character or leadership. Indeed, so much of what Lincoln did as President seemed to me as ineffective and weak (for instance unwilling to fire General McLellan even as he refused direct orders). In Professor Fisher’s class on the American Revolution, I came away absolutely impressed by George Washington’s truly inspired leadership, and so my lack of passion for Lincoln surprised me. That is no longer the case.

Lincoln’s magnanimity and charitable character came through so clearly in every page of Goodwin’s book. What especially struck me was his willingness to forgive wrongs and to act without incredible kindness to those that had slighted him.

Lincoln in every act seemed to embody the famous crescendo of his second inaugural address “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 . . .”

One of the examples that stood out to me was a Lincoln’s willingness to forgive an absolutely humiliating slight by Edward Stanton who was at the time a slick veteran east coast lawyer. Lincoln had been hired in 1855 as local counsel for one of the largest patent trials of the 19th century (regarding the McCormick Reaper). When the trial was moved to Ohio, Lincoln was not informed about the change or relieved of duties with the lawyers deciding that “the mere sight of him might jeopardize the case.” Not being informed of the opposition, Lincoln continued his research and showed up in Ohio for the trial.  Stanton upon seeing Lincoln asked: “Where did the long-armed baboon come from?,” and proceeded to describe Lincoln as “A long, lank creature from Illinois, wearing a dirty linen duster for a coat and the back of which perspiration had splotched wide stains that resembled a map of the continent.” Lincoln was then ignored and required to sit in the spectator’s section of the court room. He was also not invited to any of the parties or other social events. He left dispirited and frustrated. One of the Ohio lawyers explained that Lincoln was  “pushed aside, humiliated and mortified.

Nevertheless, despite his snubbing and the insults of Stanton, Lincoln was greatly impressed with Stanton’s court room performance. He took the opportunity to recommit himself to more deeply study the law and work on his rhetorical skills. His rhetorical skills served him well in his subsequent elections and helped vault him to the presidency. Even more incredibly, several years later when his first Secretary of War showed himself unequal to the task, Lincoln appointed Edward Stanton, the very same man who had insulted and rejected him to be his new Secretary of War. Despite his rough edges, Stanton was an absolutely inspired choice for the job and his appointment was instrumental in the ultimate Union victory.

It is hard to imagine a lesser individual than Lincoln not only forgiving such a personal slight, but appointing the individual to one of the most important posts in his administration. Stanton was not the only individual who had previously insulted, underestimated or attacked Lincoln who eventually found a place in his Cabinet. Lincoln truly had the remarkable character to look past insults and to see the potential for individuals. Lincoln earned respect of even those who had insulted him because of rather than in spite of his willingness to forgive. (Indeed, at Lincoln’s death it is Stanton who remarked that “now he belongs to the ages.”)

I have seen individuals offended at the slightest sharp remark who leave jobs, political parties or even churches because of alleged slights. Abraham Lincoln offers wonderful example of Christ-like long suffering and forgiveness.

I am reminded of the wise council given by Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of my church, regarding taking offense: “When we believe or say we have been offended, we usually mean we feel insulted, mistreated, snubbed, or disrespected. And certainly clumsy, embarrassing, unprincipled, and mean-spirited things do occur in our interactions with other people that would allow us to take offense. However, it ultimately is impossible for another person to offend you or to offend me. Indeed, believing that another person offended us is fundamentally false. To be offended is a choice we make; it is not a condition inflicted or imposed upon us by someone or something else.”

I am also reminded of these deeply profound words of revelation: “ I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”

Our life will be much more harmonious and successful if we choose to forgive and forget. If we allow wounds to fester, we will destroy our own potential for success and our own personal and spiritual growth. May we follow Lincoln’s example and be always willing to forgive those that offend us.


2 thoughts on “Forgiving Others: The Example of Abraham Lincoln

  1. auntsue Thank you for this wonderful story of Lincoln. I love the story of the prayer breakfast during the war. The preachers were all praying for the Lord to be on the Union’s side. Lincoln said he prayed to be on the Lord’s side.

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