In polls of the greatest American president in history, one name is almost always close to the top. Abraham Lincoln. Considering that Lincoln was only President for four years, this is a remarkable achievement. But then his reign was unlike any other presidency.
He came to power in 1861 amid a constitutional crisis. Secessionists in six states declared the Confederate States of America prior to his inauguration in March 1861.
Despite Lincoln’s insistence that secession was illegal, those in favor of the Confederacy did not yield. Conflict was inevitable and the Civil War started a month after Lincoln came to office.
The war raged for the length of Lincoln’s presidency and ended a year after his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. Through it, Lincoln showed remarkable leadership and resolve to guide the Union through the most difficult period in American history.
As well as fighting a war, Lincoln was also the President who abolished slavery on all Federal land with the passage of the Confiscation Act and subsequent Emancipation Proclamation. A watershed moment in American history.
Despite his brief tenure as President, Lincoln is a towering figure. His words inspire people to this day and there is a lot we can learn from them. Here are a few of his best and most powerful quotes.
“I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.”
This is something that we should all do more of. Despite our best intentions, there are times when we meet people we don’t like.
It’s happened to me lots of times. I’ve met someone for the first time, or been reacquainted with someone, and can’t shake a general feeling of dislike. It’s easy to lean into this feeling, but it’s much harder to do what Lincoln suggests and get to know them better.
One story from my time in New Zealand stands out in relation to this quote. I lived in a hostel for four months while I was there before a few of us rented a house together.
One of the workers in the hostel lived there for the same length of time as us with her boyfriend. For the first few weeks, I only had brief conversations with him which never went much further than basic pleasantries. For whatever reason, a few friends and I took a bit of a dislike to him. We couldn’t express why, but we just didn’t get good vibes from him.
Then one night, a group of us ventured outside to play football. It was then that we finally started talking to him in-depth and realized that we had been wrong. He was a nice guy, who was just a bit shy.
We had mistaken his shyness for aloofness and judged him for it. In getting to know him and speak to him at length, we realized we actually had a lot in common.
It’s easy to form a negative opinion of people after a few brief encounters. Instead of slipping into this mindset, it’s better to adopt the approach used by Lincoln and get to know that person better. Only then will you discover if your intuition was right, or you were way off the mark.
“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”
By modern standards, slavery is considered abhorrent. No country in the world advocates for its return, and it’s illegal to traffic people. Unfortunately, the practice does still persist, but it does not enjoy the legitimacy from the state it once had.
Lincoln’s sentiment here is an important one. Almost all of those who advocated for slavery in his day and age were the people who owned slaves.
This was because they stood to lose out if the slaves they owned were freed. Those unfortunate enough to be enslaved were considered property and worth a lot of money to the right person.
These slaveowners put their personal fortune ahead of the moral and decent thing to do, which was to abolish slavery. Lincoln is asserting that they may not have been so effusive of slavery if they had to endure it themselves.
The sentiments of Lincoln’s words still stand today. We should always look to see if those advocating for something would be negatively affected by it if they were the subject of their wishes. Do these people have an ulterior motive, or are they acting in everyone’s best interest?
No one would advocate for slavery if it meant they would be enslaved themselves. Likewise, we must look at the words of those in power and see if they match up with what they would likely do if the shoe was on the other foot.
“Those who deny freedom for others, deserve it not for themselves.”
This quote feeds off from the previous one. A glaring example of recent years is the Brexit vote in 2016 when the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union.
One of the prime motivators for the leave vote was immigration. It was said that there was an influx of migrants into the country and that continued membership of the bloc would only exacerbate this.
What they failed to mention was that the freedom of movement worked both ways. As people were free to move to the UK, so were the people of the UK free to move to 27 other countries.
Following the vote to leave and the subsequent years of wrangling over the future relationship, those freedoms were taken away. People who had lived in the UK for over 20 years were forced to apply for settled status, while UK citizens would no longer be able to freely travel in EU countries for longer than three months at a time.
This was made worse by the fact that several prominent figures from the Leave campaign were quietly acquiring dual citizenship for themselves and their family which allowed them to keep these freedoms while the general populace lost theirs.
This hypocrisy is what Lincoln was referring to. It’s the old ‘do as I say and not as I do’ mantra. People who rescind freedom for others, yet wish to keep those freedoms for themselves, are charlatans and are not to be trusted.
“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.”
This is one of Lincoln’s most famous quotes. The message is simple to understand but harder to implement.
Is it better to spend six hours hacking away with a blunt instrument, or is it better to fine-tune that instrument and complete the task more efficiently?
Too often, we plow on with work that isn’t beneficial to the task at hand. This is because we get our priorities wrong and assume that because we are doing something, we must be productive.
Unfortunately, the inverse is true. We would save much more time if we identified what the most important factor in completing the task is and do it.
Chopping down a tree with a blunt axe will be a strenuous and fruitless endeavor. However, with a sharp axe, it will be much easier. It may seem silly to spend time fine-tuning the axe when you can make headway chopping the tree down, but in the long run, the latter will take more time and effort.
Just because you’re doing something, that does not mean that what you’re doing is productive, nor does it mean you’re doing it right. Take your time. Consider what the best route to success is and follow that.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so the saying goes. No greater test of a person exists than how they handle power.
It’s intoxicating to be handed power. In the wrong person’s hands, it can be a deadly weapon, while in the hands of someone like Marcus Aurelius, it can be wielded efficiently and for the benefit of the majority of people.
Struggling through adversity is a test of a character, there are no two ways about it. This is one way you can see what people are made of. But Lincoln is right that power is likely a clearer indication of someone’s true character.
Unlike adversity, power provides you with the ability to exercise your will with little restrictions. Will you be fair and just, or will you abuse that power for your own end?
Many people have set out to do the first only to be corrupted and end up doing the second. Those that resist the lures and trappings of power are the ones that prove their worthy character.
Power reveals who we are. When we are in a position to choose and decide we can come to a decision either way. How that decision is made and how it’s justified indicates your character.
Lincoln could have acquiesced to the demands of the Confederates but he stood firm in his belief that secession was illegal and that slavery was abhorrent.
When power was handed to him, he handled it responsibly. Would we do the same if we were in his shoes? It’s a question worth pondering.
Lincoln’s legacy will last for generations to come. His achievements will stand for longer. These five quotes are a brief snippet into the workings of a political giant, but they provide us all with food for thought.
We should all strive to be better versions of ourselves. Sometimes, that inspiration from within, other times it comes from external sources.
Hopefully, these quotes from Lincoln inspire you to ask searching and important questions of yourself and start you on the road to self-improvement.