February 17, 2017
They called him Honest Abe because of his unwavering principle.
True to my word, this post is dedicated to the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. And it’s just in time for Presidents’ Day (which will be on Monday, February 20). Lincoln was famously called “Honest Abe,” but was he really honest and when was that nickname bestowed on him?
My search first took me to a PDF online, but it served as such a good referencing source for me to do my own research.
About Lincoln’s Honesty
From what I’ve read, it appears that Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as an honest man was legitimate. Various sources mentioned the type of impact he had on others, even his (political) adversaries. Many people who met him remarked on his honesty and integrity, including judges who presided over the cases Lincoln worked on.
An Example of Lincoln’s Honesty From His Early Life
As a young boy, Abraham Lincoln worked for three days in order to pay off a debt for a damaged book. He borrowed the book and it became damaged when rain water seeped through the holes in the cabin he lived in. The story can be found in The Pioneer Boy and How He Became President by William M. Thayer.
In Chapter XV of the above book, young Abraham Lincoln borrowed Ramsey’s Life of Washington from the Crawfords. One night, Lincoln laid the book down in a spot where rain water eventually landed through a hole in the family cabin. In order to repay Mr. Crawford for the book, Lincoln offered to cut all the corn in the field.
The story was corroborated in 1889. Mrs. Josiah Crawford was interviewed and she said her husband owned the book that was ruined. Her husband sold the book to young Lincoln after the boy did some work for the couple over a few days (Curtis).
When Lincoln Was Dubbed ‘Honest Abe’
Lincoln earned the nickname “Honest Abe” from his year working as a clerk in Denton Offutt’s store in New Salem, Illinois. He worked there beginning in 1831 until the story closed the next year due to the lack of funds.
It was in New Salem that Lincoln garnered a reputation for honesty and dependability. The residents also valued him because he was literate and well-read at that (“Abraham Lincoln”).
In a book section “An Incident or Two Illustrating Lincoln’s Honesty,” there were two stories where Lincoln was working as a clerk at Denton Offutt’s store. In one story, Lincoln realized he overcharged a customer; he walked two or three miles from the store (which he temporarily closed) in order to reimburse her six and a quarter cents. On another day, Lincoln realized he didn’t properly measure a half-pound of tea the previous day; he shortly closed the shop to give a customer her four ounces of tea in order to make her full order (McClure 22-23).
Lincoln got along with many people and became a trusted figure. So much so that he was entrusted with being a judge in a number of contests (McClure 31).
From Lincoln’s Time As a Postmaster
Lincoln was principled to a fault. While his honesty was his greatest strength when it came to forging relationships, gaining a constituency, and winning public office, it precluded him from defending indefensible acts or positions of his clients (“Abraham Lincoln”).
In a vignette called “A Remarkable Story—‘Honest Abe’ as Postmaster—How He Kept the Identical Money in Trust for Many Years,” McClure talks about how Lincoln’s honesty stood the test of time. When Lincoln was a young man, he was Postmaster in New Salem but his office was discontinued. For years, no one came to collect the debt owed by the office, but it turns out Lincoln kept the money in safe keeping, even as he was struggling to become a lawyer.
When an agent from the government found Lincoln, who was then a lawyer , Lincoln produced the sum of over $17 owed. Lincoln said he only spent money that was his own (McClure 32-33).
Lincoln As a Lawyer
There were four stories shared by McClure which highlighted Lincoln’s honesty. Lincoln’s morality as a lawyer is clearly stated. He would not enter a plea if he felt his client was dishonest and wouldn’t take more money than he thought was fair.
One day, Lincoln was presented with a check for $250 in order to prosecute a real-estate claim. While looking over the case, Lincoln found that the woman had no case, which he told her the next day. He gave her back the check. When she told him he had earned the pay, he said, “No, no, that wouldn’t be right. I can’t take pay for doing my duty” (Page 67).
From “How Lincoln Kept His Business Accounts—His Remarkable Honesty,” it was shown how Lincoln always divided the fees he received as a lawyer for his law practice partner(s). When the partner wasn’t present, Lincoln would wrap the money meant for his partner in pieces of paper which had the name of the person and the case worked on it (McClure 68).
In one case, Lincoln argued in final comments that the jury should rule against his client. The sheep-grower gave his customers lambs instead of aged sheep and the former was of lesser value. In a case against a railroad company, Lincoln subtracted a fair restitution from his client’s settlement. Lincoln had won the case, but only thought that his client should receive a fair amount (McClure 74).
In one such case, he refused to take one cent of the $900 paid by a dishonest client who won his case (McClure 82).
I also found text from a letter where Lincoln gave advice to young aspiring lawyers (via the Library of Congress).
There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest—I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence, and honors are reposed in, and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty, is very distinct and vivid. Yet the expression, is common—almost universal—Let no young man, choosing the law for a calling, for a moment yield to this popular belief—Resolve to be honest at all events; and if, in your own judgment, you can not [SIC] be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer—Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave—
One Question I Have
I have to question the extent of Lincoln’s honesty when it came to the issue of slavery. (When he was president of the United States, he did say he was willing to abolish or keep slavery as long as he could preserve the union.) However, while he opposed slavery on moral grounds, he said he did not support granting blacks full rights, privileges and freedoms, like voting, sitting on juries, holding public office, or intermarrying with whites.
In 1858, Lincoln held seven debates with Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas. It was exceedingly hard for Lincoln to answer Douglas on the issue of whether abolishing slavery would ultimately lead to racial equality.
While many may argue that Lincoln had to pander to an electorate, some of the quotes on race were rather troubling. If he was truly guided by morals in the sense that he supported the abolishment of slavery, it still goes to show that even honest people have to pander every now and then …
“Abraham Lincoln, 1850-1860 (Notes for lecture on law).” American Memory. Web. Retrieved 17 Feb 2017. <http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mal:@field(DOCID+@lit(d0045500))>.
“Abraham Lincoln: Life Before the Presidency.” Miller Center. Web. Retrieved 17 Feb 2017. <http://millercenter.org/president/biography/lincoln-life-before-the-presidency>.
Curtis, Jeanette. “Honest Abe Lincoln.” UNC School of Education. PDF. Retrieved 17 Feb 2017. <http://soe.unc.edu/hoh/file.php?id=Honest+Abe+Contextual+Essay.pdf>.
Leidner, Gordon. “Lincoln’s Honesty.” Great American History. New World Communications. 20 Feb 1999. Web. Retrieved 17 Feb 2017. <http://www.greatamericanhistory.net/honesty.htm>.
McClure, J.B. Anecdotes of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln’s Stories. Rhodes and McClure. Chicago; 1879. Print. Pages 22-23, 31–33, 67–68, 74, 82.
Thayer, William Makepeace. “Chapter XV: A Trial and Treasure.” The pioneer boy, an how he became president. Walker, Wise, and Co. Boston; 1864. Print. Retrieved 17 Feb 2017. <https://archive.org/stream/pioneerboyhow2064thay#page/174/mode/2up/search/corn>.
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