Born near Hodgenville, Kentucky in 1809, Lincoln grew up dirt-poor with little formal education. From a young age, he learned the value of integrity through hard work and was proficient with an ax.[ii] The family would move several times before finally landing in Illinois. When asked about his early childhood, he gave this response: “The short and simple annals of the poor. That’s my life, and that’s all you or anybody else can make of it.”[iii] With little encouragement from his father, Lincoln educated himself through reading. In fact, Lincoln was so driven to educate himself that he would often ask questions invoking the smallest details and would become irritated when adults talked down to him. Biographer Stephen B. Oates notes that as a boy, Lincoln would insist on understanding every part of a subject, and once he had found the answers he would repeat them to himself over and over again, memorizing the information as best he could.[iv] Believing that education was the key to success, Lincoln learned integrity by being industrious, a trait that would serve him the rest of his life.
Lincoln also learned the honor with which integrity leads. Although the popular concept of “Honest Abe” may or may not have historical merits, Lincoln’s honor came through experience. As a young lawyer/congressman from Illinois, Lincoln often wrote anonymous articles on behalf of his Whig party that exposed the Democratic position. Sometimes, though, Lincoln could cross the line and engage in low-life politics.[v]
However, an interesting event taught Lincoln a valuable lesson. Lincoln once wrote a disparaging article about the Democratic state auditor, a Mr. Shields, and along with other things, reportedly wrote that this man was “a fool as well as a liar.”[vi] Mr. Shields found out that Lincoln was responsible for the letter and promptly challenged him to a duel. Alexander McClure recounts that Lincoln accepted the challenge, and the two men, along with their respective witnesses, went across the state line to Missouri, since dueling was prohibited in Illinois. Along the way, however, their friends talked them out of fighting, and the duel was called off. Lincoln told Shields’ friends that nothing personal was intended, and the two men went about their business.[vii] Lincoln’s personal thoughts on this event are not extensive, but it apparently had a significant impact on him. Lincoln rarely wrote another disparaging article, and never again would he delve into those kinds of politics. As President, he deplored anyone who tried to engage in this kind of mudslinging. When asked about this event later in his life, Lincoln replied, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.”[viii] He learned to preserve the honor of the individual. Integrity would become a character trait that his political friends and foes alike admired in him.
[i] Doris Goodwin, “The Master of the Game,” Time Special Issue, July 4, 2005, 48-54.
[ii] Justin Ewers, “The Real Lincoln,” U.S. News & World Report 6 (2005): 66-74. www.epnet.com/ (accessed July 14, 2005)
[iii] Ewers, 66.
[iv] Stephen Oates, With Malice Toward None (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 10.
[v] Ewers, 71.
[vii] Alexander McClure, Lincoln’s Own Yarns and Stories (Chicago: John C. Winston Company, 1901), 19-20.
[viii] Ewers, 71.