Concepts and Principles

When a delegation from the 1860 Republican National Convention arrived in Springfield, neighbors of Mr. Lincoln offered to provide liquor to serve the distinguished guests. “Gentlemen, I thank you for your kind intentions, but must respectfully decline your offer. I have no liquors in my house, and have never been in the habit of entertaining my friends in that way. I cannot permit my friends to do for me what I will not myself do. I shall provide cold water – nothing else.”1 Not even the presidency was worth compromising his principles.

In Mr. Lincoln’s vocabulary “friend” was synonymous with supporter. Delivering an 1852 eulogy for Henry Clay, Mr. Lincoln declared that “he aroused, and nerved, and inspired his friends, and confounded and bore-down all opposition.” Writing Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne in December 1860, Mr. Lincoln urged: “Prevent, so far as possible, any of our friends from demoralizing themselves and our cause by entertaining propositions for compromise of any sort on the slavery question.”2 In his message to Congress about the beginning of the Civil War, Mr. Lincoln wrote: “It was believed, however, that to so abandon that position, under the circumstances, would be utterly ruinous; that the necessity under which it was to be done, would not be fully understood – that, by man, it would be construed as a part of a voluntary policy – that, at home, it would discourage the friends of the Union, embolden its adversaries, and go far to insure to the latter, a recognition abroad – that, in fact, it would be our national destruction consummated.”3

Not just people but concepts were perceived as friends. In 1842, Mr. Lincoln is reputed to have written George E. Pickett, whose name was to become synonymous with the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg: “I never encourage deceit, and falsehood, especially if you have got a bad memory, is the worst enemy a fellow can have. The fact is truth is your truest friend, no matter what the circumstances are.”4 Dr. Jason Duncan, who knew Mr. Lincoln in New Salem, later wrote: “If there was a trait of Mr Lincolns Character which stood out more conspicuously than an other it was his regard for truth and veracity, he had less prevarication than almost any man with whom I was ever acquainted.”5 Historian William Lee Miller observed that “when John L. Scripps of the Chicago Tribune wrote in his campaign biography of Lincoln that Lincoln had read Plutarch, and then, on second thought, a little worried, suggested to the amiable Lincoln that he go get a copy and read it so that the report would become true. Lincoln, it is said, much amused, did as he was told – and loved to tell the story.”6

Miller argued that “Lincoln was indeed a man of ideas, but he was a man of his own ideas. And these ideas were confined, almost of necessity, in the mature man, to a relatively narrow range that fit his purposes. Within that range he was a thinker indeed, but he was not one, like Thomas Jefferson, who wished (or said he wished) that he could get out of politics and get back to his books and his violin, and who ranged across the world of thought and set up shop as something of a philosopher himself.”7

In his “House Divided” speech, Mr. Lincoln declared: “Now, as ever, I wish to not misrepresent Judge Douglas’ position, question his motives, or do ought that can be personally offensive to him. Whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on principle so that our great cause may have assistance from his great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious obstacle. But clearly, he is not now with us – he does not pretend to be – he does not promise to ever be. Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by its own undoubted friends – those who hands are free, whose hearts are in the work – who do care for the result.”8

In a reply to the Sons of Temperance on September 29, 1863, President Lincoln said: “If I were better known than I am, you would not need to be told that in the advocacy of the cause of temperance you have a friend and sympathizer in me.”9 (Mr. Lincoln doubted the organization’s contention that intemperance was the cause of Union defeats, according to John Hay. “He could not see it, as the rebels drink more & worse whisky than we do.”10 ) Mr. Lincoln respected people of sincere beliefs. He wrote William Durley, a new Ohio acquaintance in 1845: “Friend Durley….Until I saw you, I was not aware of your being what is generally called an abolitionist, or, as you call yourself, a Liberty-man; though I well knew there were many such in your county.”11

Mr. Lincoln’s primary loyalty in the Civil War was to the Union. “In his conduct of the war [President Lincoln] acted upon the theory that but one thing was necessary, and that was a united North. He had all shades of sentiments and opinions to deal with, and the consideration was always presented to his mind. How can I hold these discordant elements together? Hence in dealing with men he was a trimmer and such a trimmer the world has never seen,” said friend Leonard Swett. “Yet Lincoln never trimmed in principles – it was only in his conduct with men. He used the patronage of his office to feed the hunger of these various factions.”12

Truth was an important part of Mr. Lincoln’s character and an important ingredient in friendship. “Unlike all other men there was entire harmony between his public and private life – He must believe that he was right and that he had truth and justice with him or he was a weak man – But no man could be stronger if he thought he was right,” recalled his friend Joshua F. Speed.13 Mrs. Lincoln once wrote that her husband “is almost a monomaniac on the subject of honesty.”14 A contemporary said: “The one thing that impressed me more than any other was that what Lincoln said seemed, as it were, to gurgle up from some great fountain of truth and sincerity….”15 In his Charleston debate with Stephen Douglas on September 18, 1858, Mr. Lincoln said: “I have always wanted to deal with everyone I meet candidly and honestly. If I have made any assertion not warranted by facts, and it is pointed out to me, I will withdraw it cheerfully.”16 When an artist brought in a portrait of the President towards the end of the Civil War, Mr. Lincoln said, “Why, yes, that is a very good picture of me, and do you know why?” The artist was tongue-tied so the President continued: “Well, I’ll tell you why it is the best picture of me; it is the ugliest.”17

Watching the Quincy debate in 1858, German-American politician Carl Schurz observed of Mr. Lincoln: “There was, however, in all he said, a tone of earnest truthfulness, of elevated, noble sentiment, and of kindly sympathy, which added greatly to the strength of his argument, and became, as in the course of his speech he touched upon the moral side of the question in debate, powerfully impressive. Even when attacking his opponent with keen satire or invective, which, coming from any other speaker, would have sounded bitter and cruel, there was still a certain something in his utterance making his hearers feel that those thrusts came from a reluctant heart, and that he would much rather have treated his foe as a friend.”18

White House guard Thomas Pendel noted the effort to which Mr. Lincoln went to verify the truth in even relatively unimportant situations. When President Lincoln was bedeviled by one seeking a presidential pardon for an imprisoned man, he said: “If it had not been for me, that man would now be in his grave. Now, sir, you claim to be a philanthropist. If you will get your Bible turn to the 30th chapter of Proverbs, the 10th verse, you will read these words: ‘Accuse not a servant unto his master, lest he curse thee, and thou be found guilty.'” The angry visitor proclaimed as he departed: “There is no such passage in the Bible.” Mr. Lincoln replied: “Oh, yes, I think you will find it in the 30th chapter of Proverbs and at the10th verse.” The next morning, the President called for Pendel. “When I went inside Mr. Lincoln said to me, ‘Wait a moment.’ He stepped quickly into the private part of the house, through what is now the Cabinet Room, but which was then used as a waiting room, and soon reappeared with his Bible in his hand. He then sat down and read to me that identical passage he had quoted to the philanthropist, and sure enough it was found to be in the 30th chapter of Proverbs, and the 10th verse.” Pendel noted in his memoirs that President Lincoln “was not even willing for me to be in doubt as to his correct quotations of a Bible passage, but must needs take his precious time to prove himself right in my eyes.”19

This attention to truth and detail was hardly a development of Mr. Lincoln’s old age. Harvey Lee Ross met Mr. Lincoln when he lived in New Salem. One day, Ross went to Samuel Hill’s store where Mr. Lincoln clerked and asked whether they had gloves.

He threw a pair on the counter. “There is a pair of dogskin gloves that I think will fit you, and you can have them for seventy-five cents.” When he called them dogskin gloves I was surprised, as I had never heard of such a thing before. At that time no factory-made gloves had ever been brought into the country, and all the gloves and mittens that were worn were made by hand and by the women of the neighborhood, and were made from tanned deer skins, and the Indians usually did the tanning. A large Indian buckskin, Indian dressed, could be bought at that time for from fifty to seventy-five cents. So I said to Mr. Lincoln, ‘How do you know they are dogskin gloves?” I believe that he thought my question was a little impudent, and it rasped him somewhat that I had the audacity to question his word. “Well, sir,” said he, “I will tell you how I know they are dogskin gloves. Jack Clary’s dog killed Tom Watkin’s sheep, and Tom Watkin’s boy killed the dog, and old John Mounts tanned the dogskin, and Sally Spears made the gloves, and that is how I know they are dogskin gloves.”20

After he relieved General [Samuel R.] Curtis of his Missouri command in 1864, Mr. Lincoln wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: ” I have received such evidence and explanations, in regard to the supposed cotten transactions of Gen. Curtis, as fully restores in my mind the fair presumption of his innocence; and, as he is my friend, and what is more, as I think the countries friend, I would be glad to relieve him from the impression that I think him dishonest, by giving him a command.” Mr. Lincoln faithfully stood by General Nathaniel Banks, despite the disapproval of Ulysses S. Grant. Banks did not appreciate the loyalty and complained to the President in December 1864. President Lincoln replied: “I know you are dissatisfied, which pains me very much; but I wish not to be argued with further. I entertain no abatement of confidence, or friendship for you. I have told you why I can not order Gen. [Edward] Canby from the Department of the Gulf – that he whom I must hold responsible for military results, is not agreed. Yet I do believe that you, of all men, can best perform the part of advance the new State government of Louisiana; and therefore I have wished you to go and try, leaving it to yourself to give up the trial at the end of a month, if you find it impracticable, or personally too disagreeable. This is certainly meant in no unkindness; but I wish to avoid further struggle about it.”21


  1. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 171.
  2. John Wesley Hill, Abraham Lincoln – Man of God, p. 189.
  3. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 421-441.
  4. Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 287-288 (Roy P. Basler considered this letter to be a forgery).
  5. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 541 (Letter of Jason Duncan to William H. Herndon, late 1866-early 1867).
  6. William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues, p. 273-274.
  7. William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues, p. 274.
  8. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 461-469 (June 16, 1858).
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 487 (Reply to Sons of Temperance, September 29, 1863).
  10. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 89 (September 29, 1863).
  11. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 347 (Letter to Williamson Durley, October 3, 1845).
  12. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 165 (Leonard Swett’s letter to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
  13. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 499 (Letter from Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, December 6, 1866).
  14. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 180 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Abram Wakeman, September 23, 1864).
  15. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 156 (Joseph Wilson Fifer, May 29, 1856).
  16. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 145-201.
  17. Thomas F. Pendel, Thirty-Six Years in the White House, p. 20.
  18. Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, p. 89-98.
  19. Thomas F. Pendel, Thirty-Six Years in the White House, p. 25-26.
  20. Harvey Lee Ross, The Early Pioneers and Pioneer Events of the State of Illinois, p. 96.
  21. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 131 (Letter to Nathaniel P. Banks, December 2, 1864).