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Civility - showing politeness and respect to others even with whom you disagree

Examples of Lincoln’s civility from his life


  •   Lincoln’s willingness throughout his political career to apologize to those whom he wronged and forgive those who wronged him
  • Asked his supporters not to gloat or brag about his 1864 re-election towards who had opposed him
  • Wrote angry letters to those who had slighted or insulted him, but kept the letters and then never sent them
  • Handled his subordinates who had disrespected him (such as in the case of General McClellan or William Seward) with respect and without holding a grudge.

Abraham Lincoln Quotations Regarding Civility


  • "Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them." – Lincoln's to Theodore Canisius, May 17, 1859
  • “Be careful to give no offence, and keep cool under all circumstances.” – Lincoln to Mark Delahay, May 12, 1860
  • “I am a patient man---always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance; and also to give ample time for repentance.” –Abraham Lincoln to Reverdy Johnson, July 26, 1862
  • “Do good to those who hate you and turn their ill will to friendship.” – Lincoln to Mary Lincoln, date unknown
  • “May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have?” – Lincoln in a speech after his re-election, Nov. 10, 1864.




Stories from Lincoln’s life regarding civility



In the 1830’s while Mr. Lincoln was a shopkeeper in Denton Offutt’s store, a bully came in and began to talk in an offensive manner, using much profanity, and evidently wishing to provoke a quarrel.  Lincoln leaned over the counter, and begged him not to indulge in such talk as ladies were present.  The bully shot back that he would like to see the man who could stop him from saying anything he wanted to say.  Lincoln, still cool and reserved, told him that if he would wait until the ladies had left, he would hear what he had to say, and give him any satisfaction he desired.


As soon as the women were gone the man became furious.  He was a big shot in town and no one was going to talk to him the way Lincoln did.  He would not leave without a fight.  “Well,” said Lincoln, if you must be whipped I suppose I may as well whip you as any man.”  This was just what the bully had been seeking, so out the doors they went, and Lincoln made short work of him.  He threw him upon the ground, held him there as he was a child, rubbed some dirt into the man’s face and eyes, until the fellow shrieked in pain.  Lincoln did all this without a particle of anger, and when the job was finished, went immediately for the water, washed the victim’s face, and helped him dry.  


That man, being shocked that he was defeated, and that Lincoln still showed kindness became a fast and lifelong friend to Lincoln, and was a better many from that day.  And Lincoln never felt any resentment or revenge for the man.  

From Lincoln's Life, Stories and Speeches by Paul Selby



In 1832, when the Indian Black Hawk threatened settlers in northwest Illinois, Governor Reynolds issued a call for volunteers and companies immediately responded. As soon as the women were gone the man became furious.  Many men from New Salem signed up, and they held a meeting for officers.  Lincoln had won many hearts, and they hold him he must be their captain.  He did not aspire to the office and felt he had no special qualifications.  


During the war an old Indian strayed, hungry and helpless, into camp one day.  The soldiers were conspiring to kill him as a spy even though the Indian carried a letter recommending him to faithful service.  “Make an example of him.”  


They might have put their threats into action had their captain Abe Lincoln not stepped him.  His determined look and demand that he be released was enough. He would not allow the killing of an innocent man or see him roughed up.  The soldiers listened, and the Indian, unharmed, continued on his way.



On one occasion, Edward Baker, a colonel in the Mexican War, was speaking on politics in a courthouse.  He made some remarks which were offensive to certain political rowdies in the crowd.  They yelled, “Take him off the stand!”  Immediate confusion ensued, and there as an attempt to hank him from the podium.  Mr. Lincoln, who had been listening to the speech, pushed his way through the scuffle, and he stood by Mr. Baker’s side.  He raised his hand, and immediately the assembly silenced.


“Gentlemen,” said Lincoln, “Let us not disgrace the age and country in which we live.  Mr. Baker has a right to speak, and ought to be permitted to do so. I am here to protect him, and no man shall take him from the stand if I can prevent it.”


The suddenness of his appearance, his perfect calmness and fairness, and the consideration that he would do what he promised quieted the disturbance and the speaker concluded his remarks without incident.



Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln first met in the 1830s as fellow Illinois state representatives.  As Lincoln was a Whig Party member and Douglas a Democratic Party member they often debated on opposite sides of issues.  By the 1850’s Douglas became a U.S. Senator from Illinois and took the position that if states wanted to have slavery they should be able to vote to do so.  Lincoln, now a Republican, worried that it would open the door to allowing slavery anywhere, and decided to run against him for the senate seat.


In those 1858 U.S. Senate debates, the two were rivals, and did have differences.  Douglas tried to portray Lincoln as a “black Republican” who desired to give Blacks full equal rights such as voting rights and serving on juries. Lincoln told crowds that they were being “bamboozled” about his true position on the slavery question.


However, the two were rivals but not enemies, treating each other even admiration. Douglas spoke of his opponent: “I mean nothing personally disrespectful or unkind to that gentleman.” Lincoln, in turn, said of Douglas, “I affect no contempt for the high eminence he has reached.”


Though Lincoln lost that race the two squared off again for the 1860 presidency. Even after Lincoln’s victory this time, the relationship did not become hostile. When Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861, Douglas was invited to be among those assembled on the stage with him.  Because there was division in the country, Douglas agreed to be present and is said to have remarked, “If any man attacks Lincoln, he attacks me.” As Lincoln stood to take the oath of office, he removed his hat, awkwardly passing it to anyone who would hold it. Douglas stepped forward, remarking, “Permit me, sir,” and held the hat of his rival for him during the entire inaugural address.


Weeks later, Lincoln invited Douglas to the White House where the Republican and the Democrat discussed the present and future of the country, not their past conflicts. One observer of the meeting noted, “No two men in the United States parted that night with a more cordial feeling of a united, friendly and patriotic purpose than Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas.” Douglas then traveled the southern states, imploring the rebels to rejoin the Union and to trust President Lincoln’s leadership. Douglas stated to a friend, "I've known Mr. Lincoln a longer time than you have, or than the country has. He'll come out all right, and we will all stand by him." Douglas would die just months later of illness, likely contributed by the exhaustion he incurred in attempting to reunite the country with his former contender.



Edwin Stanton made no secret of his disgust of the lawyer from Illinois, declaring him as a “long, lank creature from Illinois,” and declared if “that giraffe” was permitted to appear in the case, he would throw up his papers and leave.  Mr. Lincoln keenly felt the insult, but recognized Stanton’s ability beneath the gruff exterior and appointed him to his Cabinet.


One day, Mr. Lovejoy, an old friend of Mr. Lincoln’s from Illinois came to Washington to discuss an issue with President Lincoln an idea he had.  After talking with the President, and being given an order, Lovejoy was directed to show the order Secretary Stanton.  “Did Lincoln give you an order of that kind?” Stanton asked Lovejoy.  Lovejoy responded, “Yes sir, he did.”  Stanton responded angrily, “Then he is a d____d fool!”  


The bewildered Illinoisan took himself back to the president and relayed to him the exchange with Secretary Stanton.  “Did Stanton say I was a d------d fool?” asked Lincoln.  “He did sir,” responded Lovejoy.  After a pause, Lincoln said, “If Stanton said I was a d----d fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means.  I will slip over and see him.”