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Empathy – showing concern and attempting to understand the feelings of others

Examples of Lincoln’s Empathy from his Life


  • His encouragement of a woman likely to be unrightfully convicted of murder to flee

  • His heartfelt farewell to the people of Springfield
  • His willingness as president to listen to mothers pleading to spare their sons, taking the time to poor over those sentenced to die, and other such acts of empathy
  • His anguish over the Civil War dead
  • His understanding of the South’s mindset so much that he admitted that if he lived there he too might have been a slaveowner
  • He fraternized easily in his visits to Confederate hospitals


Abraham Lincoln Quotations Regarding Empathy


  • “In my judgment, such of us as have never fallen victims, have been spared more by the absence of appetite, than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have.” – Abraham Lincoln regarding those who struggle with alcoholism, in his Temperance Address, February 22, 1842

  • “I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.” – Abraham Lincoln in the U.S. Senate debate at Ottawa, August 21, 1858.
  • “In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall.” – Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Ephraim D. and Phoebe Ellsworth on the death of their son in the Civil War, May 25, 1861
  • “They do not want much and they get very little. Each one considers his business of great importance and I must gratify them.  I know how I would feel in their place.” – Abraham Lincoln on the many that appealed to him personally in the White House, as quoted by Helen Nicolay, date unknown   
  • “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other… let us judge not that we be not judged.” – Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865





Stories in Lincoln’s Life Regarding Empathy



After the Lincolns’ marriage, by dint of untiring efforts and the recognition of influential friends, the couple managed, through rare frugality, to move along. In Lincoln’s struggles, both in law and for political advancement, his wife shared his sacrifices. She was a plucky little woman and, in fact, endowed with a more restless ambition than he. She was gifted with a rare insight into the motives that actuate mankind, and there is no doubt that Lincoln’s success was, in a measure, attributable to her acuteness and the stimulus of her influence.

His election to Congress within four years after their marriage afforded her extreme gratification. She loved power and prominence, and was inordinately proud of her tall, ungainly husband. She saw in him bright prospects ahead, and his every move was watched by her with the closest interest. If to other persons he seemed homely, to her he was the embodiment of noble manhood, and each succeeding day impressed upon her the wisdom of her choice of Lincoln over Douglas—if in reality she ever seriously accepted the latter’s attentions.

“Mr. Lincoln may not be as handsome a figure,” she said one day in Lincoln’s office during her husband’s absence, when the conversation turned on Douglas, “but people are perhaps not aware that his heart is as large as his arms are long.”

The Story of Lincoln’s Life, in “Abe” Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories, Edited by Col. Alex. K. McClure.



After his admission to the bar, Lincoln never dabbled in farming, trading, or speculating. Besides his city homestead he owned no real-estate except a lot presented to him in the town of Lincoln (Illinois)—named in his honor—and a quarter section of bounty land granted him for service in the Black Hawk War

During the sessions of the Legislature and the courts, Mrs. Lincoln in these years was wont to give occasional dinners and evening parties. As a hostess she was gracious and affable as well as liberal; perhaps no one in the city who entertained was more generally popular than she.

While her father lived (his death occurred in 1849 there were visits with her husband to Lexington, Kentucky, where she had a number of brothers and sisters of the half-blood. When there, Lincoln would naturally call on Henry Clay if he was at the time at Ashland (Clay’s home). One such visit, perhaps it was the only one, has been mentioned as chilling the hero-worshiper’s devotion, if not effecting a complete disillusion. But this is an extravagant overstatement, if it has any basis at all. There may have been an unexpected distance in Clay’s manner, . . . yet Lincoln was to the last an admirer of the great orator and conciliator, who was his earliest political master.

At the time of his election to Congress, Robert and Edward were his only children—the former born August 1, 1843, the latter March 10, 1846. His family were with him during part of his first term in Washington. “Eddie” died February 1, 1850, and William was born the 21st of December following. The youngest child, born April 4, 1853, was given the name of his grandfather, Thomas, though he was commonly called “Tad.”

Of their domestic life, according to Mr. W. H. Herndon, Mrs. Lincoln said: “Mr. Lincoln was the kindest man and most loving husband and father in the world. He gave us all unbounded liberty. . . . He was exceedingly indulgent to his children. … He was a terribly firm man when he set his foot down. None of us—no man or woman—could rule him after he had once made up his mind.”

Abraham Lincoln and His Presidency, Joseph H. Barrett, LL D. Vol. I, page 112



Modesty and obscurity are mingled with arrogance of pride and distinction in the interviews that the Chief Executive of the nation is forced to endure.  One day an attractively and handsomely-dressed woman called to procure the release from prison of a relation in whom she professed the deepest interest.  She was a good talker, and her winning ways seemed to be making a deep impression on the President. After listening to her story, he wrote a few words on a card: “This woman, dear Stanton, is a little smarter than she looks to be,” enclosed it in an envelope and directed her to take it to the Secretary of War.

On the same day another woman called, more humble in appearance, more plainly clad. It was the old story.  Father and son both in the army, the former in prison. Could not the latter be discharged from the army and sent home to help his mother? A few strokes of the pen, a gentle nod of the head, and the little woman, her eyes filling with tears and expressing a grateful acknowledgment her tongue could not utter, passed out.  A lady so thankful for the release of her husband was in the act of kneeling in thankfulness. “Get up,” he said, “don’t kneel to me, but thank God and go.”

An old lady for the same reason came forward with tears in her eyes to express her gratitude. “Goodbye, Mr. Lincoln,” said she; “I shall probably never see you again till we meet in heaven.” She had the President’s hand in hers, and he was deeply moved. He instantly took her right hand in both of his, and following her to the door, said, ”I am afraid with all my troubles I shall never get to the resting-place you speak of; but if I do, I am sure I shall find you. That you wish me to get there is, I believe, the best wish you could make for me. Good-bye.” Then the President remarked to a friend, “It is more than many can often say, that in doing right one has made two people happy in one day. Speed, die when I may, I want it said of me by those who know me best, that I have always plucked a thistle and planted a flower when I thought a flower would grow.”

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



“Springfield, Ill., Sept., 1857. “Dear Mrs. Armstrong:

“I have just heard of your deep affliction, and the arrest of your son for murder.  “I can hardly believe that he can be capable of the crime alleged against him.  It does not seem possible. I am anxious that he should be given a fair trial at any rate; and gratitude for your long-continued kindness to me in adverse circumstances prompts me to offer my humble services gratuitously in his behalf.  It will afford me an opportunity to requite, in a small degree, the favors I received at your hand, and that of your lamented husband, when your roof afforded me a grateful shelter, without money and without price.  “Yours truly, “A. Lincoln.”

Stories and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Edited by Paul Selby, page 254.



Early in May (1863) the country was anxiously waiting for news from Chancellorsville. The grand movement had been only partially successful, but everybody expected to hear that the first repulse was only temporary, and that the army was pressing on gloriously to Richmond. One bright afternoon, in company with an old friend of Lincoln’s, I waited in one of the family rooms of the White House, as the President had asked us to go to the Navy Yard with him to see some experiments in gunnery. A door opened and Lincoln appeared, holding an open telegram in his hand. The sight of his face and figure was frightful. He seemed stricken with death. Almost tottering to a chair, he sat down, and then I mechanically noticed that his face was of the same color as the wall behind him—not pale, not even sallow, but gray, like ashes. Extending the dispatch to me, he said, in a sort of far-away voice:

“Read it—news from the army.”  The telegram was from General Butterfield, I think, then chief of-staff to Hooker. It was very brief, simply saying that the Army of the Potomac had “safely “recrossed the Rappahannock and was now at its old position on the north bank of that stream. The President’s friend, Dr. Henry, an old man and somewhat impressionable, burst into tears,—not so much, probably, at the news, as on account of its effect upon Lincoln. The President regarded the old man for an instant with dry eyes and said, “What will the country say? Oh, what will the country say!”

Personal Reminiscences of Lincoln, Noah Brooks. Scribncr’s Monthly, Vol. XV, March, 1870. page <>: i>



An amusing incident occurred in connection with “riding the circuit,” which gives a pleasant glimpse into the good lawyer’s heart. He was riding by a deep slough, in which, to his exceeding pain, he saw a pig struggling, and with such faint efforts that it was evident that he could not extricate himself from the mud. Mr. Lincoln looked at the pig and the mud which enveloped him, and then looked at some new clothes with which he had but a short time before enveloped himself. Deciding against the claims of the pig, he rode on, but he could not get rid of the vision of the poor brute, and, at last, after riding two miles, he turned back, determined to rescue the animal at the | expense of his new clothes. Arrived at the spot, he tied his horse, and coolly went to work to build of old rails a passage to the bottom of the hole. Descending on these rails, he seized the pig and dragged him out, but not without serious damage to the clothes he wore. Washing his hands in the nearest brook, and wiping them on the grass, he mounted his gig and rode along. He then fell to examining the motive that sent him back to the release of the pig. At the first thought it seemed to be pure benevolence, but, at length, he came to the conclusion that it was selfishness, for he certainly went to the pig’s relief in order (as he said to the friend to whom he related the incident), “to take a pain out of his own mind.” This is certainly a new view of the nature of sympathy; and one which it will be well for the casuist to examine.

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



Two things were essential to his success in managing a case. One was time; the other was a feeling of confidence in the justice of the cause he represented.  He used to say: “If I can free this case from technicalities and get it properly swung to the jury, I’ll win it.” When asked why he went so far back, on a certain occasion, in legal history, when he should have presumed that the court knew enough history, he replied: “There’s where you are mistaken. I dared not trust the case on the presumption that the court knew anything; in fact, I argued it on the presumption that the court did not know anything.” A statement that may not be as extravagant as one would at first suppose.

When told by a friend that he should speak with more vim, and arouse the jury, talk faster and keep them awake, he replied: “Give me your little penknife with its short blade, and hand me that old jackknife, lying on the table.” Opening the blade of the penknife he said: “You see this blade on the point travels rapidly, but only through a small portion of space till it stops, while the long blade of the jackknife moves no faster but through a much greater space than the small one. Just so with the long-labored movements of the mind. I cannot emit ideas as rapidly as others because I am compelled by nature to speak slowly, but when I do throw off a thought it comes with some effort, it has force to cut its own way and travels a greater distance.” The above was said to his partner in their private office, and was not said boastingly.  When Lincoln attacked meanness, fraud or vice, he was powerful, merciless in his castigation.

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



“An old man hailing from Mississippi, dressed in plain homespun, came to our city Saturday. He mingled freely with the Republican Representatives, got their news, and seemed to think we are not quite so black as we are represented.

“He called on Mr. Lincoln, talked freely with him, and heard the President-elect express his sentiments and intentions. He learned that Mr. Lincoln entertained none but the kindest feelings towards the people of the South, and that he would protect the South in her just rights.

“He had a long conversation, and went away delighted. He left the office of Mr. Lincoln in company with a friend, who communicated this to us, and when outside the door he remarked, while the tears stole down his furrowed cheeks: ‘Oh! if the people of the South could hear what I have heard, they would love and not hate Mr. Lincoln. I will tell my friends at home; but,’ he added sorrowfully, ‘they will not believe me.’ He said that he did wish that every man in the South could be personally acquainted with Mr. Lincoln.”

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



Once, pleading a cause, the opposing lawyer had all the advantage of the law in the case; the weather was warm, and his opponent, as was admissible in frontier courts, pulled off his coat and vest as he grew warm in the argument.

At that time, shirts with the buttons behind were unusual. Lincoln took in the situation at once. Knowing the prejudices of the primitive people against pretension of all sorts, or any affectation of superior social rank, arising, he said: “Gentlemen of the jury, having justice on my side, I don’t think you will be at all influenced by the gentleman’s pretended knowledge of the law, when you see he does not even know which side of his shirt should be in front.” There was a general laugh, and Lincoln’s case was won.

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



Jack Armstrong, the leader of the “Clary Grove Boys,” with whom Lincoln early in life had a scuffle which “Jack” agreed to call “a drawn battle,” in consequence of his own foul play, afterward became a lifelong, warm friend of Mr. Lincoln. Later in life the rising lawyer would stop at Jack’s cabin home, and here Mrs. Armstrong, a most womanly person, learned to respect Mr. Lincoln. There was no service to which she did not make her guest abundantly welcome, and he never ceased to feel the tenderest gratitude for her kindness.

At length her husband died, and she became dependent upon her sons. The oldest of these, while in attendance upon a camp meeting, found himself involved in a melee, which resulted in the death of a young man, and young Armstrong was charged by one of his associates with striking the fatal blow. He was examined, and imprisoned to await his trial. The public mind was in a blaze of excitement, and interested parties fed the flame.

Mr. Lincoln knew nothing of the merits of this case, that is certain. He only knew that his old friend, Mrs. Armstrong, was in sore trouble; and he sat down at once, and volunteered by letter to defend her son. His first act was to secure the postponement, and a change of the place of trial. There was too much fever in the minds of the immediate public to permit of fair treatment. When the trial came on, the case looked very hopeless to all but Mr. Lincoln, who had assured himself that the young man was not guilty. The evidence on behalf of the State being all in, and looking like a solid and consistent mass of testimony against the prisoner, Mr. Lincoln undertook the task of analyzing it, and destroying it, which he did in a manner that surprised every one. The principal witness testified that “by the aid of the brightly shining moon he saw the prisoner inflict the death blow with a slung shot.” Mr. Lincoln proved by the almanac that there was no moon shining at that time. The mass of testimony against the prisoner melted away, until “not guilty” was the verdict of every man present in the crowded court-room.

There is, of course, no record of the plea made on this occasion, but it is remembered as one in which Mr. Lincoln made an appeal to the sympathies of the jury, which quite surpassed his usual efforts of the kind, and melted all to tears. The jury were out but half an hour, when they returned with their verdict of “not guilty.” The widow fainted in the arms of her son, who divided his attention between his services to her and his thanks to his deliverer. And thus the kind woman who cared for the poor young man, and showed herself a mother to him in his need, received the life of a son, saved from a cruel conspiracy, as her reward, from the hands of her grateful beneficiary.

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



A personal friend of President Lincoln says: “I called on him one day in the early part of the war. He had just written a pardon for a young man who had been sentenced to be shot, for sleeping at his post, as a sentinel. He remarked as he read it to me:  “‘I could not think of going into eternity with the blood of the poor young man on my skirts.’ Then he added: ‘It is not to be wondered at that a boy, raised on a farm, probably in the habit of going to bed at dark, should, when required to watch, fall asleep; and I cannot consent to shoot him for such an act.'”

This story, with its moral, is made complete by Rev. Newman Hall, of London, who, in a sermon preached after and upon Mr. Lincoln’s death, says that the dead body of this youth was found among the slain on the field of Fredericksburg, wearing next his heart a photograph of his preserver, beneath which the grateful fellow had written, “God bless President Lincoln!”

From the same sermon another anecdote is gleaned, of a similar character, which is evidently authentic. An officer of the army, in conversation with the preacher, said:   “The first week of my command there were twentyfour deserters sentenced by court martial to be shot, and the warrants for their execution were sent to the President to be signed. He refused. I went to Washington and had an interview. I said:  “‘Mr. President, unless these men are made an example of, the army itself is in danger. Mercy to the few is cruelty to the many.’

“He replied: ‘Mr. General, there are already too many weeping widows in the United States. For God’s sake, don’t ask me to add to the number, for I won’t do it.'”

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



As one stretcher was passing Mr. Lincoln, he heard the voice of a lad calling to his mother in agonizing tones. His great heart filled. He forgot the crisis of the hour. Stopping the carriers he knelt, and bending over him asked: “What can I do for you, my poor child?”

“Oh, you will do nothing for me,” he replied. “You are a Yankee. I cannot hope that my message to my mother will ever reach her.” Mr. Lincoln in tears, his voice full of tenderest love, convinced the boy of his sincerity, and he gave his good-bye words without reserve.

The President directed them copied, and ordered that they be sent that night, with a flag of truce, into the enemy’s lines.

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



The following interesting particulars connected with the early life of Abraham Lincoln, are from the Virginia (Ill.) Enquirer, of date of March 1, 1879:

“John McNamer was buried last Sunday, near Petersburg, Menard County. A long while ago he was Assessor and Treasurer of the County for several successive terms. Mr. McNamer was an early settler in that section, and before the town of Petersburg was laid out, in business in Old Salem, a village that existed many years ago two miles south of the present site of Petersburg. Abe Lincoln was then postmaster of the place and sold whisky to its inhabitants. There are old-timers yet living in Menard who bought many a jug of corn-juice from Old Abe when he lived at Salem. It was here that Annie Rutledge dwelt, and in whose grave Lincoln wrote that his heart was buried. As the story runs, the fair and gentle Annie was originally John McNamer’s sweetheart, but Abe  took a ‘shine’ to the young lady, and succeeded in heading off McNamer and won her affections. But Annie Rutledge died, and Lincoln went to Springfield, where he some time afterwards married.

“It is related that during the war a lady belonging to a prominent Kentucky family visited Washington to beg for her son’s pardon, who was then in prison under sentence of death for belonging to a band of guerrillas who had committed many murders and outrages. With the mother was her daughter, a beautiful young lady, who was an accomplished musician. Mr. Lincoln received the visitors in his usual kind manner, and the mother made known the object of her visit, accompanying her plea with tears and sobs and all the customary romantic incidents.

“There were probably extenuating circumstances in favor of the young rebel prisoner, and while the President seemed to be deeply pondering, the young lady moved to a piano near by and taking a seat commenced to sing ‘Gentle Annie,’ a very sweet and pathetic ballad which, before the war, was a familiar song in almost every household in the Union, and is not yet entirely forgotten, for that matter. It is to be presumed that the young lady sang the song with more plaintiveness and effect than Old Abe had ever heard it in Springfield. During its rendition, he arose from his seat, crossed the room to a window in the westward, through which he gazed for several minutes with a’sad, far-away look,’ which has so often been noted as one of his peculiarities. His memory, no doubt, went back to the days of his humble life on the Sangamon, and with visions of Old Salem and its rustic people, who once gathered in his primitive store, came a picture of the ‘Gentle Annie’ of his youth, whose ashes had rested for many long years under the wild flowers and brambles of the old rural burying-ground, but whose spirit then, perhaps, guided him to the side of mercy. Be that as it may, Mr. Lincoln drew a large red silk handkerchief from his coat-pocket, with which he wiped his face vigorously. Then he turned, advanced quickly to his desk, wrote a brief note, which he handed to the lady, and informed her that it was the pardon she sought. The scene was no doubt touching in a great degree and proves that a nice song, well sung, has often a powerful influence in recalling tender recollections. It proves, also, that Abraham Lincoln was a man of fine feelings, and that, if the occurrence was a put-up job on the lady’s part it accomplished the purpose all the same.”

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



As far as food and clothing were concerned, the boy had plenty —”such as it was—corn dodgers, bacon, and game, some fish and wild fruits. . . . We had very little wheat flour. The nearest mill was eighteen miles. A boss mill it was, with a plug [old horse] pullin’ a beam around; and Abe used to say his dog could stand and eat the flour as fast as it was made, and then be ready for supper. For clothing he had jeans. He was grown before he wore all-wool pants. It was a new country, and he was a raw boy, rather a bright and likely lad; but the big world seemed far ahead of him. We were all slow-goin’ folks. But he had the stuff of greatness in him. He got his rare sense and sterling principles from both parents. . . . But Abe’s kindliness, humor, love of humanity, hatred of slavery, all came from his mother. I am free to say Abe was a ‘mother’s boy.'”

Dennis Hanks, as quoted by F. F. Browne, The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln, page 54



When Grant saw that Lee must soon capitulate, Grant asked the President whether he should try to capture Jeff. Davis, or let him escape from the country if he would. The President said:

“About that, I told him the story of an Irishman, who had the pledge of Father Matthew. He became terribly thirsty, and applied to the bartender for a lemonade, and while it was being prepared he whispered to him, ‘And couldn’t ye put a little brandy in it all unbeknown to myself?’ I told Grant if he could let Jeff. Davis escape all unbeknown to himself, to let him go, I didn’t want him.”

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



The Presidential reception on New Year’s day, 1865, was the occasion of a remarkable spectacle for Washington, in the appearance of the colored people at the White House. They waited around until the crowd of white visitors diminished, when they made bold to enter the hall. Some of them were richly dressed, while others wore the garb of poverty; but alike intent on seeing the man who had set their nation free, they pressed forward, though with hesitation, into the presence of the President.

Says an eye-witness: “For nearly two hours, Mr. Lincoln had been shaking hands with the ‘sovereigns’ and had become excessively weary and his grasp became languid; but here his nerves rallied at the unwonted sight, and he welcomed this motley crowd with a heartiness that made them wild with exceeding joy. They laughed and wept, and wept and laughed —exclaiming through their blinding tears, ‘God bless you! God bless Abraham Lincoln! God bless Massa Linkum!'”

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