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Humility – working for the betterment of others, and in the interest of others over self


Examples of Lincoln’s Humility from his Life


  • His letter to Grant that the general was right, and he as president was wrong

  • His lack of desire to perceive himself higher than people such as Billy the Barber and Frederick Douglass
  • His willingness to welcome people of all walks of life into his office, and not put on airs about himself



Abraham Lincoln Quotations Regarding Humility


  • “I know wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.” – Abraham Lincoln to General U.S. Grant, July 4, 1864

  • “I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” – Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Albert Hodges, April 4, 1864
  • “I happen, temporarily, to occupy this big White House. I am living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has.” – Abraham Lincoln to 166th Ohio Reg., August 22, 1864
  • “I do not impugn the motives of any one opposed to me. It is no pleasure to me to triumph over any one.” –Abraham Lincoln in a speech after his re-election, November 8, 1864 
  • “Though high in position, the humblest could approach him and feel at home in his presence. Though deep, he was transparent; though strong, he was gentle; though decided and pronounced in his convictions, he was tolerant towards those who differed from him.” Frederick Douglass in his oration to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, April 14, 1876
  • “He was not a born king of men. . .but a child of the common people, who made himself a great persuader, therefore a leader, by dint of firm resolve, patient effort, and dogged perseverance. . . There was probably no year where Lincoln was not a wiser, cooler, better man than he had been the year preceding.” Horace Greeley, on Abraham Lincoln, in 1891





Stories in Lincoln’s Life Regarding Humility



Constant exposure and fatigue were unavoidable in meeting these engagements. Both contestants spoke almost every day through the intervals between the joint debates; and as railroad communication in Illinois in 1858 was still very incomplete, they were often obliged to resort to horse, carriage or steamer to reach the desired points.


Judge Douglas succeeded, however, in making this difficult journey something of a triumphal procession On the  Illinois Central Railroad he had always a special car, sometimes a special train. Frequently he swept by Lincoln, side-tracked in an accommodation or freight train.  “The gentleman in that car evidently smelt no royalty in our carriage,” laughed Lincoln one day, as he watched from the caboose of a laid-up freight train the decorated special of Douglas flying by.


It was only when Lincoln left the railroad and crossed the prairie to speak at some isolated town, that he went in state. The attentions he received were often very trying to him. He detested what he called “fizzlegigs and fireworks,” and would squirm in disgust when his friends gave him a genuine prairie ovation. Usually, when he was going to a point distant from the railway, a ”distinguished citizen” met him at the station nearest the place with a carriage. When they were come within two or three miles of the town, a long procession with banners and band would appear, winding across the prairie to meet the speaker. A speech of greeting was made, and then the ladies of the entertainment committee would present Lincoln with flowers, sometimes even winding a garland about his head and lank figure At the Ottawa debate the enthusiasm of his supporters was so great that they insisted on carrying him from the platform to the house where he was to be entertained. Powerless to escape from the clutches of his admirers he could only cry:  “Don’t, boys; let me down; come now, don’t!” On arrival at the towns where the joint debates were held, Douglas was always met by a brass band and a salute of thirty-two guns (the Union was composed of thirty-two States in 1858), and was escorted to the hotel in the finest equipage to be had. Lincoln’s supporters took delight in showing their contempt for Douglas’s elegance by affecting a Republican simplicity, often carrying their candidate through the streets on a high and unadorned hay-rick.

The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Ida M. Tarbell, Vol. I, page 311.



Before the winter was ended he had become the most popular man in New Salem. Although he was but twenty-three years of age in February, 1832; had never been at school an entire year; had never made a speech, except in debating clubs or by the roadside; had read only the books he could pick up, and known only the men of the poor, out-of-the-way towns in which he had lived, yet, “encouraged by his great popularity among his immediate neighbors'” as he says, he announced himself in March, 1832, as a candidate for the General Assembly of the State


At that time the State of Illinois —as, indeed, the whole United States—was convinced that the future of the country depended on the opening of canals and railroads, and the clearing out of the rivers. In the Sangamon country the population felt that a quick way of getting to Beardstown on the Illinois River, to which point the steamer came from the Mississippi, was, as Lincoln puts it in his circular, using a phrase of his hero, Clay, “indispensably necessary.” Of course a railroad was the dream of the settlers; but when it was considered seriously there was always, as Lincoln says, “a heart-appalling shock accompanying the amount of its cost, which forces us to shrink from our pleasing anticipations.”

“The probable cost of this contemplated railroad,” he states in his circular, “is estimated at two hundred and ninety thousand dollars; the bare statement of which, in my opinion, is sufficient to justify the belief that the improvement of the Sangamon River is an object much better suited to our infant resources.”


The only preliminary expected of a candidate for the legislature of Illinois at that date was an announcement stating his “sentiments with regard to local affairs.” The circular in which Lincoln complied with this custom was a document of about two thousand words, . . . . [in which he gave a dignified account of his experiences on the Sangamon and beside it, as flatboatman and miller, which he concluded as follows: “Finally, I believe the improvement of the Sangamon River to be vastly important and highly desirable to the people of the country; and, if elected, any measure in the legislature having this for its object, which may appear judicious, will meet my approbation and receive my support.”


….The audacity of a young man in his position presenting himself as a candidate for the legislature is fully equaled by the humility of the closing paragraph of his announcement:  “But, fellow citizens, I shall conclude. Considering the great degree of modesty which should always attend youth, it is probable I have already been more presuming than becomes me. However, upon the subjects of which I have treated, I have spoken as I have thought. I may be wrong in regard to any or all of them, but, holding it a sound maxim that it is better only sometimes to be right than at all times to be wrong, so soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to announce them.


“Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it is true or not, I can say for one, that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow-men by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed. I am young, and unknown to many of you. I was born, and have ever remained, in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations or friends to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of the county; and, if elected, they will have conferred a favor upon me for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate. But, if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”


Very soon after Lincoln had distributed his hand-bills, enthusiasm on the subject of the opening of the Sangamon rose to a fever.

The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln, Ida M. Tarbell, page 1a5



Little Grace Bedell, living at Westfield, New York, saw a porcrait of Lincoln during the Presidential campaign of 1860. She said to.her mother, “I think Mr. Lincoln would look better if he wore whiskers and I’m going to write and tell him so.”   Grace’s father was a Republican, but her two brothers were Democrats. She wrote to “Hon. Abraham Lincoln, Esq.,” and told him how old she was; where she lived; that she was a Republican; that she thought he would make a good President, but would look better if he let his beard grow. If he would do this, she would try to coax her brothers to vote for him. She said she thought the rail fence around his cabin, in the picture, was very pretty and wound up with:  “If you have not time to answer my letter, will you allow your little girl to reply for you?”


Lincoln was pleased with the letter and answered it at once, as follows:

“Springfield, ILL., October 19, 1860. “Miss Grace Bedell:

“My dear little Miss:—Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received. I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughter. I have three sons; one seventeen; one nine; and one seven years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family. As to whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I should begin now? “Your very sincere well-wisher,  “A. Lincoln.”

When on the journey to Washington to be inaugurated, the train stopped at Westfield. He spoke to ex-Lieutenant-Governor Patterson, who accompanied the Presidential party, about his little correspondent in that place. Some one called out and asked if Grace Bedell was in the crowd that surged around the train. A way was opened and Grace came, timidly but gladly, to speak to the President-elect who let her see that he had grown a beard at her request. Then reaching his long arms, he lifted the. little girl up and kissed her, amid enthusiastic applause from the approving multitude.”

“Abe Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories, Edited by Col. Alex. K. McClure, page 382.



Joshua Speed, who was a prosperous young merchant in Springfield recalls the first time Abraham Lincoln in 1837came to Springfield to live.  Lincoln’s personal effects consisted of a pair of saddle-bags, containing two or three lawbooks, and a few pieces of clothing. Riding on a borrowed horse, he thus made his appearance in Springfield. When he discovered that a single bedstead would cost seventeen dollars, he said, “It is probably cheap enough, but I have not money enough to pay for it.”


When Speed offered to trust him, he said: “If I fail here as a lawyer, I will probably never pay you at all.” Then Speed offered to share a large double bed with him. “Where is your room?” Lincoln asked. “Upstairs,” said Speed, pointing from the store leading to his room.  Without saying a word, he took his saddle-bags on his arm, went upstairs, set them down on the floor, came down again, and with a face beaming with pleasure and smiles, exclaimed: “Well, Speed, I’m moved.”

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



He made no secret of his disgust of that “long, lank creature from Illinois,” and declared if “that giraffe” was permitted to appear in the case he would throw up his brief and leave it.


Mr. Lincoln keenly felt the affront, but recognizing Stanton’s ability beneath his brusque exterior, he afterwards, for the public good, appointed him to a seat in his Cabinet.

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



Soon after Mr. Lincoln’s nomination for the Presidency, the Executive Chamber, a large, fine room in the State House at Springfield, was set apart for him, where he met the public until after his election.


As illustrative of the nature of many of his calls, the following brace of incidents were related to Mr. Holland by an eye-witness: “Mr. Lincoln being in conversation with a gentleman one day, two raw, plainly-dressed young ‘Suckers’ entered the room, and bashfully lingered near the door. As soon as he observed them, and apprehended their embarrassment, he rose and walked to them, saying: ‘How do you do, my good fellows? What can I do for you? Will you sit down?’ The spokesman of the pair, the shorter of the two, declined to sit, and explained the object of the call thus: He had had a talk about the relative height of Mr. Lincoln and his companion, and had asserted his belief that they were of exactly the same height. He had come in to verify his judgment. Mr. Lincoln smiled, went and got his cane, and, placing the end of it upon the wall, said:  “‘Here, young man, come under here.


“The young man came under the cane as Mr. Lincoln held it, and when it was perfectly adjusted to his height, Mr. Lincoln said:”‘Now, come out, and hold the cane.’   “This he did, while Mr. Lincoln stood under. Rubbing his head back and forth to see that it worked easily under the measurement, he stepped out, and declared to the sagacious fellow who was curiously looking on, that he had guessed with remarkable accuracy—that he and the young man were exactly the same height. Then he shook hands with them and sent them on their way. Mr. Lincoln would just as soon have thought of cutting off his right hand as he would have thought of turning those boys away with the impression that they had in any way insulted his dignity.


“They had hardly disappeared when an old and modestly dressed woman made her appearance. She knew Mr. Lincoln, but Mr. Lincoln did not at first recognize her. Then she undertook to recall to his memory certain incidents connected with his ride upon the circuit—especially his dining at her house upon the road at different times. Then he remembered her and her home. Having fixed her own place in his recollection, she tried to recall to him a certain scanty dinner of bread and milk that he once ate at her house. He could not remember it—on the contrary, he only remembered that he had always fared well at her house.


“‘Well,’ said she, ‘one day you came along after we had got through dinner, and we had eaten up everything, and I could give you nothing but a bowl of bread and milk, and you ate it; and when you got up you said it was good enough for the President of the United States!’


“The good woman had come in from the country, making a journey of eight or ten miles, to relate to Mr. Lincoln this incident, which, in her mind, had doubtless taken the form of a prophecy. Mr. Lincoln placed the honest creature at her ease, chatted with her of old times, and dismissed her in the most happy and complacent frame of mind.”

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



The opening of the year 1860 found Mr. Lincoln’s name freely mentioned in connection with the Republican nomination for the Presidency. To be classed with Seward, Chase, McLean, and other celebrities was enough to stimulate any Illinois lawyer’s pride; but in Mr. Lincoln’s case, if it had any such effect, he was most artful in concealing it. Now and then, some ardent friend, an editor, for example, would run his name up to the masthead, but in all cases he discouraged the attempt.  “In regard to the matter you spoke of,” he answered one man who proposed his name, “I beg you will not give it a further mention. Seriously, I do not think I am fit for the Presidency.”



Mr. Lincoln enjoyed a joke at his own expense. Said he: “In the days when I used to be in the circuit, I was accosted in the cars by a stranger, who said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.’ ‘How is that?’ I asked, considerably astonished.


“The stranger took a jackknife from his pocket. ‘This knife,’ said he, ‘was placed in my hands some years ago, with the injunction that I was to keep it until I had found a man uglier than myself. I have carried it from that time to this. Allow me to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to the property.'”

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



Soon after Mr. Lincoln began his Administration, a distinguished South Carolina lady, the widow of a Northern scholar, called upon him out of curiosity.


She was very proud and aristocratic, and was anxious to see this monstrosity, as he had been represented. Upon being presented she hissed in the President’s ear: “I am a South Carolinian.” The President, taking in the situation, was at once courteous and dignified.


After a pleasant conversation, she said: “Why, Mr. Lincoln, you look, act, and speak like a kind, goodhearted, generous man.” “And did you expect to meet a savage?” said he. “Certainly I did, or even something worse. I am glad I have met you, and now the best way to preserve peace is for you to go to Charleston, and show the people what you are, and tell the people you have no intention of injuring them.” The lady attended the first levee after the inauguration.

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



Mr. Lincoln’s habits at the White House were as simple as they were at his old home in Illinois. He never alluded to himself as “President,” or as occupying “the Presidency.” His office he always designated as “the place.” “Call me Lincoln,” said he to a friend; “Mr. President” had become so very tiresome to him. “If you see a newsboy down the street, send him up this way,” said he to a passenger, as he stood waiting for the morning news at his gate. Friends cautioned him about exposing himself so openly in the midst of enemies; but he never heeded them. He frequently walked the streets at night, entirely unprotected; and felt any check upon his movements a great annoyance. He delighted to see his familiar Western friends; and he gave them always a cordial welcome. He met them on the old footing, and fell at once into the accustomed habits of talk and story-telling.


An old acquaintance, with his wife, visited Washington. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln proposed to these friends a ride in the Presidential carriage. It should be stated in advance that the two men had probably never seen each other with gloves on in their lives, unless when they were used as protection from the cold.


The question of each—Mr. Lincoln at the White House, and his friend at the hotel—was, whether he should wear gloves. Of course the ladies urged gloves; but Mr. Lincoln only put his in his pocket, to be used or not, according to the circumstances.


When the Presidential party arrived at the hotel, to take in their friends, they found the gentleman, overcome by his wife’s persuasions, very handsomely gloved. The moment he took his seat he began to draw off the clinging kids, while Mr. Lincoln began to draw his on!


“No! no! no!” protested his friend, tugging at his gloves. “It is none of my doings; put up your gloves, Mr. Lincoln.” So the two old friends were on even and easy terms, and had their ride after their old fashion.



The well-known Frederick Douglass, in the North Western Advocate, says: “I saw and conversed with this great man for the first time in the darkest hours of the military situation when the armies of the rebellion seemed more confident, defiant and aggressive than ever.


“I had never before had an interview with a President of the United States, and though I felt that I had something important to say, considering his exalted position and my lowly origin and the people whose cause I came to plead, I approached him with trepidation as to how this great man might receive me; but one word and look from him banished all my fears and set me perfectly at ease. I have often said since that meeting that it was much easier to see and converse with a great man than it was with a small man.


“On that occasion he said: “‘Douglass, you need not tell me who you are, Mr. Seward has told me all about you.’  “I then saw that there was no reason to tell him my personal story, however interesting it might be to myself or others, so I told him at once the object of my visit. It was to get some expression from him upon three points: “1. Equal pay to colored soldiers. “a. Their promotion when they had earned it on the battle-field.  “3. Should they be taken prisoners and enslaved or hanged, as Jefferson Davis had threatened, an equal number of Confederate prisoners should be executed within our lines.


“A declaration to that effect I thought would prevent the execution of the rebel threat. To all but the last President Lincoln assented. He argued, however, that neither equal pay nor promotion could be granted at once. He said that in view of existing prejudices it was a great step forward to employ colored troops at all; that it was necessary to avoid everything that would offend this prejudice and increase opposition to the measure.


“He detailed the steps by which white soldiers were reconciled to the employment of colored troops; how these were first employed as laborers; how it was thought they should not be armed or uniformed like white soldiers; how they should only be made to wear a peculiar uniform; how they should be employed to hold forts and arsenals in sickly locations, and not enter the field like other soldiers.


“With all these restrictions and limitations he easily made me see that much would be gained when the colored man loomed before the country as a full-fledged United States soldier to fight, flourish or fall in defense of the united republic. The great soul of Lincoln halted only when he came to the point of retaliation.


“The thought of hanging men in cold blood, even though the rebels should murder a few of the colored prisoners, was a horror from which he shrank.


“‘Oh, Douglass! I cannot do that. If I could get hold of the actual murderers of colored prisoners, I would retaliate; but to hang those who have no hand in such murders, I cannot.’


“The contemplation of such an act brought to his countenance such an expression of sadness and pity that it made it hard for me to press my point, though I told him it would tend to save rather than destroy life. He, however, insisted that this work of blood, once begun, would be hard to stop—that such violence would beget violence. He argued more like a disciple of Christ than a commander-in-chief of the army and navy of a warlike nation already involved in a terrible war.


“How sad and strange the fate of this great and good man, the savior of his country, the embodiment of human charity, whose heart, though strong, was as tender as a heart of childhood; who always tempered justice with mercy; who sought to supplant the sword with counsel of reason, to suppress passion by kindness and moderation; who had a sigh for every human grief and a tear for every human woe, should at last perish by the hand of a desperate assassin, against whom no thought of malice had ever entered his heart!”

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



F. Shepley gives the following interesting reminiscence: “After Mr. Lincoln’s interview with Judge Campbell, the President being about to return to the Wabash, I took him and Admiral Porter in my carriage. An immense concourse of colored people thronged the streets, accompanied and followed the carriage, calling upon the President with the wildest exclamations of gratitude and delight.


“He was the Moses, the Messiah, to the slaves of the South. Hundreds of colored women tossed their hands high in the air and then bent down to the ground, weeping for joy. Some shouted songs of deliverance, and sang the old plantation refrains, which prophesied the coming of a deliverer from bondage. ‘God bless you, Father Abraham!’ went up from a thousand throats.


“Those only who have seen the paroxysmal enthusiasm of a religious meeting of slaves can form an adequate conception of the way in which tears and smiles, and shouts of the emancipated people evinced the frenzy of their gratitude to their deliverer. He looked at all attentively, with a face expressive only of a sort of pathetic wonder.


“Occasionally its sadness would alternate with one of his peculiar smiles, and he would remark on the great proportion of those whose color indicated a mixed lineage from the white master and the black slave; and that reminded him of some little story of his life in Kentucky, which he would smilingly tell; and then his face would relapse again into that sad expression which all will remember who saw him during the last few weeks of the Rebellion. Perhaps it was a presentiment of his impending fate.


“I accompanied him to the ship, bade him farewell and left him, to see his face no more. Not long after, the bullet of the assassin arrested the beatings of one of the kindest hearts that ever throbbed in human bosom.

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