Mr. Lincoln's Advice
By Lewis E. Lehrman, March 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

In July 1860, Abraham Lincoln addressed a letter to a teenager who had been denied admission to Harvard after attending Philips Exeter Academy with Lincoln’s son Robert: “I know not how to aid you, save in the assurance of one of mature age, and much severe experience, that you cannot fail if you resolutely determine that you will not.”

Lincoln went on to tell George Latham, whose own father had died when he was just two years old: “In your temporary failure there is no evidence that you may not yet be a better scholar, and a more successful man in the great struggle of life, than many others, who have entered college more easily.”

Mr. Lincoln gave very good advice and some of his best-known words were given in letters of condolence or counsel.  Some of it was very specific and written to people in stress or trouble.  Some of it was more generic and written as notes or in speeches intended for a wider national audience.

Nearly two years after the Latham letter, Lincoln wrote one of his wife’s relatives about the young man’s unhappiness at West Point: “Your good mother tells me you are feeling very badly in your new situation. Allow me to assure you it is a perfect certainty that you will, very soon, feel better—quite happy—if you only stick to the resolution you have taken to procure a military education. I am older than you, have felt badly myself, and know, what I tell you is true. Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life. Take the advice of a friend, who, though he never saw you, deeply sympathizes with you, and stick to your purpose.”

During the Civil War, President Lincoln’s advice and consolation was occasionally directed to the family members of those soldiers who perished in battle.  One of the most devastating losses was the death in May 1861 of a young Illinoisan whom he had treated like his own son. Lincoln wrote the parents of Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth: “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.”  

Lincoln was particularly thoughtful in consoling the bereaved.  Perhaps the most famous Lincoln letter was directed to a Massachusetts woman who reportedly had lost several sons in the war.  Whether Lincoln or an aide actually wrote the letter is disputed, but the sentiments are undeniably Lincolnian: “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

There is no question about Lincoln’s authorship of a letter he wrote in December 1862 to the daughter of a long-time family friend.  “It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common is such cases.  In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares,” Lincoln wrote Fanny McCullough.  “The older have learned to ever expect it.  I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress.  Perfect relief is not possible, except with time.  You can not now realize that you will ever feel better.  Is not this so?  And yet it is a mistake.  You are sure to be happy again.”

The same month in his annual Message to Congress, President Lincoln gave some timeless advice to the world: “In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.”   He added: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Tags: History, American History, Abraham Lincoln

about the author

Lewis E. Lehrman
Lewis E. Lehrman

Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, August 15, 1938, Lewis E. Lehrman received his Bachelor of Arts degree at Yale University in 1960, after which he won a Carnegie Teaching Fellowship as an instructor of history on the Yale faculty. Subsequently, he received his master's degree as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow from Harvard University. He also has been awarded Honorary Degrees from Babson College (Babson Park, MA), Gettysburg College (Gettysburg, PA), Marymount University (Arlington, VA) and Thomas Aquinas College (Santa Paula, CA). In 2005, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush in an Oval office ceremony.

He is founder of the Lehrman American Studies Center, Chairman of the Lehrman Institute, and Senior Partner, L. E. Lehrman & Co., an investment firm he established.

Mr. Lehrman's book, Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point (Stackpole Books) was published in 2008.