Abraham Lincoln On Ethics

An excerpt from the one-man play “Lincoln Live”

by Gene Griessman

As far as I’m concerned, it means treating others the way you’d want to be treated.

I never joined a church because the churches of my day required you to subscribe to a particular doctrine or creed.  I told a minister who was trying to recruit me that if I ever found a church that would inscribe over its altar only two requirements, I would join that church with all my heart: The first requirement would be, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.’ The second requirement would be, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’

I reckon that anyone who keeps those two commandments will never have a problem with any legitimate code of ethics.  The second great commandment is really the basis of the Golden Rule—loving your neighbor as yourself.

Being ethical means being honest.   Perhaps the greatest asset was being known as Honest Abe.  It was a good name, and I believe that a good name is more to be desired than great riches.

I made it a practice to be so clear that no honest man could misunderstand me and no dishonest one could successfully misrepresent me

As you know, I’m a lawyer; and, yes, there were lawyer jokes back in the 1800s.  I remember a story about a preacher back in Indiana who was conducting a funeral service for a prominent lawyer.  At one point in his eulogy, the minister said, “Here lies a successful lawyer and an honest man.”  A woman in the audience whispered to her friend:  “We need to take a peek to see if there are two bodies in the casket?”

I happen to believe that a lawyer can be honest.  In fact I found that clients often had more trouble telling the truth than lawyers did.

Here’s some advice I gave young lawyers:  “Resolve to be honest at all events.  If, in your own judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.   Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”

If you’re ethical, you’ll strive to be knowledgeable.  In the 1800s it was common for people to talk about “living up to the light” that one had.  It was an excellent way of admitting in advance that one could be mistaken because of lack of knowledge.   I like that concept, and used it in my Second Inaugural Address: “With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” is the way I said it in my second inaugural address.

But there’s something more important than knowing the truth, and that’s knowing what to do with the truth.  A village idiot might stumble upon the truth, tell everybody in sight, and do irreparable damage. Being wise involves knowing when to tell the truth, knowing how to tell the truth, knowing who to tell it to, and even deciding if you should tell it at all.   Some truth should never be told–like when my wife Mary asked me what I thought of one of her ridiculous-looking new hats.

Being ethical doesn’t mean that you be suicidal.  .

If you’re ethical, you’ll strive to use good judgment.  The true rule in determining to accept or reject any thing is not whether it has any evil in it; but whether it has more of evil than of good.   There are few things wholly evil or wholly good.  Almost every thing…is an inseparable compound of the two so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.


Excerpt from the training video/DVD  “Lincoln On Communication”

By Gene Griessman, Ph.D.


By following some simple, timeless principles of good communication, Abraham Lincoln achieved amazing results, advancing from the lowest ranks of American society to the White House.  If a backwoods boy on the frontier can pick up and master these principles—these secrets of communication– so can you.


Communication is sharing.  But you cannot share what you do not have.  No matter how skillful a speaker or writer you may be, if you are ignorant of something that you could know, or if your knowledge is faulty, you will eventually be found out.

Lincoln wrote an aspiring lawyer: “The mode is very simple, though laborious and tedious.  It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully…Work, work, work is the main thing.”


If you want to be a persuasive communicator, it’s not enough to get things exactly right. Your audience may quickly forget the facts, the statistics, and the arguments that you use.  But they are likely to remember your stories and examples, and the imagery and poetry of your language.

Show your audience, don’t tell them.  Paint a picture, and they’ll carry it with them.


From Lincoln’s earliest days as a lawyer, he learned how important questions could be in winning a case.

Good questions have immense value in communication and leadership.  Yet they are frequently under-utilized. You can use questions to gain information or to guide a conversation.  Often the other party will not even know that they are being led.  By means of questions, you can get them to think about a subject that they might not have considered previously, or lead them to look at it in a different light.


If you want to be an effective communicator, you must learn as much as possible about your audience.  So consider the type of person you are trying to communicate with.  Some people want to hear all the details. Others want only a broad outline.  Some are moved by emotion; others distrust emotion.

Study your audience to determine if they are ready to listen, ready to follow.  “It takes two to speak truth”–Henry David Thoreau said–“One to speak and another to listen.”


When you speak in public, you will be most effective if you think of yourself, not as making a speech, but as someone who has come to talk with friends about a subject that is important to them.

Lincoln stated in one of his speeches: “A drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.  Then he advised:  “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend….On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his actions, or to mark him as one to be shunned or despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart…. ”


Think about the impact your message will have on your audience before you deliver it.  If you are tempted to say something harsh to somebody, ask yourself, “What will an angry message accomplish?”  “Will it destroy the relationship?”  Or, “Will it generate positive results?”  Lincoln wrote:  “No man who has resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention.  Better to yield the right of way to a dog, than to be bitten by him in contesting the right.”


Lincoln tried to expose myself to the biggest ideas and the best communicators he could find.  As a youngster, he steeped himself in books such as biographies of George Washington, selections from Cicero, Demosthenes, Franklin, and dramatic passages from Hamlet, Falstaff, and Henry V.

Self-improvement need not be a solitary experience.  Lincoln honed his communication skills by becoming a member of literary groups and debating societies.

And Lincoln learned to benefit from criticism.  He realized that one good critic telling you what you are doing wrong can do more to help you than ten thousand people telling you how great you are.   But Lincoln did not let criticism destroy his self-confidence or his will to lead.  Criticism was just information to be used.

Every day do something no matter how small that will make you better.  That’s how you become an effective communicator–one step at a time.  Famous newspaperman Horace Greeley, who often was Lincoln’s critic, made this telling observation about the great communicator:  “There was probably no year of his life that he was not a wiser, cooler, better man than he had been the year preceding.”


We usually don’t think of Lincoln and Washington as being similar, even though the two men are usually number one and number two among America’s most admired Presidents.  Indeed, there is much dissimilarity.

Washington lived well throughout his life. He was born into a well-to-do family and later became rich.  Lincoln’s family was poor.  For years he worked as a manual laborer.  He did not become well-off until he became established as a lawyer in Springfield.

Washington had good connections with Virginia’s aristocracy; Lincoln’s family was obscure and undistinguished.

Washington had extensive experience in the military, and advanced to the rank of general.  Lincoln’s military experience was limited to a few weeks as the captain of a regiment of volunteers in the Black Hawk War.

Washington was a handsome man, majestic in his bearing. Few ever used the words “handsome” or “majestic” to describe Lincoln.


Both were tall men for their times: Washington 6’3” and Lincoln 6’4.”

Both married women who were short.  Mary Todd Lincoln and Martha Dandridge Washington were about five feet tall, and came up only to the chests of their husbands.

Both their wives came from prominent, wealthy families.  At the time of their courtship, Washington’s wife-to-be was said to be the richest widow in America.

Both fought in Indian wars.

Both were athletic—-excellent wrestlers and superb horsemen.

Both lacked formal schooling.  Washington received none at all; he was tutored at home. Lincoln had about one year’s schooling.

Both were skilled frontiersmen.

Both became surveyors.

Both were inventive men of a scientific temperament.  Lincoln got a patent for an invention to lift ships off shoals.  Washington was an avid reader of agricultural manuals, and conducted a controlled experiment, planting various grains at the same depth in different soils.  He also invented a plow that automatically dropped seeds in furrows.

Both men copied from books to aid their memory.

Both had melancholy personalities.  Lincoln suffered from bouts of depression, experienced two nervous breakdowns, and had dark premonitions and dreams.  Washington feared an early death like his father and brother, both of whom had died young.  According to Jefferson, Washington generally was “inclined to gloomy apprehensions.”

Both maintained close friendships with wild-living men whose reputations and actions contrasted sharply with their own reputations and actions.  Washington’s friend was Gouverneur Morris and Lincoln’s was Ward Lamon.

Both were known for having volcanic tempers, and for their ability to control them.

Both were cautious with their words.  For example, Washington said virtually nothing in public during the Constitutional Convention.  Lincoln was an accomplished story-teller, but when it came to disclosing his innermost thoughts, a friend called him “the most close-mouthed man” he had ever known.”

Both considered themselves to be “harmonizers” of conflict.

Both wrote great letters.

Both possessed the ability to predict future events.  Unlike Jefferson, Washington was pessimistic about the outcome of  revolutionary forces then taking place in France. He predicted that they would lead to “a crisis of sad confusion” and “an entire change in the French system.” What actually occurred was the Reign of Terror, followed by Napoleon’s dictatorship. Washington vigorously opposed a scheme to raise an army of Americans that would liberate Louisiana from Spain and create an independent nation under the control of the French.  Washington foresaw that new nations in the West with foreign connections would break up the continent and threaten the United States.  (See James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man. Boston: Back Bay/Little, Brown & Co. 1974, pp. 287, 288)  As for Lincoln, his best-known example of forward-thinking is the memorable “House Divided” speech in which he predicted that the United States would eventually cease to become half-slave/half-free and become all one or all the other.

Both loved the theater.

Both loved reading.

Both wrote poetry.

Both attended church services, read the Bible, and prayed; but neither was a communicant of any denomination.

Both were ambitious in the extreme.

Both were skillful at dealing with intrigue, and putting down plots by rivals and subordinates.  Washington had to deal with General Horatio Gates, who became known as the hero of the battle of Saratoga.  Gates bypassed his commander-in-chief and for a time communicated directly with Congress.  Washington patiently outmaneuvered him; Gates later suffered a disgraceful defeat at Camden, S.C. Lincoln had to be on the defensive constantly–with Secretary of State Seward (who wanted to act like a prime minister), with General McClellan (who was openly insubordinate) and with Secretary of the Treasury Chase (who wanted to be President).  Lincoln turned Seward into a confidant, he replaced McClellan and later defeated him for President,  and appointed Chase to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both were the objects of vicious criticism.

Both suffered numerous defeats and setbacks.  During the Revolutionary War, Washington lost more battles than he won, but was victorious in the final one. Lincoln’s setbacks were so frequent and well-known that they have become a cherished part of American lore.

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GENE GRIESSMAN, PH.D.     www.presidentlincoln.com