Harvey Mackay Academy's Blog

Abraham Lincoln’s Lessons

Even though President Abraham Lincoln was in office during one of the most turbulent times in American history, he became famous for his ability to use humorous stories and anecdotes to make a point.  His talent often saved difficult situations from escalating to deep divisions.

To explain why he used stories so frequently, Lincoln said:  “I believe I have the popular reputation of being a story-teller, but I do not deserve the name in its general sense, for it is not the story itself, but its purpose, or effect, that interests me.”

Lincoln explained:  “When I tell a funny story, it has the same effect on me that I suppose a good square drink of whiskey has on an old toper.  It puts new life into me.  The fact is, I have always believed that a good laugh was good for both the mental and the physical digestion.”

One tale Lincoln was fond of telling on himself was about two Quaker women in a railway coach who were overheard in a conversation about Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

“I think Jefferson (Davis) will succeed because he is a praying man,” said the first.

“And so is Abraham a praying man,” said the other woman.

“Yes,” said the first, “but the Lord will think Abraham is joking.”

Lincoln was determined from his teenage years onward to advance his general knowledge.  He pursued a rigorous program of reading, study and self-improvement, often by the light of an oil lamp.  Lincoln’s law partner would later describe his ambition as “a little engine that knew no rest.”

In 1841, 20 years before he became president, Lincoln doubted whether his life would amount to anything.  He confided to a friend, “I would be more than willing to die, except that I have done nothing to make any human remember that I have lived.”  His bouts of melancholy were well-known, but even during those challenges, he maintained a wry sense of self-deprecation.

When others tried to insult Lincoln, as during his famous debates with orator Stephen Douglas, the orator pointed out that Lincoln used to run a store where you could buy whiskey.  But Lincoln turned the tables quickly:  “It is true what Mr. Douglas said, that I did run a grocery store, and I did sell goods including whiskey. 

“But I remember in those days Mr. Douglas was one of my best customers.  Many a time I have stood on one side of the counter and sold whiskey to Mr. Douglas on the other side.  But the difference is that I have left my side of the counter, but Mr. Douglas still sticks tenaciously to his.”

Long before the days of social media, Lincoln had to endure much vicious criticism as president.  He accepted that it went with the job, explaining:  “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might well be closed for any other business.  I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end.  If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything.  If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

Through multiple challenges of the Civil War, Lincoln once told a group of scaremongers the story of a young boy who accompanied his father on a hunting trip.  While sleeping on the mountainside, the boy awoke to see a meteor shower.  Frightened by the sight, he ran to his father and woke him up, pointing at the sky. 

The father looked at his son patiently and said, “Son, don’t be concerned with shooting stars.  Keep your eyes instead on the fixed stars that have long been our guides.”

The moral of that story is as true today as it was 160 years ago.

The President was once criticized for referring to the Confederates in kind terms.  A woman asked him how he could speak so generously of his enemies when he should rather destroy them.

But in characteristic fashion, Lincoln demonstrated his strategy.  He answered her, “Why, madam, do I not destroy them when I make them my friends?”

Isn’t it interesting how the more things change, the more they stay the same? We are still learning from Abraham Lincoln.

Mackay’s Moral: America is a better place because Abraham Lincoln helped shape it.

About the Author Harvey Mackay, Founder & CEO

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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