Did Lincoln deserve the nickname, Honest Abe?

 

At Quora, the social question & answer website, we have posted the following essential question to help teachers and students organize their thoughts on some of the documents within the Honest Abe theme:

Did Lincoln deserve the nickname “Honest Abe”?

You can view (and vote) on all of the answers to this question at Quora, which is a free site but one that requires registration.  Or you can see excerpts from some of the most thought-provoking answers below:

Michael Bagshaw invokes Lincoln’s advice to young lawyers

And the nickname does suit Mr. Lincoln, and it is his Notes for a Law Lecture that best represents this.  The entire series of notes speaks to honesty, integrity, and to do what is right.  From working hard, working to negotiate, to not demand whole fees in advance, etc., all of these notes speak to Lincoln’s character, and all fall back on honesty.  As Lincoln writes himself, “resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”  This statement says so much about Lincoln’s character and beliefs.  He wanted new lawyers to be honest, plain and simple.

Gary Emerson quotes a Lincoln rival to highlight his honesty

“I shall have my hands full,” a worried Stephen Douglas said when told that the Republicans had chosen Lincoln to run against him for the U.S. Senate in 1858, “He is the strong man of his party—full of wit, facts, dates—and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West.  He is as honest as he is shrewd, and if I beat him my victory will be hardly won.”  It is noteworthy that even Lincoln’s enemies and opponents considered him honest.  Lincoln’s character embraced such integrity that his longtime nemesis, Stephen Douglas, could only admire it.  He earned a reputation for honesty while working the circuit as a lawyer.  As Richard Carwardine writes in his Lincoln biography, “The nickname ‘honest Abe’ was not the fabrication of party publicists but a mark of the universal respect in which he was held as a lawyer of scrupulous honesty.  This reputation spilled into the political arena, where he was widely perceived as just and fair-minded in debate, and adverse to gaining an advantage by foul means.”  Certainly, Lincoln lived up to his sobriquet “Honest Abe.”

 

Simone Duven highlights Lincoln’s opposition to the Mexican War

The most compelling argument that Lincoln was indeed an honest man, and deserving of the moniker, “Honest Abe” is his experience with President Polk regarding the country’s war with Mexico. Polk’s military campaign in the war was successful in displaying the United States’ strong military capabilities and in gaining war spoils, but the necessity of the war, and the truth behind the allegations that it was Mexico that incited the conflict by crossing into U.S territory, was a subject of contention and conspiracy stories. Lincoln, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time, doubted Polk’s stated necessity to fight off the Mexicans. On two occasions, Lincoln pointedly asked Polk about the necessity to go to war. Lincoln ‘s Speech in U.S. Congress,  January 12, 1848  sternly called the president to task; “Let the President [Polk] answer the interrogatories I proposed…Let him answer fully, fairly, and candidly. Let him answer with facts and not with arguments.  Let him remember, he sits where Washington sat; and so remembering,  let him answer as Washington would answer…so let him attempt no evasion, no equivocation.”  So steadfast was Lincoln’s commitment to the truth that he headed no caution in his pursuit of information regarding the facts of the cause of the war with Mexico.

 

Nancy Lewis claims Lincoln was honest but walked “a fine line”

Abe Lincoln’s nickname ‘Honest Abe’ is fitting and appropriate. In the close readings of his letters and speeches and in the historians’ perspective, Lincoln is upfront and candid in his statements. But at times, Honest Abe walks a fine line. Lincoln’s letter to Norman Judd in 1858 provides an excellent example. Lincoln relates his concerns to Judd regarding the influx of the “Celtic gentlemen” who may sway the vote in the swing state election. Then he says, “Now the great remaining part of the campaign, is finding a way to head this thing off. Can it be done at all?”  Without compromising his own integrity, Lincoln suggests a plan that falls just short of election fraud. The very same bogus tactic he indirectly accuses Douglas and the Democrats of employing, he is willing to use himself.  Four years earlier in his letter to Richard Yates, Lincoln chides Yates for not communicating. Lincoln is anxious to place Yates’s hat in the ring for reelection to Congress and tells Yates that B.S Edwards “is entirely satisfied now”. (Edwards being a leader of the Know-Nothing party would be an important influence on voters in the upcoming election.) Is Lincoln honestly just trying to give Yates advice or is Lincoln attempting to manipulate the situation to further his own political career?

 

Martin Buchman wonders whether politicians can still walk such fine lines

Lincoln was faced with fusing a coalition into a party that that was an amalgam of leftovers from the conscience Whigs, nationalist democrats, anti immigrant know nothings. Added to this gumbo of people were evangelicals and radical anti slavery zealots. Contemporary readers of Lincoln who find his answers legalistic, evasive or obtuse are not taking into proper consideration the enormity of holding this type of coalition together.  Like many modern presidential primaries, the extremist wings provided the activist energy but if there was any hope for national success the party must go with a candidate who could distance himself from the John Browns of the day (as Lincoln did at Cooper Union) while simultaneously embracing the larger moral cause. One wonders if Lincoln could have survived a primary if they had such in 1860 for he might have failed certain litmus test questions from the evangelicals.

Sarah Turpin defines the “honesty spectrum”

Webster’s Online Dictionary defines honest as “characterized by integrity or fairness and straight/forwardness in conduct, thought, speech, etc.; upright; just; equitable; trustworthy; truthful; sincere; free from fraud, guile, or duplicity; not false.” Being completely honest all of the time would be an extremely difficult if not impossible task. If we were completely honest, we would alienate our friends, family, and co-workers and probably end up unemployed. When Aunt Minnie serves her lemon pie that has a reputation for being inedible, you speak up and announce that you are too full to eat another bite. You are not being honest with Aunt Minnie, but you are trying to spare her feelings and be courteous to your hostess. We don’t go around our workplace telling everyone our exact opinion of them, because we still have to work with them the next day. In parent conferences, we have to be diplomatic in the way we share information if we want to maintain a cooperative, positive relationship with that parent so that we can work together to help their child grow and learn as a student.

Andrew Villwock makes distinctions

To answer the question about whether or not Lincoln deserves the nickname, Honest Abe I believe you have to look carefully at how and when Lincoln dispenses his “honesty” and when he is patently dishonest.  I cannot help but notice that Lincoln’s “honesty” seems to rise and fall in direct correlation to his familiarity and comfort with the topic he is discussing.  In the Notes for a Law Lecture and the Cooper Union speech Lincoln is solidly on ground that he is prepared to discourse on and writes out of a wealth of experience that lends weight to his words.  Contrasted against the little dishonesty of his political writings (Handbill, Yates and Judd) I believe that we see in the Notes for a Law Lecture and the Cooper Union speech fragments of philosophies that extend both before and after each particular text.  This continuity leads me to lend more credibility to their veracity than the fleeting moments of dishonesty found in the other three sources.

Mary Beth Donnelly notes challenges but emphasizes context

Tarnishing Lincoln’s honest reputation more drastically is the 1858 letter to Norman Judd in which he makes a “bare suggestion” that Republicans consider retaliatory tactics to combat possible election fraud by Democrats.  He slyly says, “Think this over. It would be a great thing, when this trick is attempted upon us, to have the saddle come up on the other horse.”  Written during his Senate campaign, the letter is deliberately cryptic because Lincoln admits he is anxious to put too much of his plan down on paper.  He acknowledges, “I have talked, more fully than I can write, to Mr. Scripps, and he will talk to you.”  (Lincoln, letter to Norman Judd, 1858).  So, what, then, did he say to Mr. Scripps? What came of this plan? No matter the outcome, this document shows us a side of Lincoln we don’t often learn about—that, typical of other politicians of his day (and ours, for that matter), he was not above questioning whether he could affect the end by manipulating the means. So, Honest Abe was not a perfect man, but his nickname was grounded in relative truth compared to other politicians of the day. Carwardine (1997) says that even “his opponents found it hard seriously to shift the widespread understanding of Lincoln as ‘the very soul of integrity.’”

Nicole Johnston suggests there is another question

The question one is forced to ask  about Lincoln’s honesty is whether he was honest because he believed in the moral fortitude of  being honest or was he honest because he understood the role this could play  in his political progression?  In Michael Burlingame’s “Honest Abe” multimedia  excerpt, the role Abraham Lincoln’s honesty played in his nomination is  discussed. It is noted that Joshua Giddings remarked that Lincoln’s honesty was really  the sole reason for Lincoln’s nomination. Being a wise man, could the “self-made” Lincoln “self-invent” the moral character of honesty for himself years  prior knowing his political aspirations? No matter what, all roads lead to the  idea that he was honest….

 

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