To John Johnston (December 24, 1848)

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#93 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“Your request for eighty dollars, I do not think it best, to comply with now. At the various times when I have helped you a little, you have said to me  “We can get along very well now” but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again. Now this can only happen by some defect in your conduct.What that defect is I think I know. You are not lazy, and still you are an idler.”

On This Date

HD Daily Report, December 24, 1848

The Lincoln Log, December 24, 1848

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How Historians Interpret

“Abraham Lincoln’s view of his father’s indolence is unrecorded, but he did scold his stepbrother John D. Johnston for that flaw in letters which may reflect his attitude not only toward Johnston but also toward Thomas Lincoln”

—Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

“A volume of disquisition could not put more clearly before the reader the difference between Abraham Lincoln and the common run of Southern and Western rural laborers. He had the same disadvantages that they had. He grew up in the midst of poverty and ignorance; he was poisoned with the enervating malaria of the Western woods, as all his fellows were, and the consequences of it were seen in his character and conduct to the close of his life. But he had, what very few of them possessed any glimmering notion of, a fixed and inflexible will to succeed. He did not love work, probably, any better than John Johnston; but he had an innate self-respect, and a consciousness that his self was worthy of respect, that kept him from idleness as it kept him from all other vices, and made him a better man every year that he lived.”

—John M. Hay and John G. Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln (Orig. Ed. 1890; New York: Cosimo Inc., 2009), 77.  

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Searchable Text

Washington, December 24, 1848
 
Dear Johnston:
Your request for eighty dollars, I do not think it best, to comply with now. At the various times when I have helped you a little, you have said to me “We can get along very well now” but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again. Now this can only happen by some defect in your conduct. What that defect is I think I know. You are not lazy, and still you are an idler. I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day’s work in any one day. You do not very much dislike to work; and still you do not work much, merely because it does not seem to you that you could get much for it. This habit of uselessly wasting time, is the whole difficulty; and it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children that you should break this habit. It is more important to them, because they have longer to live, and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it; easier than they can get out after they are in.
 
You are now in need of some ready money; and what I propose is, that you shall go to work, “tooth and nails” for some body who will give you money [for] it. Let father and your boys take charge of things at home—prepare for a crop, and make the crop; and you go to work for the best money wages, or in discharge of any debt you owe, that you can get. And to secure you a fair reward for your labor, I now promise you, that for every dollar you will, between this and the first of next May, get for your own labor, either in money, or in your own indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar. By this, if you hire yourself at ten dolla[rs] a month, from me you will get ten more, making twenty dollars a month for your work. In this, I do not mean you shall go off to St. Louis, or the lead mines, or the gold mines, in Calif[ornia,] but I [mean for you to go at it for the best wages you] can get close to home [in] Coles county. Now if you will do this, you will soon be out of debt, and what is better, you will have a habit that will keep you from getting in debt again. But if I should now clear you out, next year you will be just as deep in as ever. You say you would almost give your place in Heaven for $70 or $80. Then you value your place in Heaven very cheaply for I am sure you can with the offer I make you get the seventy or eighty dollars for four or five months work. You say if I furnish you the money you will deed me the land, and, if you dont pay the money back, you will deliver possession. Nonsense! If you cant now live with the land, how will you then live without it? You have always been [kind] to me, and I do not now mean to be unkind to you. On the contrary, if you will but follow my advice, you will find it worth more than eight times eighty dollars to you.
 
Affectionately Your brother
A. LINCOLN
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