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United We Can Win
What We Can Still Learn From Lincoln
Terry L. Paulson, PhD, CSP, CPAE

More than any other president, Abraham Lincoln showed that ordinary people from humble beginnings and with self-education, a strong character and focused will can aspire to and create greatness. George Washington may be credited as the President who created the union; Lincoln preserved that union. Lincoln was a great communicator and was, arguably, the most gifted writer we ever had as a President. Even 150 years after his death, we keep quoting him endlessly. He showed other Presidents how to lead in the midst of crisis with vision and resolve. He raised the bar for the presidency; he helped define the office for the ages. In short, Lincoln continues to be rated as America's favorite and most respected President. His ability to learn from and persevere in the face of failure, his resolve in the face of sustained conflict, and his breadth of insight about leadership and life are still relevant to America. Here are some of Lincoln's best quotes and some thoughts on how he can still speak to you today.

"The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor — the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all." —Abraham Lincoln

"I don't believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war on capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else." —Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln championed the principle that we today call free market capitalism. It provides the greatest opportunity possible for every person to make his way in the world, and even to prosper. Lincoln understood what many in Washington just don't get. There's no war between capital and labor. Capital and labor are the same people at different stages of their lives. Workers work to save, then to invest and ultimately to become owners of capital.

"I don't know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be." —Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln knew that what made America great was not its government, but its people empowered in a free country to live their own version of the American Dream.

"The worst thing you can do for those you love is the thing they could and should do for themselves." —Abraham Lincoln

"Government should do for people that which they cannot possibly do for themselves--and leave otherwise alone!" —Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln believed in limiting the rolls that government should play. He cared enough to challenge people to take responsibility for their own future. There would have been no war on poverty in Lincoln's administration. There was encouragement and support, but there was no room for an entitlement mentality.

"I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." —Abraham Lincoln

"In regards to this great book, the Bible, I have but to say it is the best gift God has given. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man's welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it." —Abraham Lincoln

"I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side." —Abraham Lincoln

"Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered--that of neither has been answered fully. With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds...to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations." —Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln knew man's limitations and felt the grace and guidance of God in his life. He was not known for church attendance, but he increasingly included references to faith and God as he faced the challenges as President of a nation at war.

"If I were to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for 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 right, what is said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right will make no difference." —Abraham Lincoln

"Well, we took a vote in the Cabinet and it was eight to one-but I was the one." —Abraham Lincoln

Most know and value the idolized Lincoln, but few of us realize how unpopular he was at the time in taking our country through one of the most trying periods of our history. Respect does not always mean high approval polls. Too much thought is put into resolving disagreement and tension, instead of finding the truth and the power that exists in using the tension for needed change. Great leaders learn to manage and treasure the tension and end up being respected for doing just that.

"Don't shoot too high--aim lower and the common people will understand you. They are the ones you want to reach--at least they are the ones you ought to reach. The educated and refined people will understand you any way. If you aim too high your ideas will go over the heads of the masses and only hit those who need no hitting." —Abraham Lincoln

"I do not seek applause…nor to amuse the people. I want to convince them. I often avoid a long and useless discussion by others or a laborious explanation on my own part by using a short story that illustrates my point of view." —Abraham Lincoln

You don't remember facts, graphs, or even quotes, but people do remember stories. Lincoln connected with people through the power of a good story. His positions were accepted and remembered because they were carried on the wings of story.

"Still the question recurs 'can we do better?' The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew." —Abraham Lincoln

Like all great leaders, Lincoln valued the past while still embracing change. Every improvement is the result of change; not every change is an improvement. The past will always have value, but it can't be allowed to have an automatic veto. Lincoln could take the best from the past and be open to changes that would improve America.

"If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his true friend.. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which say what he will, is the greatest highroad to his reason, and which once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed, that cause be really a just one." —Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln did not avoid his difficult people; he found a way to bridge to them by keeping them close. He put his most threatening enemies in his own party into his cabinet so he could win them over. He was reported to have said, "I don't like that man. I am going to have to get to know him better."

"I find quite as much material for a lecture, in those points wherein I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful." —Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln never gave up. He faced repeated failure but found the courage and fortitude to persevere to become the most respected President of all time.

"Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this." —Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln was a lawyer who valued the judicial system that helped guarantee our freedoms and rights. But he would have been disappointed by the lottery that many have made of our court system in today's world.

"No man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar." —Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln was grounded in integrity based on core principles that guided his actions. He was able to stand his ground, because he knew the ground he stood on.

"We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever arise, would itself be extremely dangerous." —Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln had a realistic view of human nature and the world around him. He knew that challenges would confront every age and every leader.

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." —Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address Nov. 19, 1863

Lincoln was not afraid to use force in matters of principle. But he also knew the value of honoring those who gave their all in defense of those principles.

"I believe people are just about as happy as they make their minds up to be." —Abraham Lincoln

"Laughter is the joyous universal evergreen of life....Were it not for my little jokes, I could not bear the burdens of this office...With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die." —Abraham Lincoln

"A Little Mistake"
A minister and a lawyer were riding on a train together.
"Sir," the minister asked the lawyer, "do you ever make mistakes while in court?"
"Very rarely," the lawyer said, proudly, "but on occasion, I must admit that I do."
"And what do you do when you make a mistake?" the minister asked.
"If they are large mistakes, I mend them," the lawyer said. "If they are small mistakes, I let them go. Tell me, Reverend, don't you ever make mistakes while preaching?" "Of course," said the minister. "And I dispose of them in the same way that you do. Not long ago, I meant to tell the congregation that the devil was the father of liars, but I made a mistake and said the father of lawyers. The mistake was so small that I let it go."

Lincoln took his role seriously, but himself lightly. His sense of humor was both his stress breaker and his communication tool that helped him survive his years as president.

Some people keep looking for Elvis. In times like these, I find myself wishing that Lincoln would return. The American journey continues into a new chapter of our history. Freedom isn't a birthright of America; it must be earned and reearned in every age. Now is our time to earn it again. May his words live on to inspire us for ages to come.


When failure continually knocks at your door, welcome it in. Once experienced and learned from, failure becomes the steppingstone to success. Consider a man whose life was engulfed with failure, setbacks, and letdowns. He once wrote, "I am the most miserable man living. Whether I shall be better, I cannot tell."

He experienced a difficult childhood. When he was only seven years old, his family was forced out of their home on a legal technicality. He went to work to support his family, and at nine, his mother died. He completed less than one year of formal schooling.

At twenty-two, he lost his job as a store clerk. His desire was to go to law school, but his lack of education restricted him from being admitted. He borrowed money to become a partner in a small business. A few years later, his partner died, leaving him swamped in debt that took seventeen years to repay.

In 1832, he was defeated for the legislature; this was followed by another business failure one year later.

In 1835, the young woman he loved refused to marry him, and a woman he had loved earlier died, leaving him rejected, confused and heartbroken. He was defeated for speaker in 1838 and defeated for the elector in 1840. Two years later he married into a burdensome life and an ultimately unhappy relationship.

He was defeated for Congress in 1843, but finally, after his third try was elected in 1846. Two years later, at thirty-nine, he ran again and failed to be reelected.

His personal life was also in shambles. His four-year-old son died (in fact, only one of his four sons lived past eighteen). At this point, he experienced a nervous breakdown. The next year, he failed to get an appointment to the U.S. Land Office.

At forty-five, he ran and was badly defeated for the US Senate. Two years later, in 1856, he became candidate for the vice presidency and again experienced defeat.

Failure stood at his door in 1858 when he was again badly defeated for the US Senate.

Amazingly enough, this man withstood a lifetime of crisis, criticism, public denial, personal defeat, deep depression, and loneliness to become a US President in 1860. At fifty-one years old, he experienced the success he so badly desired. However, his second term of office was cut short by a final earthly defeat--his assassination.

As Abraham Lincoln lay dying, Edwin M. Stanton spoke of this man as most of us remember him: "There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen...(and) now he belongs to the ages."

Because of his accomplishments, his foresight, his insight, and his wisdom, Abraham Lincoln was an example of how failure can produce achievement. Lincoln would surely have agreed with Charles F. Kettering, who believed, "It is not a disgrace to fail. Failing is one of the greatest arts in the world."

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