How to Handle Criticism, the Lincoln Way – A Message for Our Time


Today, it seems the world has become a nasty concoction of finger pointing, criticism and dislike for our fellow human beings. But the current climate is not unique.

It was a lot like that in the 1860s too, when the United States was embroiled in the Civil War. American President Abraham Lincoln was in the middle of it – abused, criticized, looked down upon, and pulled in every direction possible. In the war years, the turmoil aged Lincoln considerably and almost broke him.

But Abraham Lincoln’s ingenious management of criticism would help save not only his own ability to cope, but America itself. Today, we can learn from Lincoln’s relentless patience and leadership skills, to turn criticism upside down, so that it works for us, not against us.

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true.”

Lincoln was prepared to accept criticism knowing it was impossible to please everyone all of the time. He viewed criticism as a natural consequence of living your values. It’s unavoidable. To Lincoln, it was more important to stay true to what you believed, than to win at all cost. It’s one of the primary reasons history has looked upon him with such great admiration. Today, we must ask ourselves what guides our decisions. Is it the views and the criticisms of other people, or is it our own core beliefs and values? One leads to indecision and chaos, the other garners respect.

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.”

Lincoln worked closely with many people who didn’t like him, or were highly critical of him. It didn’t much matter to the President. As long as those he sought advice from had the same objectives as he did and whose heart was in the right place – they could criticize all they wanted. Today – criticism is rampant and serves to divide. But can we see it the way Lincoln did – not as a barrier, but as something from which we can learn, and as necessary, something which takes a backseat to the more important priority of working together for a common cause?

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

When someone is highly critical of us, it’s often because they can’t see our perspective. Rather than getting angry and blaming those who didn’t see eye to eye with him, Lincoln would listen to their arguments and then share his perspective. He did so with Frederick Douglass, the most prominent black leader of the time and a huge critic of Lincoln.

When he first met Lincoln at the White House, Douglass was expecting the President to give him a blast. Instead, Lincoln (who knew all about Douglass’s harsh criticisms) was interested in listening to Douglass and why he felt the way he did. Douglass didn’t get his way (he wanted Lincoln to drop a bizarre plan to ship all black people out of the U.S. to foreign lands) but he would later say that he saw the pain on Lincoln’s face and sensed his sincerity. Before we slam others, or take a knee-jerk reaction to the slightest perceived injustice, let us take the time to meet accusers and fully understand their plight.

Abraham Lincoln was the least likely person to keep America together, let alone become President.

At age nine, he was kicked in the head by a horse, causing him to be unconscious for 24 hours. He was struck in the head during a robbery, accidentally cut his hand with an axe, contracted malaria, not once, but twice (malaria is contracted through a mosquito bite and can kill ), and was dangerously thin at only 175 pounds while being six foot four.

His wife thought him to be too trusting for his own good. He had almost no formal education, was awkward, usually looked sad, and once wrote, “To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.” Immediately upon becoming president, Lincoln looked anything but victorious, admitting “I am not well.”

Despite his shaky background, Abraham Lincoln would live to become one of the most disciplined and compassionate leaders of all time.

His remarkable ability to face criticism, without allowing it to destroy him, was a key part of his success.

Long before Rex Tillerson is reported to have called U.S. President Donald Trump a “moron”, Lincoln was called every name in the book, not only by his enemies, but by those on his side. One of Lincoln’s top commanders, George McClellan referred to the President as both an “idiot” and “gorilla.”

In looking back at those days, historians say Lincoln was smartly cautious, carefully thinking through all angles of a problem and taking his time before acting. But in his day, that meticulous approach was viewed as inefficient, with one U.S. republican senator at the time, Zachariah Chandler, labelling Lincoln “timid and vacillating.”

Close friends were among those who turned on him. Senator Charles Sumner was someone Lincoln often went to for advice, but Sumner would come to say that Lincoln lacked any real talent for “important” affairs.

It didn’t matter what Lincoln said or did. He would be heavily criticized for it.

Even the Gettysburg address, viewed as one of history’s greatest speeches, was slammed by newspapers, with one saying you couldn’t come up with anything duller if you tried.

Things weren’t any better for Lincoln on the home front. His wife Mary Todd Lincoln, well known for her rages, was extremely jealous of her husband who was getting all of the headlines. She would often berate him and slap him in the face.

When Lincoln believed he was doing well, he was horrified to learn that it wasn’t “good enough.” Black leaders at the time, while applauding Lincoln’s move to allow black men to serve in the military, were critical that Lincoln saw fit to pay them less than white soldiers. (Lincoln tried to defend himself saying he was taking a huge risk by having former slaves serve in the military at all, and he thought they should be thankful for that).

How did Lincoln react to the endless barrage of criticism?

He was human, and said to have been greatly pained by the scorn heaped upon him. Lincoln, who also suffered from depression, briefly considered suicide. He once said he would rather be dead than “abused in the house of my friends.”

(Lincoln’s first thoughts of suicide came earlier in life when a girlfriend, Ann Rutledge, died at the time they were planning to marry. Lincoln wrote that he was “the most miserable man living.” A suicide poem was written in 1838 when Lincoln would have been 29, but historians cannot agree if Lincoln was actually the author).

This photo of Abraham Lincoln shows a man who aged rapidly under the incredible strain of the Civil War. Every criticism is etched upon his wrinkled face. Yet, this 1864 picture, according to his son Robert Todd, was “the best likeness of my father.” (Robert Todd would live to follow in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer, businessman and politician. He lived much longer than his father, dying in his sleep at age 82 in 1926).

Despite all the negativity in his life, deep within Abraham Lincoln was a ray of optimism. While not overly religious, Lincoln hoped and prayed for what he called “the better angels of our nature.” He believed every person had both “good” and “bad” inside of them, and tried to appeal to the loving and “reasonable” sides of human beings. (Lincoln is said to have not believed in an afterlife, but that people will remember you based on your reputation).

He learned to use humor to combat life’s trials and tribulations. During a debate with political opponent, Senator Stephen Douglas, Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced to which Lincoln replied: “If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”

Towards the end of the Civil War when General Ulysses S. Grant was winning battles for the Union, some of Lincoln’s aides felt Grant was drinking too much whiskey and should therefore be fired (despite his victories). Lincoln’s reply: “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to every one of my other generals.”

Over time, Lincoln combined his hopefulness and humor with a much thicker skin. The petty criticisms of others were minor compared to the broader good. He decided to end his self-pity and instead, act in the best interests of a unified America. If that meant hiring talented people who happened to despise him, then so be it.

And that’s exactly what Abraham Lincoln did.

In her blockbuster book “Team of Rivals: The political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” author Doris Kearns Goodwin points out that Lincoln did something very few leaders today, in politics or business, would ever do. He appointed people who competed with him, and called him names, to become part of his inner cabinet.

Among them was Edwin Stanton, said to be extremely rude and stubborn – but who also had a brilliant mind. In his days as a lawyer, Lincoln was treated poorly by Stanton who referred to Lincoln as a “long lank creature.”

But Lincoln could see past the insults.

He focused on future benefit, making Stanton his Secretary of War. (Over time, Lincoln’s personality won over Stanton who is reported to have said, upon Lincoln’s passing – “Now he belongs to the ages” – although historians still argue whether Stanton actually said it).

Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, is pictured here. The steel eyes show Stanton’s lack of caring, but Lincoln saw that as an asset in the Union’s struggle to defeat the Confederate states that were determined to separate so they could continue the practice of slavery. In the beginning, Lincoln and Stanton disliked each other, but Lincoln hired Stanton anyway, for the broader good.

The story of Lincoln’s assassination is well known.

What is less known is that Lincoln appears to have predicted his own killing in a frightening dream shortly before the actual shooting took place.

Lincoln’s former law partner, Ward Hill Lamon, who became Lincoln’s friend and part-time bodyguard, claims he was one of a few people with the President when Lincoln reluctantly spoke of a dream he had in the White House. According to Lamon, Lincoln said he fell asleep and sensed…”a death-like stillness about me.” Lincoln said he could hear people crying, so he walked in search of the “mournful sounds of distress”. He then ended up in the East Room where he came upon “a sickening surprise” which was a corpse surrounded by soldiers and mourners. In the dream, Lincoln asks “Who is dead?” A soldier replies: “The President…killed by an assassin”. Lincoln claimed that he then woke up upon hearing a loud burst of grief inside his head, and was unable to fall back asleep – too spooked by the eerie experience.

(It was reported by Lamon that Lincoln did not believe in the power of dreams and that Lincoln tried to dismiss the dream as odd but in no way foretelling of the future).

It would be a few days later, on April 14, 1865 (Good Friday), that President Lincoln and his wife held hands, celebrating the surrender of the Confederate army by Robert E. Lee and attending a comedy play in Washington’s newly built Ford’s theater. During intermission, an actor in the play, John Wilkes Booth (who was against Lincoln’s plan to allow black people to vote), climbed up the stairs to the balcony where Lincoln was seated and shot him in the back of the head at point blank range. (Mary and Abraham Lincoln were still holding hands when the bullet was fired).

It was reported that Lincoln’s bodyguard at the time, John Parker, decided to depart during the intermission to get a drink, leaving the President and his wife vulnerable, and giving Booth his opportunity. (Booth escaped that night and was on the run for 12 days before he was tracked down about 70 miles away trying to hide on a farm. After he refused to give himself up, he was killed by the army).

Lincoln’s body was moved to the White House where he lay in state, shockingly in the East Room, the exact location in Lincoln’s supposed dream.

While he looked much older, Abraham Lincoln was only 56 when he died. (Lincoln died a day after being shot).

Abraham Lincoln’s joy over the end of the war was extremely short lived with the assassination coming only 5 days after the Confederate surrender. It may well have been the only 5 days of true happiness the great man experienced in his entire lifetime.

Thousands are seen here making their way to Lincoln’s “funeral train” in Buffalo. The train transported Lincoln from Washington to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln’s son Robert Todd rode the train which also carried the remains of Lincoln’s third son William Wallace who died at age 11 from typhoid fever. Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd was too upset to join the procession. (She would later be committed to an insane asylum).

It would not be until decades after his death, with reflection and contemplation only the passage of time can bring – that Abraham Lincoln’s brilliant and selfless handling of criticism, distrust and conflict – would be fully recognized, respected and praised.

His impressive frame stood above criticism, allowing a broken nation to eventually heal.

Today – in our struggles to seek peace and make sense of this troubled world, forgiving those who criticize us, and more importantly – seeking to understand them – as Abraham Lincoln did – is the key to salvation.

When Lincoln first freed slaves from bondage so they could become soldiers and help the Union win the Civil War, he was harshly criticized for it because it was a move that upset the Confederacy and served to prolong the Civil War. Most Americans at the time were desperate for peace, even if it meant leaving slavery in place. But Lincoln refused to go back on his word saying he would be unable to live with himself if he did. Lincoln’s advisers told him that his stubbornness in being true to his word would cost him re-election. They were wrong. Abraham Lincoln was elected to his second term in November of 1864.  

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