Lincoln Declares He is Not a “Man of Great Learning, or a Very Extraordinary One in Any Respect”

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | February 12, 2012

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Talk of presidential character is much in the air these days, being an election year, and sooner or later, candidates invariably get around to comparing themselves, one way or another, to Abraham Lincoln. In office or out, they all look to Lincoln as a model, that they too might, by virtue of their honesty, integrity and dedication, make Americans proud. Yet this simple standard has proven surprisingly high – in part, as this letter written by candidate Lincoln demonstrates, because he so profoundly saw himself as completely unexceptional…just, in fact, a common man.

It tells us all we will ever need to know about Lincoln’s character that in accepting the honor of having a law book dedicated to him, he begs

that the inscription may be in modest terms, not representing me as a man of great learning, or a very extraordinary one in any respect.

If Lincoln’s humility, in running for the presidency – and indeed, in every other endeavor of his life – was key to his character, it was because he understood how it might seem he had so little to be proud about.

"...that the inscription may be in modest terms, not representing me as a man of great learning, or a very extraordinary one in any respect." - Abraham Lincoln

Born into rural poverty along the western frontier in 1809, his father was a poor farmer, inclined to motility. A farm in Kentucky was followed by a farm in Indiana by a farm in Illinois. For the first twenty-one years of life Lincoln was a manual laborer, his education, he said, deficient: it lasted, formally, but a year. Whatever else he learned, including the law, he learned on his own. He became a clerk, a part-owner of a general store, and a postmaster in New Salem, Illinois – while still supplementing his income as a rail-splitter, farm hand, surveyor and newspaper agent. Ultimately he became licensed to practice law, at the age of twenty-seven; he then rode the Eighth Judicial Circuit for six months a year, for the next twenty-five.

He worked incessantly, and prospered, and was elected, even, to a single term in the U.S. Congress. But he lost an election for Senator, as a Whig, in 1855 and as a Republican, in 1858. This last contest, against the ambitious Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, featured a series of seven debates which, in the course of two months, seized the nation’s attention.  Never before, or after, had the contentious issue of slavery, and the Constitutional principles upon which it rested, been so clearly, thoroughly and fiercely argued. When the cheering was over, Douglas went back to the Senate and Lincoln, improbably – without wealth, tradition or executive experience – became a leading candidate, pro-Union and anti-Slavery, for the presidency.

When, two years later, Lincoln surprisingly won the nomination, his response was one of humility. Writing a week after the convention, he reached out to a former, better-known rival, acknowledging that his was “the humblest of all whose names were before the convention” and declaring that if the Republicans were “to stand for the right”, he would “need the support of all the talent, popularity, and courage, North and South, which is in the party.”

Lincoln was fifty-one years old, and in his own eyes, a common man, running for president against those infinitely more likely, and better favored, than himself.  Stephen Douglas, “the Little Giant”, was a powerful U.S. Senator; ex Vice-President John Breckinridge, a Southern aristocrat; and Senator John Bell, not only wealthy, but a former Secretary of War in two administrations. Candidate Lincoln, then, it would seem, could hardly accept the dedication of a proposed tome on international law, without noting his deficiencies – and expressly remarking, one month prior to the election, no less, with his typical honesty, that he possessed but limited education.

But character is fate – as the ancient Greeks insisted – and it would be character, and not knowledge or policy or even politics, which would determine how Lincoln would act when the chips were down, as they always were in his presidency.

Lincoln’s identification of himself as unexceptional in any way meant that he was intrinsically egalitarian and his standard, the golden rule. Even after the epic debates of his 1858 Senate campaign catapulted him to national prominence, he was so modest that he wrote, in 1859, “I do not think myself fit for the presidency.” But because presidential leadership is by definition selective, and in wartime, exalted, Lincoln’s humility was extremely unusual, and deeply compelling. For this as much as anything, he was, as Walt Whitman noted, the grandest figure on the crowded canvas of the drama of the nineteenth century: these letters show why.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809 – 1865. The 16th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), 1 page, marked “Private”, octavo, Springfield, Illinois, October 13, 1860. To the Hon. William D. Kelley (1814-1890), the jurist and Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who had the pleasure, standing 6 feet 3 inches tall, of telling Lincoln, in the Spring of 1860, that at last he had a candidate to whom he could look up.

Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), 1 page, octavo, Springfield, May 26, 1860. To defeated rival Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810 – 1909).