Learning Temperance from One of My Favorite U.S. Presidents

Abraham Lincoln is, in my opinion, one of the most honorable men to have ever walked this earth. When he was on his deathbed, his Secretary of War said, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men that the world has ever seen.” In the last few years I have had the opportunity to learn more and more about Honest Abe and I have learned so much from things he has said and stories from his life. Although I could probably write a book on this topic, I want to share with you the biggest lesson I have learned from our 16th president: Learning to have temperance.  

When Lincoln was young, he used to judge and criticize people all the time. He wrote letters about people, criticizing their actions and behavior and even their personality. But after one victim of his harsh tongue challenged him to a duel (which eventually got called off), Lincoln realized the effect that his words had on people. From that point on, he changed his view on the world.

As president of the United States during the Civil War, there were plenty of times when he could have lashed out at somebody for being incompetent and nobody would have thought any less of him, but he refrained. In his book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie shares the following story from the Civil War: “The Battle of Gettysburg was fought during the first three days of July 1863. During the night of July 4, Lee began to retreat southward while storm clouds deluged the country with rain. When Lee reached the Potomac with his defeated army, he found a swollen, impassable river in front of him, and a victorious Union Army behind him. Lee was in a trap. He couldn’t escape. Lincoln saw that. Here was a golden, heaven-sent opportunity-the opportunity to capture Lee’s army and end the war immediately. So, with a surge of high hope, Lincoln ordered Meade not to call a council of war but to attack Lee immediately. Lincoln telegraphed his orders and then sent a special messenger to Meade demanding immediate action.

“And what did General Meade do? He did the very opposite of what he was told to do. He called a council of war in direct violation of Lincoln’s orders. He hesitated. He procrastinated. He telegraphed all manner of excuses. He refused point-blank to attack Lee. Finally the waters receded and Lee escaped over the Potomac with his forces.

“Lincoln was furious, ‘What does this mean?’ Lincoln cried to his son Robert. ‘Great God! What does this mean? We had them within our grasp, and had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours; yet nothing that I could say or do could make the army move. Under the circumstances, almost any general could have defeated Lee. If I had gone up there, I could have whipped him myself.’

“In bitter disappointment, Lincoln sat down and wrote Meade this letter. And remember, at this period of his life Lincoln was extremely conservative and restrained in his phraseology. So this letter coming from Lincoln in 1863 was tantamount to the severest rebuke.

My dear General,

I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within our easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection With our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so south of the river, when you can take with you very few-no more than two-thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect and I do not expect that you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

What do you suppose Meade did when he read the letter?

Meade never saw that letter. Lincoln never mailed it. It was found among his papers after his death.”

Lincoln had every right to rebuke Meade for what he had done, and nobody would have blamed him for being upset. But he held his tongue, as he almost always did after he learned his lesson at a young age.

In fact, even when people criticized the southern states who were rebelling against him, he said, “Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.”

This man refused to say a harsh word to anyone because he knew that rude words and angry tones would only make matters worse in his position. But that lesson doesn’t apply to just the President of the United States; it applies to all of us. We are all tempted to lash out at people or judge people unrighteously, but we can stop. It will be hard, but most worthwhile endeavors are. We will have to work hard to bite our tongue and put ourselves in others shoes. To see in a person what God sees in them. To not judge people based on our first impression of them. I hope that we can all strive to be more like Abraham Lincoln in that we will learn to show temperance in all we do.

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Hi! I'm 20 years old studying at Brigham Young University. I love fried rice, lacrosse, volleyball, and everything related to Elvis.

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  • Anne Wolfe
    June 13, 2017 at 11:35 am

    I love this! Emily Dickinson said,
    “A word is dead
    When it is said,
    Some say.
    I say it just
    Begins to live
    That day.”
    I think this is true. Our words can live in others, whether they be kind or unkind.