A person’s insight gives him patience, and his virtue is to overlook an offense. (Proverbs 19:11)

In her masterful biography of Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin records an interesting story in the mid-185o’s, when Lincoln was in the middle of his career in law. The story shines light on Lincoln’s ability to overlook major personal offenses.

Snubbing the Future President

An important patent case was coming to Chicago, and George Harding, a patent specialist for a distinguished law firm in Philadelphia, considered Lincoln for the position. After receiving an initial sum of money from the firm, Lincoln got to work preparing the legal arguments for the case.

Shortly thereafter, the case was transferred to Cincinnati. The law firm decided to utilize Edwin Stanton instead, but never communicated the change to Lincoln. For months, Lincoln continued working on the case. In late September, he set out for Cincinnati with his legal brief in hand.  Kearns describes his encounter with Stanton and Harding:

Arriving at the Burnet House where all the lawyers were lodged, he encountered Harding and Stanton as they left for the court… Lincoln introduced himself and proposed, “Let’s go up in a gang.”

At this point, Stanton drew Harding aside and whispered, “Why did you bring that d____d long armed Ape here… he does not know any thing and can do you no good.” With that, Stanton and Harding turned from Lincoln and continued to court their own.

The snubbing went beyond the initial insult. Kearns continues:

In the days that followed, Stanton “managed to make it plain to Lincoln” that he was expected to remove himself from the case. Lincoln did withdraw, though he remained in Cincinnati to hear the arguments. Harding never opened Lincoln’s manuscript, “so sure that it would be only trash.” Throughout that week, though Lincoln ate at the same hotel, Harding and Stanton never asked him to join them for a meal, or accompany them to or from court. When Judge John McLean hosted a dinner for the lawyers on both sides, Lincoln was not invited.

It’s no wonder that Lincoln took the humiliating circumstances personally. Upon leaving Ohio, he wrote a friend:

“In reply to your request for me to come again I must say to you I never expect to be in Cincinnati again. I have nothing against the city, but things have so happened here as to make it undesirable for me ever to return here.”

Overlooking an Offense

Fast forward six years later. The next time Lincoln and Stanton shook hands, Lincoln was president. But instead of holding Stanton’s egregious offense against him, Lincoln offered Stanton the post of secretary of war. Disregarding any resentment at being humiliated by Stanton, Lincoln recognized his gifts and talents, chose to overlook the offense, and made one of the best choices possible for his cabinet.

Over the years, Stanton and Lincoln proved to be an excellent team. They grew to love each other as dear friends, and it was Stanton who stood by Lincoln’s bedside at his death and uttered the famous words, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Putting Personal Offenses in Context

Why was Lincoln so quick to forgive and forget? Doubtless, there are many reasons, not least the humility of the future president.

But perhaps one of the primary reasons Lincoln overlooked personal offenses was his understanding nature. He didn’t write people off for their mistakes because he was wise enough to understand that mistakes are often made during difficult circumstances.

Edwin Stanton’s insulting behavior didn’t take place in a vacuum. In the years before he met Lincoln, Stanton’s family life was shattered when his daughter Lucy died after an attack of scarlet fever, and then his beloved wife died at the age of 29. Brokenhearted, Stanton buried his wife in her wedding dress and, for months, roamed the house sobbing and calling her name. To keep her memory alive for his son, he wrote hundreds of pages describing their romance.

Not long after, Stanton’s younger brother developed a high fever that impaired his brain and led to a gruesome suicide in front of his children.

Professionally, the patent case in Cincinnati was the biggest of Stanton’s career. When Harding got sick, Stanton stayed up all night in preparation.

Years of sadness, illness, tragedy, and a couple of sleepless nights contributed to Stanton’s hostile demeanor toward Lincoln on that day in Ohio.

The Power of Overlooking an Offense

A lesser man than Lincoln would have written off Stanton and never given him the opportunity to rise to prominence in his administration. No one would have blamed Lincoln for holding a grudge.

But had Lincoln returned evil for evil, the United States would have never benefited from the brilliant military strategies of Stanton. Who knows? Without the magnanimous spirit of Lincoln toward Stanton, the outcome of the Civil War may have been different.

One humiliating offense. One act of forgiveness. One powerful team that helped restore the Union.

Now… who do you need to forgive?

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15 thoughts on “The Power of Overlooking an Offense”

  1. Shayne McAllister says:

    Trevin,

    I’ve been reading a very long, but wonderful book “The Civil War: A Narrative” by Shelby Foote for the Civil War’s 150th Anniversary. The book is full of similar times Lincoln overlooked faults of Generals like McClellen or Burnside.

    Lincoln also shows us the power of a single-minded focus. His objective as president was always to save the union. Anything was secondary to that cause, and this is why he overlooked Sumner’s past disrespect. By way of application, if we have a singleminded focus on the glory of God and the gospel, we’ll be empowered to look over offenses.

    In a letter to Horace Greeley just before he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln wrote.

    “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.”

    Foote, Shelby (2011-01-26). The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville (Vintage Civil War Library) (p. 706). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

    I like another random story from the book too. Some Illinois pastors visited Lincoln urging emancipation. When Lincoln listened, but didn’t agree. . .

    “Sadly the Illinois ministers filed out; but one, encouraged by the closing words, remained behind to register a plea in that direction. “What you have said to us, Mr President, compels me to say to you in reply, that it is a message to you from our Divine Master, through me, commanding you, sir, to open the doors of bondage that the slaves may go free.” . . . “That may be, sir,” [Lincoln] admitted, “for I have studied this question by night and by day, for weeks and for months. But if it is, as you say, a message from your Divine Master, is it not odd that the only channel he could send it by was the roundabout route by way of that awful wicked city of Chicago?”

    Foote, Shelby (2011-01-26). The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville (Vintage Civil War Library) (pp. 705-706). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

  2. ForeBarca says:

    Great stuff! I wonder if Lincoln’s forgiving attitude also bade him to utter these immortal words:
    In a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not 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.

  3. Rob says:

    Awesome reminder. Thanks!

  4. JR says:

    Awesome! Thank you for sharing that powerful story.

  5. Great article.

    I appreciated the background information about Stanton. It throws a different light on his actions toward Lincoln in Cincinnati.

    At Lincoln’s death, Stanton said, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.”

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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