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-1850’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?