DL Fowler's Blog

Lincoln’s Shame

Posted in Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Raw, Lincoln's personality, Lincoln's Psychology by DLFowler on February 18, 2015

Last night I was talking with a small group of folks at Gig Harbor Public Library about my biographical novel, Lincoln Raw, and the Building Blocks of Abraham Lincoln’s Personality. Most of our focus was on his innate personality, beginning with his boyhood as a highly sensitive child. A couple of questions arose that prompted me to think about additional points I need to bring into future conversations about Lincoln. One of them is the role shame might have played in forging his personality, his world view, and ultimately his impact on history.


Shame is one of the oldest tools in the annals of mankind. It can be used to teach a child to eat with a fork; it can be used by a jealous coach, parent, older sibling, or junior high pecking order to keep someone in their place, convince them it’s not acceptable for a student to know more than the teacher.

When some people are shamed they say, “Okay. I deserved that. Next time I’ll do better.” Others say, “If my father’s going to give me so much grief over going to college, “I’ll just stay home and sweep floors in his store.” Someone else might say, “I’ll put up with this BS for as long as I have to, but on my first chance, I’m out of here.” In an extreme case the kid who stays to himself, wears only black, does drugs, and disrespects authority, may give up on life and say, “If I shoot up the place and take out a few ‘beautiful people’ in the process, the cops will come and stop me with a bullet or two of their own.” Suicide by police.

As Anthony Hopkins’ character tells us in the film, The Edge, shame is the leading reason people die when they’re lost in the wilderness. That may be true even for the wilderness of the mind.
So what does shame have to do with Abraham Lincoln?

Shame may have been a key reason he was willing to go to war and keep fighting when so many others begged him to compromise for the sake of peace. But before we go there, let’s look at how shame became an integral part of Abraham Lincoln’s personality.

Shame as a child

Shame defined Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with his Father, Thomas Lincoln. The elder Lincoln was ashamed of his son. Thomas saw Abraham as lazy, dull, and easily distracted into worthless pursuits (poetry, reading, educating himself beyond what was required to work a subsistence farm, storytelling and jokes). The more Abraham expanded his mind, the more ashamed he was of his father, who was illiterate, depressed, negligent in caring for the family’s needs of shelter and food, and prone to making bad financial decisions. Young Lincoln resented being hired out to do manual labor, which he detested, in order to pay his father’s imprudent debts.

At age nine, Abraham shot a turkey and became distraught. He swore never to shoot anything as large as turkey again. When he was older his father tried to teach him carpentry, but the boy Lincoln was not an eager student. After that, Thomas Lincoln offered his son little in the way of mentoring, but assaulted him with a great deal of criticism.
Abraham Lincoln persevered until he left his father’s home and strike out on his own.

Shame as a young man

Abraham Lincoln was keenly aware of his family’s lowly station in the small community of Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana. He endured rumors of his mother’s illegitimate birth. There was even banter around the village of Abraham’s legitimacy. When his sister, Sally, married up into the family she worked for as a seamstress, the Lincolns sat in the back of the church during the wedding ceremony. After Sally died in childbirth, young Lincoln accused her husband and father-in-law of neglect—claiming they were eager to be rid of the servant-girl who had tainted their blood-line.

A few years later, Lincoln enjoyed a close friendship with an attractive young lady named Ann Rutledge. Biographers argue over how close the relationship might have been. No one can deny that he grieved over her death. Shortly afterward, he suffered his first severe bout of adult depression. Friends and neighbors took his razor for fear he’d commit suicide. They took turns watching him closely for weeks to assure his safety. About a month before Ann’s death, the two had an argument over an incident during which Lincoln behaved badly. They didn’t speak to one another until she called for him on her deathbed. The severity of Lincoln’s depression following her death could well have been due to his shame over their rift.

Several years after his first episode of life-threatening depression, Abraham Lincoln was engaged to marry Mary (Molly) Todd. Molly’s guardians, a prominent Springfield couple and political powerhouse, disapproved of the courtship. They said Lincoln was a bright enough lad, but below their station. In the midst of flap over the engagement, the groom-to-be met Molly’s younger, prettier cousin. He was immediately infatuated. After much angst, he confessed his passion to Molly and broke off their engagement. Months later, he would say that he lost the only thing he possessed of value: his character.

On the heels of the broken engagement, Lincoln’s closest friend, Joshua Speed, announced he was returning to the family hemp plantation in Kentucky to become its master. A slave owner. In one fell swoop, Lincoln had lost his character and his emotional support system. (He and Joshua were roommates, sharing a bed for four years, and had nursed each other though the trials of entering manhood.) Not only had he lost Speed as a companion, they were at odds over the issue that would come to consume Lincoln’s focus in years to come. Lincoln suffered his second life-threatening episode of depression and sought medical attention.

Over most of Lincoln’s adult life, friends observed that “melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” Lincoln’s ongoing battle with depression was likely intertwined with his low self esteem, a byproduct of his shame.

Shame as a man

Abraham and Molly eventually reconciled and were married. Neither his father nor his dearly beloved step-mother were in attendance. It was a hastily arranged ceremony and almost nine months to the day, their first child was born. Who knows what that means?

Anyway, the marriage wasn’t merely a difficult one. It was an abusive one. Eye witnesses to the physical and emotional abuse Molly heaped onto Abraham’s head are plentiful. Her weapons of choice were scalding water, potatoes, a broom, and a wooden spoon. Once, she nailed him in the forehead with a stick of firewood and bloodied his face. That incident was witnessed by one a political luminary whom Lincoln had invited to accompany him on the walk home from a butcher shop. Molly became incensed when she unwrapped the meat and found it to be substandard for her guests.

Molly’s emotional abuse of her husband included public and private ridicule over his crude dress and habits, as well as deficiencies in his education, including frequent spelling errors. As the couple’s eldest son grew older, he mimicked his mother’s expressed shame over his father’s shortcomings.

Lincoln’s response to shame

Just as the boy Lincoln bided his time until moved out from under his father’s roof, Lincoln, the man, responded to shame with perseverance and self-improvement. He endured and he worked, often against brutal odds, to better himself. His father’s disapproval over Lincoln’s self-education was met with greater effort to master every subject he encountered. Reading poetry wasn’t enough; he wrote it, too. Basic arithmetic was just a platform for geometry and later Euclidean logic. He earned subsistence wages swinging an axe while he studied to become a surveyor. After dragging chains and driving stakes all day, he stayed up most of the night mastering the law—a more lucrative profession.

In the early stages of his political career, Lincoln often used invective to publicly humiliate his opponents. After one of his victims fled the hall in tears, Lincoln pursued him and apologized, all too familiar with the pangs of shame. After that, Lincoln vowed to never use such tactics against his opponents again.

Lincoln was familiar with being on the receiving end of such humiliation. In 1859, outside a Cincinnati courtroom when Abraham Lincoln was introduced to Edwin Stanton as the local counsel who was to assist in a patent infringement suit, Stanton scolded the lawyer who had retained Lincoln, “Why did you bring that damned long-armed ape here? He does not know anything and can do no good … If that giraffe appears in the case I will throw up my brief and leave.” Later, Lincoln’s reaction to a friend in Springfield was, “These eastern lawyers have got as far as Cincinnati now, and they’ll be in Illinois soon. When they come, I will be ready for them.”

Lincoln sometimes told jokes that revealed the scars he bore from being shamed. On one occasion someone accused him of being two-faced. He replied, “If I had more than one face, do you think I’d wear this one?” Another time he told the story, true or not, of a man who confronted him waving a pistol in his face. When he asked the man how he’d offended him, the aggressor supposedly said, “I promised that if I ever saw a man with an uglier face than my own, I’d shoot him.” Lincoln claims to have responded, “Then shoot me and hurry. If I am indeed uglier than you, then spare both me and the world of any further abuse.”

Shame and Lincoln’s World View

The world according to Abraham Lincoln was structured according to a system of universal laws. Those laws are immutable. According to his law partner, Billy Herndon, one such law was central to Lincoln’s understanding of his world: justice demands punishment, therefore forgiveness is an absurdity. A sense of shame is often the foundation of such a world view.
Interestingly though, this law didn’t stop Lincoln from asking for or offering forgiveness. He did so on many occasions. One of those involved a trial during which he defended an elderly woman who had bludgeoned her abusive husband to death. Everyone in the town of Metamora, Illinois (including the victim’s relatives) wanted her to be acquitted. During a recess in the proceedings, the defendant was left in Lincoln’s care. When she didn’t return to court, Lincoln reported that he hadn’t seen her since she asked where she might a drink of water. Months later she still hadn’t been seen or heard from, and the court dismissed charges against her.

Shame and History

The United States Civil War lasted much longer than anyone ever imagined. The death toll was more than 600,000. The property devastation was massive. By late 1864, the entire nation was war-weary. Cries for peace became louder by the day. Lincoln had several opportunities to end the war through compromise with the leaders of the rebellious states. He refused.

In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln may have suggested the role shame played in his resolve to end slavery:

The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it [the devastation of war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

In these words, Lincoln accepted shame for the nation over the practice of human slavery by some, as well as the tolerance of it by others. He also expressed a resignation to persevere the judgment of God for as long as it lasted and a hope that we would become a better nation because of our chastening.

From the beginning until the end of Abraham Lincoln’s life, we can see the handprint of shame influencing his personality and, as a result, human history.


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