Tag: Abraham Lincoln


Success or Failure? 2019 Lincoln Memorial University Commencement Address

by Dr. Allen C. Guelzo

Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Civil War Era History at Gettysburg College and a leading scholar of Lincoln and the Civil War. On May 4, he delivered the commencement address for Lincoln Memorial University. His remarks, which are framed around the institution’s namesake, are presented below:

President Hess, distinguished trustees and faculty, and honored graduates, students and guests: I have come to you today to talk about failure.

That will surprise many of you, since any failures among this graduating class are, logically speaking, not supposed to be here. We are all here supposed to be successes. What’s more, commencement addresses are routinely expected to be celebrations of success, or exhortations to success; they are not expected to take so morbid a turn as to talk about failure, and thus rain on the academic parade. And backing all that up are the great maxims of our society, “Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone.” “Nothing succeeds like success.” “Everybody loves a winner.” Success is glamorous; failure is a reproach, and such a bleak reproach to our personal qualities, that we can hardly even bear to use the word. The word failure has become what the word cancer was a generation or two ago — something to be discussed only in hushed tones, behind closed doors. But unless you are something other than human, you will experience failure. And an important part of your education is learning how to meet it; in fact, the most important part of your character will be shaped by how you encounter and overcome it.

I take as my guiding star today a comment made — we think in 1856 — by the man for whom this college is named, Abraham Lincoln. In 1856, Lincoln had, to the outward appearance, all the trappings of success. From early poverty he had risen to become a prominent lawyer, and in the mid-1850s his legal practice, especially with the railroads, had made him one of the most financially successful lawyers in Illinois, with an annual income that could easily translate into six figures, in modern terms. He had served in the Illinois legislature, he had been elected to a term in Congress, and had just made a nearly-successful run for the Senate in 1855. In the year we think he wrote the comment I’m going to read, Lincoln had been nominated for vice-president on the ticket of the new Republican party (even though in the end he fell short of getting the nomination). Any one of you who had racked up ribbons like that before their fiftieth birthday might well feel entitled to think of themselves as successful, and that’s probably how we would think of Lincoln.

But he did not. Instead, he compared himself to an even more well-known Illinoisan, Stephen A. Douglas, and in 1856, Lincoln did not like what he saw in that comparison.

“Twenty‑two years ago Judge Douglas and I first became acquainted. We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me, the race of ambition has been a failure‑‑‑a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success. His name fills the nation; and is not unknown, even, in foreign lands.”

“I affect no contempt for the high eminence he has reached,” Lincoln added. But it was obvious that by his own standard, Lincoln felt that he had spent his life for nothing.

One hundred and fifty-four years after Lincoln’s death, we read those words and smile, knowing that in the years following those sad reflections, Lincoln would become the most revered figure in our history. But he did not know that then, any more than we can know now what lies before all of us. And as numerous as his successes had been on many scores, he had not succeeded in the one thing which was the most important to him – public leadership. Perhaps we could say to Lincoln that he had simply set his sights too high, that if he counted his blessings, he would see how much he had to feel content about. I don’t think that would have been a very good tactic to employ on Lincoln. Or perhaps we could try bucking the tall man up with some inspirational reflections – sing him a tune about climbing ev’ry mountain, walking through storms with your head held high, and so on.  I don’t think it would have done him a bit of good. Nor should it. Lincoln’s talents for public leadership were real, and more real than Stephen A. Douglas’s. In a world of fairness, Lincoln should have been in Douglas’s seat. And he knew it. And not being there was, he knew, a mark of failure. As it was for Lincoln, so there will come times for all of you when you will have to drink of failure to the dregs. Will you smile then? Has what you have learned in life and here at LMU prepared you to deal, not just with success, but with failure?

First of all, I want you to remember that not all failures are failures — they only seem that way in the eyes of a society which measures success by trophy homes and prestige toys. And not all successes are successes. For instance: there was once a man so enamored of showing off the wealth he had accumulated that he decreed that, when he died, he should be buried in his gold Cadillac. When the day for his funeral arrived, his corpse was duly propped up behind the wheel, and his pall-bearers pushed the gold Cadillac into the cemetery and down a ramp into a specially-dug grave. As the gold Cadillac, with its deceased owner still at the wheel, descended into the grave, one of the grave-diggers, beholding the scene, remarked to another: “Man, that‘s livin!”

And (I repeat) not all failures are failures. Some of you will dedicate your lives to callings which are noble but poorly rewarded in our world. Today, when you are young and strong and full of passion for your mission, you will push away the thought of how meagre those rewards are likely to be for the joy of serving others. But there will come a time – perhaps in the form of a cutting remark from a neighbor or a family member, or a class reunion you can’t afford to attend, or the ingratitude of the people you’re trying to help — when your strength and enthusiasm will wane, and you will wonder if you have been the butt of life’s joke, a failure. At that moment you must ask yourself – by whose standard?  If you can stop and ask that question, with regard only for that inward monitor which gives praise and blame according to what you love and value the most, then your courage, your persistence, your perseverance makes you the most successful of all. And in their hearts, everyone will know it, and wish they had your success, not theirs. Our culture is full of people who have acquired tremendous wealth; the misery they live with is that they go begging for significance.

By whose standard do you judge success and failure? Unless you have that standard within yourself, you will never know how to measure either. There was once a doctor named Williams who determined to devote his life to serving the poor and disabled in a great city. His patients often had nothing to pay him with, and he had only a small office at the top of a flight of stairs, over a liquor store, marked with the single sign, “Doctor Williams is upstairs.” The years passed, and Doc Williams died. His friends found that he was so poor himself, that there was no money left over to erect a marker on his grave. But one wise man knew what to do: he took down the old office sign and planted it on the doctor’s grave: “Doctor Williams is upstairs.” By our superficial standards, Doc Williams was a failure. Or was he?

The second thing I want to tell you is how often failure is the crucible out of which real success arises. Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Corporation, once said: “Success is 99% failure.” And on the strength of that, I must tell you that I will feel sorry for you if your course in life leads you from one easy triumph to another, because if it does it will give you the arrogant notion that you are totally self-sufficient, and need no one else in the world to teach you anything. I have met people like that; they are wealthy, they have all the toys, but they are some of the most dreadfully stunted human beings I know. They never failed; and therefore, they never learned anything which might be more important than winning, such as confession or forgiveness or recovery.

Failure is a teacher. It brings us back to fundamentals; it disenthrones our egos and makes us see ourselves for what we are and shows us what we do not yet know. Do not be afraid to make mistakes; my mistakes (and they are more than a few in number) are my most important possessions, because they are what I have learned from. A reporter once asked a bank president to identify the secret of success. “Right decisions,” he replied. “Great,” said the reporter, “Now, how do you get to know how to make right decisions.” “Simple,” the president replied, “Experience.” “Well,” said the exasperated reporter, “how do you gain experience?” The president replied, “Wrong decisions.”

Failure also tells us who our friends are. As Oprah Winfrey once remarked, “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”

Part of what makes Abraham Lincoln so admirable, so interesting to us even today, was that he had tasted the bitterness of failure, and was willing to take the bus with those who had failed. In 1860, he took time out from his presidential campaign to write to a friend of his son, Robert, who had failed the entrance exams at Harvard. “I have scarcely felt greater pain in my life than on learning yesterday…that you had failed to enter Harvard University,” Lincoln wrote to eighteen-year-old George Latham. There was empathy, the understanding of one who had been there, not the haughty superiority of one who looked down the nose. “And yet,” Lincoln continued,

“there is very little in it, if you will allow no feeling of discouragement to seize, and prey upon you. …I know not how to aid you, save in the assurance of one of mature age, and much severe experience, that you can not fail, if you resolutely determine, that you will not.”

Listen to Mr. Lincoln. Like him, I hope your paths will be strewn with success. Like him, I also know that it may be spiked with failure. Learn to embrace the failures as much as the successes, so that like him you may become what is more important even than being a “success” – becoming mature, resolute, persevering, hoping for all things, enduring all things, expecting all things.


Lincoln and the Rule of Law Pt. II

By Charles Hubbard

When Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States 1861, his respect and appreciation for the rule of law was widely known. As a practicing attorney and elected public servant, Lincoln’s experience reinforced his belief that the rule of law and its equal application was the foundation of limited government. Moreover, Lincoln was a student of the Constitution and an accomplished lawyer. More than any president before him Lincoln understood how the law and the Constitution both empowered and restrained the president.

Secession and the investment and eventual surrender of Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861 put Lincoln’s commitment to the rule of law to its most severe tests. Lincoln believed that secession was unconstitutional and secessionists were organizing an armed rebellion that threatened the existence of the Republic. As such, these events demanded an immediate response. That response, however, unquestionably went beyond the generally accepted constitutional powers of the presidency.

Out of respect for the limitations of his office, Lincoln was slow to exercise his presidential authority in the first five weeks of his administration. However, the outbreak of armed rebellion required that he take a tight grip on the reins of power provided to the government in times of “invasion or rebellion”.

When Fort Sumter fell, the country and especially the military was not prepared for war. The Army consisted of about 16,000 soldiers scattered across the Western frontier and the Navy was pathetically small with ships of the line stationed off the coast of Africa and in the Pacific. Lincoln took immediate action and issued a proclamation calling for the states to supply 75,000 militiamen and calling for a special

session of Congress to convene on July 4. When the states activated the militia, Lincoln instructed the Secretary of War to pay private citizens over $2 million in government funds to help equip and train the new volunteers. The arbitrary spending of public funds seemed to violate Article 1 of the Constitution which requires that federal expenditures be supported by appropriations passed by the House of Representatives and approved by the Senate.

The rebellion also forced Lincoln to assume emergency war powers not specifically granted to the chief executive by the Constitution. Before Congress convened in July Lincoln ordered the arrest and detention of people involved in “disloyal practices” and suspending their right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus. After his initial call up of the militia, he issued a call for volunteers for three years of service, thus enlarging the Armed Forces without congressional approval. Another extremely controversial decision the president made was to institute a naval blockade of the areas in rebellion. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells advised Lincoln that the blockade was a violation of international law and certainly would provoke questions in Europe. Lincoln explained these and other of his actions to Congress when it convened on July 4 by saying, “whether strictly legal or not, were ventured upon what had appeared to be a popular demand and a public necessity; trusting then as now that Congress would readily ratify them.” Ultimately, Congress approved Lincoln’s extra- constitutional acts, albeit after the fact.

Article II of the Constitution does not specifically grant these emergency powers to the president. In fact, the founders reserved the power to engage in war only to Congress, and mentioned the suspension of habeas corpus in Article I (the section which outlines Congress’s authority). However, the presidency was also seen as the branch of government which had the independence and agility to respond quickly to threats that Congress would be unable to address.

To support his emergency actions, Lincoln called on his oath of office where he pledged “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” When defending his suspension of habeas corpus, he asked “are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”[1] He saw himself in the difficult position of having to stretch his own legal authority to defend the whole legal and constitutional order. And so he defended his extra-legal prerogatives by appealing to the rule of law itself.

Lincoln and the Rule of Law Pt. I can be found here.

[1] Abraham Lincoln, “Message to Congress in Special Session,” in Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, ed. By Roy P. Basler (Cleveland: Da Capo Press, 2001), 600-601.


Lincoln and the Rule of Law Pt. I

by Charles Hubbard

We often hear the concept of the rule of law thrown around in debates over several contemporary issues. Those engaged in this discourse, however, may not fully appreciate or understand the meaning of the concept. The principle of the rule of law is a fundamental part of the Anglo-American conception of constitutional government, or more simply, limited government. Both the government and the governed are subject to the law and no government official, no single private citizen, no single group of people can claim privilege or exceptions to the law. The rules are set forth in advance and are widely known to leaders and the public in general. It is the responsibility of those in power to apply the rules impartially to all citizens regardless of status, position, or political persuasions. To do otherwise, is to risk the complete breakdown of a civil society that is grounded on constitutional government.

Adherence to the rule of law and more particularly to its application poses unique challenges for every era. The law both empowers and restrains leaders as they negotiate the tensions between the immediate crises of the day, and the need to protect the basic institutions of government. History provides numerous examples of leaders confronting this dilemma, but probably none is better than President Lincoln’s conflict over emancipating the slaves. As president, Lincoln possessed the power to emancipate the slaves, but he recognized that the constitution granted him no legal authority to do so under normal circumstances.

Lincoln’s belief in the rule of law is legendary. It was so important to the 28-year-old Lincoln that he subtly equated the concept to spirituality. In his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield in 1837, Lincoln condemned the actions of a mob that burned a black man accused of murder. The threat to society was the failure to follow the law. Speaking directly to the threat, Lincoln said, “I know the American People are much attached to their Government;–I know they would suffer much for its sake;–I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come…”

Lincoln went on to speak passionately about the importance of law and order and its equal application at all levels of society and addressed the need to explain its necessity to all the people when he said, “The question recurs, “how shall we fortify against it?” The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;–let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap–let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;–let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor.” For Lincoln, the rule of law was not only essential to civil society and constitutional government, but was a part of the very essence of the American spirit.

Eventually, Lincoln’s dedication to the rule of law would inform his approach to the issue of emancipation. By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation as a “war measure” utilizing his executive authority, he understood that the Emancipation Proclamation did not permanently resolve the issue. It only freed slaves in rebelling states. He took only those steps which he believed could be justified by his constitutional authority. It remained for Congress and the American people to change the Constitution and the law in 1865 with the 13th amendment to prohibit slavery throughout the United States.

Over the years, since Lincoln pronounced his views on the law and his reverence for the structure and order it produced, our governing institutions have evolved into a system he could never have envisioned; the issues faced could never have been guessed. However, the concept to which he was so dedicated remains disarmingly simple.  The application of the principles of the rule of law remains as vital and essential to constitutional government and the maintenance of a civil society as it was in Lincoln’s nineteenth century. It continues to serve as a limitation of what goals may be immediately achieved, but Lincoln correctly observed that the law of and by the people, applied impartially, was the ultimate security to our political institutions and safeguard of the rights of all.