It is right that on Abraham Lincoln's birthday we should give attention to his greatest public writings and speeches. But Lincoln's other writings, especially his personal letters, offer a gold mine of practical wisdom that we should not neglect.
In what remains of Lincoln's correspondence with his stepbrother John Johnston, for example, we see a man grappling with the difficult question of how best to help those less well off, a member of his own family who has proven himself inept at financial planning.
Abe Lincoln and John Johnston had grown up together, their parents having married in 1819, one year after the tragic death of Lincoln's birth mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. When they met, Abe was 11 and John 10. By all accounts, the members of the new, blended family got along well, and while their home was simple, it was an affectionate place.
A decade later, the two young men would travel together via Mississippi flatboat to New Orleans. It was on that trip, legend has it, that Lincoln witnessed the sale of slaves and vowed, "If I ever get the chance to hit that thing, I'll hit it hard." And hit it he would. John, however, would remain close to home for the rest of his days. He was described by Lincoln's cousin, Dennis Hanks, thus: "A kinder-hearted man never was in Coles County, Illinois, nor an honester man, [but] John did not love to work any the best."
Johnston's distaste for labor led him to ask his stepbrother for money often, and those requests were obliged for a time. But by December 1848, Lincoln realized that his charity was doing more harm than good. It was doing particular harm to Johnston's children, who were learning the wrong lessons about money and from where it comes.
Your request for eighty dollars, I do not think it best to comply with now. At the various times when I have helped you a little, you have said to me, 'We can get along very well now,' but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again. Now this can only happen by some defect in your conduct. . . . You are not lazy, and still you are an idler. I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day's work, in any one day. You do not very much dislike to work; and still you do not work much, merely because it does not seem to you that you could get much for it. This habit of uselessly wasting time, is the whole difficulty; and it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children that you should break this habit. It is more important to them, because they have longer to live, and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it; easier than they can get out after they are in. You are now in need of some ready money; and what I propose is, that you shall go to work, 'tooth and nails' for some body who will give you money [for] it. . . And to secure you a fair reward for your labor, I now promise you, that for every dollar you will . . . get for your own labor, I will then give you one other dollar. . . .
As Aristotle had pointed out centuries before, virtue and vice are tied closely to good and bad habits. To develop a life of virtue in self or in children, foster good habits. Lincoln had realized that charity toward his stepbrother was more complicated than simply sending money. It was up to him to prevent the next generation of Johnstons from falling into the trap of their father's bad financial practices. These children had to be set on the right course, and much would depend on how he responded to their father's requests for financial help. Lincoln's answer was to propose incentives.
Three years later, in 1851, Lincoln learned of Johnston's plan to sell his property and move to Missouri. Rather than condone this "piece of foolery," Lincoln found it necessary to state his case more forcefully:
If you intend to go to work, there is no better place than right where you are; if you do not intend to go to work, you cannot get along anywhere. . . . Now, do not misunderstand this letter; I do not write it in any unkindness. I write it in order, if possible, to get you to face the truth, which truth is, you are destitute because you have idled away all your time. Your thousand pretenses for not getting along better are all nonsense; they deceive nobody but yourself. Go to work is the only cure for your case.
There is a lesson here for us today. Compassion and decency demand that we help where we can. It is not always easy for us to see that, in some cases, real compassion may require someone to say, simply, "get a job."