Everybody knows who Abraham Lincoln was. Most people have read his famous Gettysburg Address, delivered at a very public occasion in 1863. Few people, however, are aware of his private correspondence, including a long-forgotten letter he wrote to his stepbrother John D. Johnston on January 2, 1851. He expressed sentiments in that letter that are instructive for all of us today.
It seems that as Lincoln’s law and political career rose, he was often approached for assistance from poorer relatives. He was generous, but not to a fault. When Johnston leaned on him for yet another of many handouts, Lincoln used the opportunity to teach a lesson about labor and self-reliance.
“Dear Johnston,” Lincoln began. “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.”
Wow, can you imagine that?! Holding someone accountable for his behavior! No automatic assumption here that if you’re poor, it must be somebody else’s fault. Incentives matter. If somebody subsidizes your bad habits, you’ll probably hang on to them.
“You are not lazy, and still you are an idler,” Lincoln continued. “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; it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children, that you should break the habit.”
Lincoln makes a proposal to his stepbrother, namely, that he “go to work, tooth and nail, for somebody who will give you money for it.” For every dollar Johnston fairly earns, Lincoln offers to give him another, at least up to a point. He writes, “Now, if you will do this, you will be soon out of debt, and, what is better, you will have a habit that will keep you from getting in debt again. But, if I should now clear you out of debt, next year you would be just as deep in as ever.”
From his own experience as a subsidizer, Lincoln understood that if you encourage something (good or bad), you get more of it. He had reached his limit with Johnston. To get the right behavior out of him, the system had to be changed. I don’t know how things turned out in Johnston’s case, but I admire Lincoln for the wisdom he exhibited. If Johnston was a smart fellow, he followed Abe’s advice.
Lincoln was attempting to teach his stepbrother that there was a better future awaiting, and that he should exert his own free will and assume his individual responsibility to get there. Endless handouts are the easy way out of life’s challenges but succumbing to their temptation is not a compliment to one’s character.
And that reminds me of this clever remark from author P. J. O’Rourke in Rolling Stone magazine more than 30 years ago: One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.