The President’s Day holiday we mark each year at about this time is meant to remind us of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Of the two men, I credit Washington with both the greater achievement and the better example. A century and a half after the Civil War, Lincoln idolatry still dominates the history books, and even scholarly challenges to his legacy are often dismissed as unthinkable. Whatever your assessment of his presidency might be, you will likely appreciate the sentiments he expressed in a long-forgotten letter he wrote to his stepbrother John D. Johnston on January 2, 1851.
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 that many Americans could learn from today.
“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 after all.
“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, 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.
Food for thought, isn’t it?
Recommended read: Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 (Library of America)
Used with the permission of The Foundation for Economic Education.