Lincoln never said that

By Jacklin Kwan. Jacklin, 19, is a student at the University of Manchester. She lives in Manchester, United Kingdom. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln. Do you agree?

First things first. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, never stated that adversity was an inadequate measure of a man’s character. It was his post-mortem biographer, Horatio Alger Jr., that described the life of Lincoln with this adage.[1] This is a significant distinction to make– if Lincoln had truly looked upon the oppressive institutions of his time (the African slaves working plantations, the Irish Catholics fleeing religious persecution, the women unable to realize basic rights over their sexuality), and decided it was only the character of those in power that were valid, it would have meant that the American Civil War was a war fought on hypocrisy. In this light, we can be thankful that Lincoln never condescended to his fellow man, because adversity is not only the most meaningful test of character, but it is also a fundamental characteristic of it.

At its best, power is a fundamentally different test of character than adversity, and saying that “all men can stand adversity” is sorely missing the point. The same way people can simply “stand” adversity, they can also “stand” power. One can live without any outstanding moral character in both cases, because both scenarios pose significant challenges that test character. Of course, in both privilege and adversity, there are many similarities of what constitutes as good character: being compassionate, kind, resilient, open-minded etc. But they become increasingly difficult to actualize if individuals lack time, money, and social influence. What I will argue is that the moral actions of those who are disadvantaged are more reflective of character because they occur in a context where being altruistic is not only more demanding, but requires one to sacrifice their own pursuits of happiness.

It is a common presumption that power is a corrupting force, that the capacity to realise one’s selfish ambitions with money or influence imposes such great temptations that to resist them would require admirable inner strength. The idea of power being not a privilege but a burden to bear is the basis of class worship today; powerful people can achieve the status of moral actors just by refraining from particularly destructive behaviour. It is a surprisingly low ethical standard that is applied to only a select few. Perhaps it is because of these low expectations that we have of the ablest in society that we do not criticize their low engagement with social responsibility. In 2011, Americans with earnings in the top 20 percent contributed an average of 1.3 percent of their income to charity while those at the bottom 20 donated 3.2 percent. [2] While the monetary quantities that the richest contribute may be larger, the significance of each dollar to a person’s ability to afford basic necessities (such as rent and food) is much higher in lower-income brackets. In other words, donating altruistically is a much larger sacrifice for those who are less well-off. Every year, governments run studies on the basic cost of living: the minimum amount needed to live safely and with dignity. The basic cost includes necessities like groceries but also things that help us achieve what inheres in our human condition, like education. In 2017, the Economic Policy Institute in the US estimated the basic cost of living to be around $48,778 with a third of all families in the country having incomes that fall short of that amount. [3] This means that every cent that these families choose to contribute freely to charities make it tangibly more difficult for them to realise their own happiness in terms of material security. Therefore, it is difficult to understand why society places higher moral value in large sums of money from individuals that do not truly need it rather than humble amounts that struggling families are pained to part with but still choose to do so. In this superficial example, we can demonstrate the kinds of sacrifices people in adversity need to make in order to do good.

Of course, it is not just the donation of material wealth that represents character. Any action undertaken for the benefit of others, such as being kind to strangers and spending time volunteering at a homeless shelter, is no less valuable as evidence for character. It is also in these less tangible acts that adversity proves to be a challenging test for those experiencing hardship. Those who come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds tend to work longer hours just to sustain their livelihoods, giving them precious little time to devote to other pursuits. The scarcity of that time makes the choice to surrender it to help others all the more profound. Again, studies in the value and division of unpaid volunteering show that those from low-income backgrounds commit longer hours even though a smaller proportion them choose to volunteer. [4] Once again, adversity has created the conditions in which a test of character gains weight.

There is a similar line of logic for the simple acts of kindness many of us take for granted, be it in the form of someone holding the door open for us or letting us cut in front of them in line when we are in a hurry. These simple acts are perhaps the most intimate ways we come to understand someone’s character. As one of the most impactful experiences in my life, I once tutored the children of a low-income household during my time as a high school student. Every other weekday and weekend, I would teach two young children primary-level mathematics in their tiny apartment. The table which we would work on would also be the table where they ate and it was less than two steps away from the stove where their mother cooked dinner as I taught multiplication. The table was less than two feet away from the one bedroom the family shared. The apartment had no tiles on the floor and no ventilation in the stuffy heat except for an electric fan. My students’ mother started her day at 5am when she would prepare the children’s school lunches and drop them off at school. She then worked as a secretary in a clinic until she had to pick her children up and after preparing them dinner, she would work a night shift at a food stall nearby until late into the evening. She was a solemn but gentle woman; I never saw her raise her voice and she carried herself with a grace that belied her hard circumstances. She always invited me to stay and eat dinner with her family, and reminded her children constantly that they should do everything in their power to make me feel welcome in their home. After a year of my time with them, I began to piece together the life of the woman I saw every week. She had become pregnant with her first child, her daughter, when she was only fifteen. Disgraced by her behaviour, her family had disowned her and she was forced to leave school in order to begin working. After her second child was born three years later, her husband abandoned her and his family despised her. In a country with no minimum wage, she worked tirelessly to provide for her children the opportunities she herself had been denied. To this day, I am astounded by the sheer generosity of spirit I witnessed. The world had betrayed her at her most vulnerable and she owed nothing to outsiders like me. She would be justified in her resentment towards the unfair systems that contributed to her suffering, but yet she kept an inspiring resilience and humanity of spirit. Even though what she had to offer was modest (she could only give her emotional labour), her character was authentic in the fact that it was rooted in her adversity. She did more than “stand” her adversity.

The mother in my story is far from unique. There are innumerable people whose adversity has instilled in them a sensitivity to other people’s suffering. Adversity is not simply a passive backdrop to someone’s life, it actively molds how they see others and themselves. Lincoln’s pseudo-quote assumes that character can necessarily be isolated from adversity even though the two are inextricably linked. Perhaps we see this through Lincoln’s own life. An incredible statement that Lincoln did make was, “I was once too a slave.” His father rented him out to locals at a price of 10 cents a day to labour as a farmhand, rail splitter, and butcher, and collected his son’s earnings. Abused by his father and heartbroken at the death of his mother, it was these experiences that had impassioned Lincoln to liberate others so that they too had the freedom to better their condition. Before he had been bestowed presidency, Lincoln’s character had been created and tested through adversity. His power gave him no more and no less than the capacity to act upon an integrity that was already there.

 

 

References

 

[1] Alger, H. (1883). Abraham Lincoln, the backwoods boy, or, How a young rail-splitter became president. New York: J.R. Anderson & H.S. Allen, p.304.

 

[2] Warner, J. (2010). The Charitable-Giving Divide. The New York Times.

 

[3] Lin, J. and Bernstein, J. (2017). What we need to get by: A basic standard of living costs $48,778, and nearly a third of families fall short. [online] Economic Policy Institute.

 

[4] Payne, C. (2017). Changes in the value and division of unpaid volunteering in the UK: 2000 to 2015. Office of National Statistics UK, p.2.

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