Lincoln and empathy

A. Lincoln has a great little anecdote. In the grand scheme of Abraham Lincoln’s life, it’s hardly more than a footnote, and it takes up less than a page in the paperback edition.

Early in his career, Lincoln ridiculed an opponent and felt bad about it.

It really shouldn’t be noteworthy, but given how nasty people can get toward each other when arguing online, it’s worth highlighting.

According to Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln, then 31, was campaigning for William Henry Harrison and speaking against Martin Van Buren during the 1840 presidential election. That summer, a young Democratic politician named Jesse Thomas criticized Lincoln at a debate.

The criticism angered Lincoln. Though not initially present, once he got word Lincoln made his way there and was given time to respond, and he attacked back. “His attack quickly moved beyond the content of Thomas’s remarks,” White writes.

Lincoln resorted to imitating Thomas’s voice, gestures, and walk, making a caricature out of the man. And the crowd loved it. Their cheers fueled Lincoln’s mockery of his opponent, at the time blinding him to the pain he was causing Thomas.

Thomas eventually fled the scene in tears, and the incident became known as “the skinning of Thomas.”

“Lincoln was mortified,” White writes. “Sometime later he found Thomas and offered an apology. The young Lincoln, the man who prized reasonableness, struggled to control his emotions when he felt he was wronged.”

Lincoln succumbed to the heat of the moment and took things too far. The impulse to fight back is an understandable one, but he erred in how he did so. 

The important thing, though, is that he realized his error and learned from it. After ridiculing Thomas, Lincoln put himself in his opponent’s head, remembered his humanity, and acknowledged the pain he caused. This helped him steer clear of such immature, hurtful attacks later on in his career, which might very well have done more harm than good by undermining the causes he fought for.

It’s worth remembering whenever someone on the internet says the “wrong” thing.

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