Are You Magnanimous? (That Means Forgiving)


President Abraham Lincoln cobbled together a coalition of moderate Republicans, radical Republicans, former Democrats, former Whigs and representatives of border-states to face America’s greatest challenge since the America slipped from Great Britain’s grasp. More precisely, he led our nation through a bloody civil war that killed more Americans than the total casualties from all the other wars that the United States fought combined.

Not surprisingly, many members of Lincoln’s governing coalition did not get along. In fact, several cabinet officers threatened to resign if Lincoln didn’t fire other members of his cabinet.

Although he was relatively unknown outside of his home state of Illinois when he ran for president, Lincoln was a shrewd politician. At the 1860 Republican Convention Lincoln bested three other candidates who had national reputations, none of who considered him a serious threat to winning the nomination. Lincoln offered each of these three men (and they accepted) senior cabinet officer positions in the Lincoln administration.

Among the traits that made Lincoln a great president was his propensity to be magnanimous, that is, generous in forgiving insults and injuries. His ability to forgive snubs played a key role in his political success. Below is a list of the top five examples of Lincoln’s magnanimous acts, and how these actions eventually led to a windfall in his political career. In developing this list I referred to “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

  • Congressman Lyman Trumbull and Norman Judd: In 1855 Lincoln declared himself a candidate for a U.S. Senate election in Illinois, which was then decided by the state legislature. When the votes were tallied, Lincoln had 47 votes, four shy of victory, while James Shields, a Democrat, received 41. Trumbull, another Whig (the Republican party was in its nascent stage at that time) received five votes. After nine ballots Lincoln threw his support to Trumbull to prevent Democrats from gaining a seat in Illinois. Trumbull and Judd — who supported Trumbull’s election — would never forget Lincoln’s magnanimous act, and they became key allies during the 1860 presidential campaign.
  • Edwin Stanton: In 1855, Lincoln, a lawyer, was led to believe that his services were needed for a patent infringement case in Cincinnati. Stanton, a prominent Ohio attorney, had nothing to do with the error but was displeased with the presence of the unknown “prairie lawyer.” Considering Lincoln a poorly dressed, “long-armed” ape, Stanton snubbed the future president. Years later, Lincoln named Stanton Secretary of War. The choice turned out to be a wise one. Stanton put a stop to mismanagement, corruption and nepotism at the Department of War. Notably, Stanton refused to give a position to a man despite the appeal of Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife. Stanton’s leadership would be instrumental to the Union’s successful efforts suppressing rebellious states.
  • Judd and John Wentworth: Judd, whom Lincoln forgave for his role in denying the future president a U.S. Senate seat, again became a cause of friction when Wentworth, a former Chicago mayor, accused Judd of bungling Lincoln’s 1858 U.S. Senate campaign and other acts that allegedly hurt the future president’s political viability. Although Lincoln was not directly part of the public spat, the conflict was deeply embarrassing to him and distracted from his plans to become president. While Wentworth, another Lincoln friend, tried to retain the future president as counsel for an expected libel suit against Judd, he wisely demurred. Judd and Wentworth settled their differences outside the courthouse and both helped Lincoln win Illinois delegates during the 1860 nominating convention.
  • William Henry Seward: Upon arrival in the oval office the day after being inaugurated, Lincoln learned that Fort Sumter, a key garrison in South Carolina, lay under siege of secessionists. If Sumter didn’t receive supplies soon, its commander would be forced to surrender. Though most of his cabinet believed a resupply mission would provoke civil war, Lincoln decided to send provisions to Fort Sumter anyway. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, had advocated giving up Sumter and instead reinforcing another garrison. When Lincoln asked Seward to write up an order resupply, he wrote orders that ordered the resupply of both forts. In his haste, Lincoln signed the order without looking at it. This caused a disaster because the order called for the resupply ship to be in two places at the same time. Though political opponents blamed Seward for the mission’s failure, Lincoln took responsibility for its failure. Seward, a former rival for the 1860 Republican nomination, would become such a Lincoln stalwart that his political opponents tried in vain to have him fired.
  • Salmon Chase: Chase, another Lincoln rival for the 1860 Republican nomination and former U.S. senator from Ohio, got the nod as the new president’s Secretary of Treasury. The one-time senator’s skill in finance would be invaluable to Lincoln in securing loans during the war with rebellious states. His monetary skills notwithstanding, Chase repeatedly made derogatory statements about Lincoln in public forums and private letters. Lincoln was aware of these transgressions and that Chase planned to oppose him for the 1864 Republican nomination. Chase’s move to win the Republican nomination flogged when he failed to win delegates from Ohio, his home state. Chase also sent Lincoln an editorial from The New York Times that lambasted the president for his policies. Believing his services invaluable, Chase submitted his resignation on three occasions. Lincoln accepted the resignation the third time, after deciding that this was a better way to get rid of the obnoxious cabinet member than firing him. Nevertheless, Lincoln later named Chase Chief Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court because of his strong abolitionist ideals.

Do you have a coworker or supervisor who showed a great propensity to perform magnanimous acts? Who are they and what did they do that was magnanimous?

All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Follow me on Twitter: @JayKrasnow

Jay Krasnow is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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richard regan

Thank you for reminding American Indians/Alaska Natives at all levels of government how racist President Lincoln was against our country’s first citizens. Many of his magnanimous policies hurt Native people to this day.

Even the President who freed the slaves could not see fit to view American Indians in the category of people who are created equal.

Dee Brown in his book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, talks about how Lincoln was responsible for the largest mass execution in US History. In 1862, Lincoln commissioned the hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux prisoners in Makato, MN. Charged with crimes with little proof, many of these captives were non-violent cultural or religious leaders of their Tribe.

Lincoln also had the audacity in 1863 to say to a group of American Indian Chiefs who were visiting him in Washington, DC, “We are not as a race so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our Red Brethren.” These American Indians must have been puzzled by such a statement since by that time, 300,000 had died during the Civil War that happened on Lincoln’s watch.

Lincoln signed the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 which guaranteed the loss of land, natural resources, culture and language for American Indians.

Lincoln’s Indian Office to be later called the Bureau of Indian Affairs never took their government to government relationship seriously with Tribes which led to corruption among Indian agents who often stole provisions and other resources earmarked for American Indians.

The 1863 Lincoln administration was responsible for the removal of Navajos and Mescalero Apaches from the New Mexico Territory. By the time a treaty had been signed, nearly 2,000 Navajos died as a result of this relocation. Some folks call this Lincoln’s “Trail of Tears.”

W. Dale Mason describes Lincoln’s policy toward American Indians as one of “wards of the government.” He never viewed the civil rights of American Indians in the same way he viewed civil rights for African Americans. For American Indians, there was no Emancipation Proclamation under Lincoln.

Jay Krasnow

Thank you for your comments. For more information on this topic see the documentary:
“The Sand Creek Massacre: The Civil War” which was produced by the National Park Service & Post Modern Company. It won a Blue Pencil Award from the National Association of Government Communicators this past year.