Lincoln’s Humility Memorialized in Shapell Manuscript Foundation Letter

Happy Birthday Abraham Lincoln

Today marks the 203 anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, and one of the country’s most beloved. The Between the Lines project of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, offers several documents that help to shed some light on the special character of Lincoln that makes him such a favorite among all the American presidents.

As we all know, only too well, this year is an election year, and candidates right and left, liberal and conservative, wish to be seen as men of integrity, honesty and character. But who, more than any other of the US presidents, stands out as a model of these praiseworthy attributes other than Lincoln, whom today’s candidates can’t help but pale in comparison to?

But is that how Lincoln saw himself? According to original letters of Lincoln in the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s collection, Lincoln’s self-identity was of a man of humble character from a humble background. Lincoln saw himself as unexceptional, revealing that his egalitarianism was intrinsic, and the golden rule was the standard by which he behaved.  Lincoln’s modesty was so profound that he wrote, in 1859, “I do not think myself fit for the presidency.”

In one letter, written to the Honorable William D. Kelley, the Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, Lincoln accepts the honor having a law book dedicated to him with an inscription, but only if, “that inscription may be in modest terms, not representing me as a man of great learning, or a very extraordinary one in any respect.”

Lincoln’s humility was an extremely rare thing among politicians, as it is still today. This is one of the fundamental reasons why Walt Whitman said of Lincoln that he was, “”the grandest figure on the crowded canvas of the drama of the nineteenth century.”


James Fishman has been involved in the world of online magazines for more than 15 years. He helped launch Sunstone Online and continues to improve the magazine as site editor and administrator. His writing focuses primarily business and technology. To be in touch with James, feel free to contact him at james[at]

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