He was called “Honest Abe.” This sobriquet was given to him at New Salem, Illinois, whither he went to take charge of the “country store” of one Orfutt, in 1831. He was about twenty-two years of age, awkward, bashful, but strictly upright. He took no advantage of the ignorance or necessities of customers, but represented goods just as they were, gave scripture measure and weight, and always hastened to correct mistakes.
One day he sold a bill of goods, amounting to two dollars and six cents, to Mrs. Ducan, living more than two miles away. On looking over the account again in the evening, before closing the store, he found that Mrs. Ducan paid him six cents too much. “That must be corrected to-night,” he said to himself; so, as soon as he had closed the shutters for the night, he posted away with the six cents surplus to her house. She was preparing to retire when he knocked at the door, and was very much surprised, on opening it, to see Orfutt’s clerk standing there. Apologising for the mistake, Lincoln deposited the six cents in her hand, and slept all the better that night for having corrected the error.
At another time, a woman came to the store late in the evening, when Lincoln was closing it, for a half pound of tea, which was weighed in haste. Immediately after she left, Lincoln locked the store and went home. On returning the next morning, his attention was called to the scales which had a four-ounce weight, instead of eight in them. He knew at once that he must have given the woman a quarter instead of a half pound of tea. Weighing another quarter of a pound, he closed the store and delivered it to the customer, asking her pardon, before commencing the labours of the day.
Such examples of honesty were not overlooked by the public. Men and women talked about them, and extolled the author of them. They led, also, to something more. In that part of the country, at that time, various games prevailed in which two sides enlisted; and it was the custom to appoint an umpire for each game. Lincoln became the universal umpire, both sides insisting upon his appointment on account of his fairness. His honesty won the confidence of all.
One Henry McHenry planned a horse-race, and applied to Lincoln to act as judge…the party against whom his judgment weighed, said, “Lincoln is the fairest man I ever had to deal with. If he is in this country when I die, I want him to be my administrator, for he is the only man I ever met with that was wholly and unselfishly honest.”
Dr. Holland said, “When Lincoln terminated his labours for Orfutt, every one trusted him. He was judge, arbitrator, referee, umpire, authority on all disputes, games, and matches of man-flesh and horse-flesh; a pacificator in all quarrels; everybody’s friend; the best natured, the most sensible, the best informed, the most modest and unassuming, the kindest, gentlest, roughest, strongest, best young fellow in all New Salem and the region round about.”
This is a just encomium; but it never could have been said of him but for his unbending honesty, a quality for which he was known from his boyhood. The honest boy makes the honest man.
When Lincoln became a lawyer, he carried to the bar this habitual honesty. His associates were often surprised by his utter disregard of self interest, while they could but admire his conscientious defence of what he considered right. One day a stranger called to secure his services.
“State your case,” said Lincoln. A history of the case was given, when Lincoln astonished him by saying:—
“I cannot serve you; for you are wrong, and the other party is right.”
“That is none of your business, if I hire and pay you for taking the case ” retorted the man.
“Not my business!” exclaimed I, Lincoln. ” My business is never to defend wrong, if I am a lawyer. I never undertake a case that is manifestly wrong. ”
“Well, you can make trouble for the fellow,” added the applicant.
“Yes,” replied Lincoln, fully aroused; “there is no doubt but that I can gain the case for you, and set a whole neighbourhood at loggerheads. I can distress a widowed mother and her six fatherless children, and thereby get for you six hundred dollars, which rightly belong as much to the woman and her children as they do to you; but I won’t do it.”
“Not for any amount of pay?” continued the stranger.
“Not for all you are worth,” replied Lincoln. ” You must remember that some things which are legally right are not morally right. I shall not take your case.”
“I don’t care a snap whether you do or not !” exclaimed the man, angrily, starting to go.
“I will give you a piece of advice without charge,” added Lincoln. “You seem to be a sprightly, energetic man. I would advise you to make six hundred dollars some other way.”
He undertook the celebrated Patterson trial, a case of murder, supposing the accused was innocent. Before the evidence was all in, he became satisfied that the man was guilty, and withdrew from the case, leaving his partner to conduct it. The accused was acquitted, but Lincoln would not take a cent of the one thousand dollars paid to his partner for services.
Lincoln’s professional life abounded with similar incidents, leading Judge David Davis to say, “The framework of his mental and moral being was honesty. He never took from a client, even when the cause was gained, more than he thought the service was worth and the client could afford to pay.”
The time came, in 1860, when Lincoln’s honesty was needed to save the nation. Slavery threatened to overthrow the Republic unless it was allowed to become universal. North and South there was distrust, alienation, and apprehension. The retiring President had governed for the South, in the interest of bondage. Loyal citizens had lost confidence in public men. The next President must be one whose character would challenge the respect and confidence of loyal people, or the ship of state would go under in the fearful storm gathering. Abraham Lincoln was the man. He could be trusted. Friends of the Union gave him their implicit confidence, and became a unit. His honesty had reached its highest value, and saved the Republic by destroying slavery.
Taken from Gaining Favor with God and Man by William M. Thayer, 1893