He resolved to stay and pay what he owed. Lincoln joked that he had his own “National Debt.” It took him several years, but he paid it all back, every penny. “His straightforward conduct in this and other dealings earned him the nickname ‘Honest Abe,’” wrote Lincoln historian Benjamin Thomas.
As a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, he always tried to treat people fairly. Once a client sent him $25 for drawing up some papers. “You must think I am a high-priced man,” Lincoln wrote him. “You are too liberal with your money. Fifteen dollars is enough for the job.” He sent $10 back.
Another time, he discovered that one of his law partners had charged $250 for a case representing a young woman who was mentally disabled. “Lamon, that is all wrong,” he said. “The service was not worth that sum.” He made his partner to give half the money back. “That money comes out of the pocket of a poor, demented girl, and I would rather starve than swindle her in this manner,” he insisted.
Integrity mattered. “The Lincoln of reality seems to match the Lincoln of myth in this regard: that he tried to be scrupulously honest and honorable in his personal dealings, and cared a great deal about his reputation for being so,” wrote Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller.
Lincoln, of course, was a politician, and he could be crafty. No doubt about that. But as a legislator and as president, he tried hard to stick to his word. “I think it cannot be shown that when I have once taken a position, I have ever retreated from it,” he told the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Douglass met with Lincoln in the White House during the Civil War to discuss policies regarding, among other matters, black soldiers. After his visit, Douglass told an audience: “Now, you will want to know how I was impressed by him…. He impressed me as being just what every one of you have been in the habit of calling him—an honest man.”
Some people thought Lincoln would never go through with his pledge to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a politically risky act. “I trust to prove true to a principle which I feel to be right,” he said, and sign it he did. “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper,” he said before he wrote his name.
When the war went badly, his critics called him a confused, incompetent rube. But his allies, including millions of Americans, sensed that he was a good, decent man. And that helped them know that the cause they were fighting for was good and decent.
Lincoln’s log-cabin-to-White-House story is still one of the most compelling in all of American history. So let’s hear it for Honest Abe this February 12, his birthday, and all this month. He’s a great example for young people. Let’s make sure they know Honest Abe really was just that.
John T.E.Cribb is the author of Old Abe, a novel about Abraham Lincoln, forthcoming in Fall 2020. He is co-author (with Bill Bennett) of The American Patriot's Almanac and The Educated Child.
How did this come about? Before World War II, as many as ten thousand American expats were living and doing business in the Philippines. Officially American territory, the islands were slated for independence in 1946. But after the Japanese pummeled Pearl Harbor, they targeted the American military strongholds closest to Japan—Manila’s Clark Air Force Base, Nichols Field, and the U.S. naval fleet at Subic Bay. For Allied civilians living there, three years of captivity, overcrowding, squalor, disease, cruelty, and hunger followed. My mother, Lee Iserson, thirteen-and-a half at the time of their imprisonment, was among the children interned, along with her mother and sister.
Internees showed courage and pluck throughout the three years: within three weeks of internment, they'd established a K-12 school for the more than seven hundred children. They organized a sanitation committee, a health committee, an education committee, a religious services committee. They printed an “Internews” newspaper, manned a Central Kitchen, and haggled with the Japanese for buying privileges outside of camp. They mandated camp duties and had their own patrol system set up within the camp. Conditions and Japanese “magnanimity” worsened dramatically as time went on. True grit was required in January 1945.
Days before Christmas 1944, American pilots dropped leaflets on the camp, proclaiming “American forces of Liberation in the Pacific wish their gallant Allies, the People of the Philippines, all the blessings of Christmas and the realization of their fervent hopes for the New Year.” Surely, the liberating forces were about to free them.
But January became a crucible of suffering. No Christmas Red Cross packages supplemented camp rations, as had been the case in December 1943. Breakfast and dinner now consisted of one scoop of lugao, a thin rice gruel. In January internees were dying of starvation at the rate of one per day. School, a perennial distraction for the camp’s children, had ended partly because internees could not afford the calorie expenditure to climb stairs to their classrooms.
Dr. Ted Stevenson, attending the dying in the Camp’s hospital, exemplified courage when he refused to falsify death certificates. He had been indicating “malnutrition” and “starvation” as causes of death, but was told by his captors (who feared Allied accusations of war crimes) that those were no longer acceptable, and other causes should be substituted. Dr. Stevenson dug in his heels and said “no.” He risked being carted off to Torture Central, Fort Santiago, by refusing to do so, but found himself thrown into the camp jail instead.
For women and children struggling to survive, courage was closely linked to imagination and hope. The topic of food dominated every conversation, and many internees had taken to writing recipes and planning menus, as a substitute for actual food. My mother kept a thin-lined, spiral-bound notebook with more than three hundred seventy recipes written in tiny script. Her January entries were for Pineapple Raisin Ice Cream, Stuffed Pork Shoulder, Ham Pancakes, and Chocolate Mint Roll. Some of the little children played restaurant. When asked for their order by their big sister waitress, one little girl replied she’d like a sandwich. “What kind?” big sister asked. “I’d like a sandwich with some bread on it,” said the four year old, all earnestness. (There had been no bread for eighteen months.)
Ex-internee Curtis Brooks has written: “we shared a common moral experience, the loss of home and possessions, the loss of country in the defeat of ’42, the almost palpable sense of waiting. Waiting for the liberation which we all believed in…[we were] a community with a single purpose, to survive to the day of liberation.”
Survival in January 1945 required every ounce of courage those internees could muster. At a 2015 conference in Manila celebrating the 70th anniversary of Santo Tomas’s liberation, surviving internees (most of whom were children at the time of liberation) described circumstances at the end. A high-school student in the audience asked: “I struggle with depression, and sometimes think of suicide. Were you ever tempted to suicide?” Joan Bennett Chapman, the presenting internee, seemed genuinely taken aback by the question. Then said, “No. Never. We were certain our boys would be back for us. Our job was to hold on to hope.” They did so with courage.
Mary Beth Klee. Mary Beth is the author of Leonore's Suite, a novel about the teen experience of internment at Santo Tomas. Forthcoming February 2020.
Great age-appropriate stewardship opportunities can be found in local communities too. When children work on local litter pick-up days, they experience first-hand what it means to be good stewards of their environment (and learn a valuable lesson about what NOT to do with trash). When they donate or organize canned goods for the neighborhood food pantry, they learn what it means to be “my brother’s keeper.” When they thank service members or first-responders (with written notes or treats), they extend not just gratitude, but care to those who keep them safe.
Too often we’re tempted to downplay these important acts of daily stewardship. Why not have young children march for action on climate change? Or write letters to Congressmen about gun control? Or contact state reps about minimum wage legislation? Because there is a difference between stewardship and political activism. Elementary schools (with parents on both sides of any given issue) should avoid the latter. Children have much to learn--academic and moral--and at this age, the important lessons of stewardship are best learned through the things they daily see, touch, and control. First and foremost, even as adults, quality lives are mostly about stewardship of the specific tasks entrusted to our care.
The classic nursery rhyme “For want of a nail” drives home that very point. The rhyme is based on the cautionary tale of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485). Undersupplied and in haste, the cobbler failed to shoe the king’s horse properly, trusting that three nails rather than four would do the trick. In the heat of battle, the horseshoe flew off; the steed stumbled, threw its rider, and bolted. The King’s men, already in retreat, left their sovereign to his ignominious fate, and the battle was lost. Shakespeare has the fallen Richard cry out: “My horse, my horse! A kingdom for a horse!” Mother Goose recounts it this way:
For want of nail, a shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost.
For want of a horse, a battle was lost,
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The small acts of stewardship matter. They give rise to a lifetime of habits that move beyond home and classroom, and ultimately create a better world.
As students and teachers across the country head back to school this month, hopes run high for a year of academic flourishing (those high-stakes tests still far in the distance). Schools employing strong content-based curricula or the gold standard Core Knowledge Sequence have a leg-up on this goal. Their meaty language arts, history, geography, math, science, and fine arts programs feed a very real hunger for solid knowledge (not vapid fluff) in a voracious student population.
But why were the Founders insistent on “virtue” as the necessary companion to knowledge? And what is virtue? How does it differ from values? Think of it this way: the difference between a value and a virtue is the difference between “want” and “should.” Anything can be a “value.” I can value cunning, uniformity, or ethnic purity. Hitler did. Stalin did. In China and Myanmar, they still do – and those deeply held “values” can get the world into a lot of moral (and political) trouble.
A “virtue” on the other hand, is an “excellence.” The Greek root word for virtue (“arete”) means “excellence.” This millennia-old philosophical tradition calls us to our highest self – not simply to tolerance, but to respect and to justice; not principally to self-assertion, but to diligence, perseverance, and temperance; not to ecological awareness, but to stewardship; not to cultural sensitivity, but to compassion and civic courage. The list goes on.
The tradition of educating children in the virtues has very long roots – going back to Plato’s dialog with Socrates in The Meno. It is a tradition the Founders prized. Even as we entered the twentieth century American statesmen agreed that virtues education was the task of quality schools. “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society,” Theodore Roosevelt reminded us.
Many schools today resist this lesson. They strive for strong academic results, but see “character education” (in its many possible forms) as a burdensome add-on, yet another non-academic to-do for teachers whose main task ought to be educational. Isn’t this the job of parents? Where will I fit it in? But one cannot avoid educating for character in the schools (hence the proliferation of conflict-resolution curricula); we do it whether we think about it or not. And the virtues – not a panoply of self-chosen values - are necessary for quality academic work.After all, how can we foster healthy classroom interaction and the meaningful exchange of ideas in class without respect and responsibility? How does the nine-year-old child memorize her times tables and math facts without perseverance? How does a child take to the stage and recite a poem, play a role in drama, or try a new solution to a math problem without courage? How does that same student handle the disappointment of not doing well on a test without humility? How do kids learn to push themselves to study still harder and do better the next time without diligence and hope?
The virtues are habits of the heart that ensure quality scholarship. An increasing number of studies affirm that schools with an emphasis on character yield higher academic results. And most recently, the focus of Positive Psychology, the study of how/why human beings come to flourish, has trained its focus specifically on character strength and virtues—such as grit, service, gratitude, forgiveness.
The task of virtues education is three-fold: teaching students to know, to love, and do the good. Aristotle placed strong emphasis (rightly so) on the latter, on habit formation as the key. We become courageous by doing courageous acts repeatedly. But FIRST comes knowledge and LOVE of virtue, attraction to that which is praiseworthy.
The Core Virtues approach cultivates virtue principally by helping young children identify and fall in love with the good. Our literature-based approach showcases worthy exemplars of virtue in action and helps populate the theaters of kids’ imaginations with compelling and heroic guides. It helps children learn not just what they should aspire to, but which individuals (real and fictional) they might be like. And that is key. For there is not a child on the planet, who wakes up in the morning and says: “How shall I behave today?” His or her first thought is: “Who shall I be like?” And they’ve got fifteen dramas in their heads before breakfast. Am I Pink Ranger? Elsa? Spiderman? Spongebob Squarepants? But why not Jane Addams, Harriet Tubman, Johnny Appleseed, Abe Lincoln, or Neil Armstrong?
Plato said: “the core of education is a correct nurture, one which as much as possible draws the soul of the child at play toward an erotic attachment to what he must do when he becomes a man.” He got it exactly right. Although in the twenty-first century, let's be expansive: we should work on drawing the souls of children at play to the heroic dramas they can aspire to when they become adults.
Mary Beth Klee
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton recently reflected on America’s tradition of according respect, honor, and gratitude to those who laid down their lives for their country. Between combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cotton served with the “the Old Guard,” as the Army Third Infantry is known, and has written Sacred Duty. A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery (Harper Collins, 2019). It is a remarkable read.
The book recounts the history of America’s oldest active-duty regiment, which became the nation’s Ceremonial Guard in 1948. This unit (formed 1784) predates the Constitution, fought in the War of 1812, in the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and has been headquartered in Washington D.C. after 1948.
From the nation’s capital, its thousands of physically fit, active-duty members are best known now for guarding the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, but they also oversee the daily military honor funerals at Arlington. On an almost nightly basis, Old Guard members receive the flag-draped caskets of the war dead at Dover Air Force base (“If a soldier is coming home, the Old Guard will be there to honor him,” Cotton says.) They provide protection in the Inaugural Parade, act as Color Guard at ceremonial events, and it was Old Guard medical corps, who were dispatched to the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 to attend the wounded and exhume the dead. They did this while the 9 AM, 10 AM, and 11 AM funerals at Arlington continued uninterrupted.
“Funerals First” is the motto of the unit, which Cotton describes as a “no fail, zero defect mission.” The Old Guard oversees up to twenty funerals a day at Arlington, but practices ceaselessly. Every morning, teams rehearse folding the flag, the three-volley salute, and key sequences in the funeral ceremony. Their objective: perfection for the fallen and their families – whether the fallen is aviator and former-President George H.W. Bush or an unknown Private First Class. The Old Guard’s is a self-imposed pressure to flawlessly perform this sacred duty, honoring the nation’s heroes.
Cotton stresses that The Old Guard, more than any other regiment in the Army, is deeply connected to the nation’s heroic and hard-fought past. Arlington National Cemetery (once known as Mount Washington) was first owned by George Washington Custis (“Wash”), grandson to George and Martha (Washington himself had advised on the purchase). When Robert E. Lee married Mary Custis (“Wash’s” only surviving child), the land passed to the Lee family. After Lee resigned from the Union army to lead the Confederacy, Union forces occupied it (May 1861), and in 1864, made it a burial ground for the nation’s mounting Civil War dead. After the war, the Lee family sued for re-possession of the land and won in court. But in an act of magnanimity and reconciliation, George Washington Custis Lee (Robert E. Lee’s son) deeded the land back to the United States. That deed was received by Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the slain president. The heirs of the two adversaries jointly committed to honoring the nation’s fallen.
The young men and women of the Old Guard are heirs to all this, custodians of the nation’s “most sacred shrine.” One foreign leader remarked to a member of the Guard, “You take better care of your dead, than we do of our living.” Cotton sees this as a free nation’s tribute freely given to those who embody the best in us.
We often feature “New and Noteworthy” works on our site, and for parents, teachers, and older students, this is one such book.
Mary Beth Klee
Not surprisingly, patterns of human brain activity are idiosyncratic in various situations, even when individuals are gathered as a group and even when they are listening to a lecture. But when people in a group are told a story (such as one from “The Moth” radio hour) the group exhibits synchronized brain activity. For the time of the story, “brain coupling” takes place. Patterns of brain activity from the speaker are echoed or repeated in the minds of the listening audience, and the audience, composed of any number of individuals, aligns to the same wavelength. That is a remarkable occurrence, and that synchronization dramatically facilitates human communication.
Hasson’s lab conducted all sorts of experiments to determine whether such brain wave alignment had to do with sound of voice, sense of words, or a specific language. But when a given story was translated into Russian for another group of native speakers, the scientists got the same results: brain wave patterns that were both synchronized from speaker to audience, and nearly identical to patterns generated by the English speaker. (You can watch Dr. Hasson explain this in his TED talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDhlOovaGrI)
What does this sophisticated research—brought to a wider audience by Arthur Brooks in his new book Love Your Enemies—have to do with character education, the Core Virtues Morning Gathering, and ultimately, creating a more civil and fruitful society? A lot.
Go back to the month just past when our focus was on forgiveness. Imagine (or recall) the second grade teacher at Morning Gathering who begins to read Robert Coles’s The Story of Ruby Bridges to her fidgeting class. We all know that within seconds, the fidgeting dies down, and twenty little minds and hearts are tuned in to the story of the brave six-year-old girl in Louisiana, who, because of her skin color, was unwanted as a student in an all-white public school. The first African-American child to integrate the school in 1960, Ruby Bridges had to be escorted (for her own protection) by federal marshals while a crowd jeered, booed, spat and threw things. Once inside she prayed God would “forgive these people. Because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they are doing.” That took courage. That took largeness of heart. Every child in the room hangs on each word, identifying with the young protagonist. They are on the same wavelength.
From then on, when the teacher points to the wisdom of forgiving classmates who may have called them names or unintentionally hurt them on the playground, they have a common frame of reference. Now when they talk about the need to respect classmates regardless of their skin color or clothes or the place they were born, the class has a common role model, and a shared commitment to higher goals based on a real-life story that moved minds and hearts in the same direction.
The beauty of the Core Virtues approach to character education is that by regularly employing a treasure trove of stories (from history and literature) to exemplify the virtues, we build the common ground so essential to communication and fruitful interaction. We bring children’s hearts and minds together for a good goal, for human excellence. That’s what the virtues are: human excellences. The stories of respect, responsibility, diligence, generosity, courage, compassion, humility and more, move kids' hearts, and now we know, unite them in a profound way.
For fifteen minutes three times a week, “brain coupling.” Who knew? How wonder-ful. And as we think about divisions among us and our quest for a more civil future, that's also a source of hope and joy.
Mary Beth Klee
Corrie ten Boom’s particular push-come-to-shove moment came in 1947, when after addressing a Munich audience on forgiveness, she was approached by a former Ravensbruck prison guard. With horror, she recognized the guard who’d taunted and mocked her naked sister, as she was forced into the showers. He had "found Jesus," and was, she wrote, “beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,’ he said…his hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people … the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me...I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not…I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give Your forgiveness. As I took his hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.” Corrie spent the remaining thirty-five years of her life, putting that love into practice, establishing in the former Darmstadt concentration camp, a flower-filled, cheerfully painted place of renewal and rehabilitation for ex-prisoners and victims of war. Her 1971 book The Hiding Place and the 1975 film by the same name made her story known to a generation of readers and viewers.
Forgiveness on that level (like mercy) seems super-human and is often inspired by faith. Yet, it has been preached and practiced by pragmatic, not particularly religious people, like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. He also had something to forgive. Actively resisting his country’s unjust apartheid regime, he organized armed struggle against the government and was jailed. Mandela spent twenty-seven years as a prisoner, much of it in solitary confinement, and endured torture and abuse. Yet he also had time to reflect, and come to know his enemy. When he was released, four years later becoming South Africa’s first black president, his principles were generosity of spirit and reconciliation; his politics were those of forgiveness. “I do not forget,” he said, “but I forgive... Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”
"We must strive to be moved by a generosity of spirit that will enable us to outgrow the hatred and conflicts of the past," the new president emphasized. The 2009 movie “Invictus” memorialized Mandela's first year as president, when in 1995 he threw his vigorous support behind South Africa’s mainly white Afrikaner rugby team, formerly a symbol of the hated apartheid regime. He urged them on to victory in the World Cup—an event that ended up uniting 43 million of his countrymen, fostering reconciliation and forgiveness like no other.
Many contemporary psychologists emphasize forgiveness as a means of healing from a grave transgression – a coworker who has undermined you, a spouse who has betrayed you, a colleague who ensured your ouster, a “friend” who let his candid assessment of you poison a new relationship. Psychologists distinguish between forgiveness (desirable) and reconciliation (not always possible or desirable). The latter involves a restored relationship with the transgressor: the spouses, for example, are reconciled. Forgiveness, however, involves a psychological and emotional pivot that allows the person wronged to view the wrongdoer with compassion, kindness, and even to wish them well. Forgiveness, in other words, is a shift and a gift.
Psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman define forgiveness as “an unconditional gift given to transgressors based on the belief in the innate value of all persons.” The person who practices forgiveness does not excuse the transgression, does not say “what you did is OK.” But he or she is able to let go of hurt, move beyond a desire for retribution, and toward an attitude first of forbearance and then of love.
That is very hard. Divine even. One thinks, of course, of the font of Corrie ten Boom’s deep faith: Jesus on the cross, forgiving his crucifiers: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those words, which millions of believers will remember in a special way this month, have inspired and challenged generations of Christians.
Nor are Christians alone in preaching forgiveness. Judaism teaches that God forgives people their sins, and commands them to forgive their transgressors. Islam refers to God as “Al-Ghafoor,” the Forgiving One, and encourages forgiveness in order to receive forgiveness from Allah. Buddhism and Hinduism enshrine the concepts of compassion and forbearance to encourage relinquishing one’s resentment towards the transgressor.
What difference does it make? All the difference in the world. We all know people who have endured the same horrible experience, but have reacted in very different ways: one with bitterness and contempt, another with kindness and determination; one with resentment, another with forbearance; one with toxic rage, another with forgiving love. Which serves us better? Which is more attractive? Which is more liberating - for ourselves, our children, and our future?
Corrie ten Boom made her choice. "Forgiveness is setting the prisoner free, only to find out the prisoner was me," she wrote. The greatest gift of forgiveness is for the giver. Corrie ten Boom was born and also died on April 15. It’s a good month to think about forgiveness.
Mary Beth Klee
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.