The Confidence of Never Meeting Your Intellectual Equal


One of the hallmarks of Abraham Lincoln’s personality was his humility. He frequently used self-deprecating humor to defuse difficult situations.

When a vacancy came up in his cabinet, Lincoln appointed rival attorney Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War. Shortly thereafter, the president sent a directive to the War Department but was stymied when Stanton refused to carry it out. Stanton brazenly said Lincoln was a fool for issuing the order. When word of Stanton’s conduct reached Lincoln, he asked, “Did Stanton say I was a … fool?” When assured that was, in fact, what the Secretary said, many expected Lincoln to respond with anger. Instead, Lincoln said, “If Stanton said I was a … fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means.”

“[Lincoln] carried away from his brief schooling the self-confidence of a man who has never met his intellectual equal.”

— David Donald

Having a reverse gear helped the wartime president in many situations. As Commander-in-Chief, there was no higher authority on military matters, but that doesn’t mean he believed he was the most knowledgeable person on all subjects under his command. At a vital moment in the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant made several decisions Lincoln was certain would lead to disaster. When the outcome was a spectacular victory, Lincoln was quick to admit his initial assessment was in error. “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.” He said to Grant. “I frequently make mistakes myself, in the many things I am compelled to do hastily.”

One reason for Lincoln’s humility and comfort in deferring to others unquestionably rested in being comfortable with who he was. He was not threatened by those who had expertise in certain areas, because he was confident in his own knowledge and abilities. Despite having less than twelve months of formal schooling, he maintained a lifelong compulsion to learn. Biographer David Herbert Donald summed up Lincoln’s demeanor, writing that he “carried away from his brief schooling the self-confidence of a man who has never met his intellectual equal.”

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