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Posted on Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6 a.m.

Lincoln legacy: A model of 'the greatest heroism'?

By Wayne Baker

0304 Abraham Lincoln in 1846 photograph.jpg

WHO IS THIS MYSTERY MAN? This daguerreotype is believed to be the earliest photo of Abraham Lincoln, shown here at age 37 in 1846. (Lincoln was only 56 when he was killed, but looked much older by 1865.) The original now resides in the Library of Congress, but various versions of this image circulate widely.

NOTE from Dr. Wayne Baker: I will return next week. Thanks to Terry Gallagher for his series on Friendship and on the push-and-pull of American Catholicism. This week, welcome Duncan Newcomer for a series on enduring values in the life of Abraham Lincoln. Regular readers will recall Duncan’s contribution to my own January series on Lincoln. This year marks the 150th anniversary for major Lincoln contributions, including his Second Inaugural Address and our first Thanksgiving.

Here is Duncan’s first column …

Big and strong as he was —he’d been wielding an ax for years— 13-year-old Abe Lincoln told himself that he would do something about this soon!

Summer produce was necessary for winter survival. Melons in this new state, Indiana, were fine big ones, and he knew who’d been stealing them. There were only nine families within a mile of each other, about 50 young folk. He might have mused: I could beat them up. I’m the big buck of this lick and they know it. But mostly, he thought: We are friends.

Something he had read in his Webster “Speller” might stick in his mind like a seed in a crow’s bill:

“Revenge—

Q. Is this justifiable?

A. Never, in any possible case.”

Then the next preachment in the “Speller”:

“Justice—

Q. Is it always easy to know what is just?

A. Where there is any difficulty in determining, consult the Golden Rule.”

Murray’s “Reader” said:

“Revenge dwells in little minds.”

If young Lincoln knew anything, he knew that his mind was big and free and full of “yonder”—like the new country. Lincoln must have wondered: How to do what is right, keep the melons, and also keep these boys as friends? As Time magazine recently asked …

What would Lincoln do?

One of Aesop’s Fables, which young Lincoln had read, concludes thus: “Nothing is more necessary towards completing and continuing the well-being of mankind than their entering into and preserving friendships and alliances. The safety of government depends chiefly upon this….A kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation…”

Many years later, one of those melon-stealing boys told William Herndon, Lincoln’s Springfield law partner, how the story ended. Joseph C. Richardson said, “We got the melons, went through the corn to the fence, got over. All at once, to our surprise and mortification, Lincoln came among us, on us, good naturedly said, ‘Boys, now I’ve got you.’ Sat down with us, cracked jokes, told stories, helped eat the melons.”

Lincoln would have known another lesson from Murray’s “Reader”:

“To have your enemy in your power and yet to do him good is the greatest heroism.”

What Lincoln stories seem important to you in this sesquicentennial year?

What do you think of these educational materials from Lincoln's era?

The Rev. Duncan Newcomer is a Lincoln historian, a psychotherapist and a minister with experiences including service in the Presbyterian church, a denomination once attended by Lincoln. Newcomer’s latest book is Desperately Seeking Mary. His earlier writing has appeared in magazines and journals including The Christian Century.

Originally published on OurValues.org.