The Promise Being Made, Must Be Kept

As is the case with everything else about Abraham Lincoln, the extent to which we may consider Abraham Lincoln to have been strongly influenced by the racism of his generation or by our own self-professed egalitarianism is hotly debated [1].  In seeking to defend his actions taken to end slavery in the United States through the Emancipation Proclamation and its consequences in the adoption of the thirteenth amendment, he commented that the strenuous efforts taken on the part of blacks in order to fight for the Union were done because of his promises to end slavery and begin the process of increased equality in civil rights, and that the promise being made, must be kept.  A Kentucky-born border Southerner turned antislavery hero with a stronger sense of honor than we are used to, Abraham Lincoln knew enough about the demands of honor to his audience that he was able to appeal to them, however he felt about them himself.  As a gentleman, he viewed his commitment to honor and integrity so highly that he married Mary Todd after what can only be described as a troubled and complicated courtship, and a man with that highly refined a sense of honor is not going to neglect his debt of honor to a large population within the United States.

To what extent are people bound by promises?  In our contemporary society, there is little evidence in the seriousness that people take their commitments, so much so that the act of making commitments has fallen into disrepute because they are so unreliable.  I need not go into detail about how general this lack of fidelity to commitments is, but it is widespread.  How many people take seriously the vows they make before God and man to remain faithful and loyal and together with spouses until death do they part?  How many companies and political jurisdictions honor the promises they have made concerning pensions and retirement and the like?  Even in an age as cynical as our own, people still engage in behavior based on the promises they receive from others.  In the absence of being able to see the future, even those of us who are not inclined to trust others highly must base our behaviors in part on some sort of faith that things will work out alright.  No one will make any sort of commitment in the absence of some sort of faith, and our failure to act in good faith with others makes it harder for them to trust anyone.  Clearly, if we are people of honor, we will be the sort of people whose word is generally to extremely reliable.  How many of us are people of honor?

Some years ago I narrated an intriguing and somewhat embarrassing story in which Abraham Lincoln became a man of honor with some difficulty [2].  Let me summarize the parts that are relevant for us today.  For a period of some years Abraham Lincoln engaged in a surprisingly contemporary activity, writing ferocious and libelous material about others in an anonymous or pseudonymous fashion.  He was, in other words, the mid-19th century version of an internet troll.  Although his role in writing nasty political writings was long suspected, no one wanted to challenge him to a duel because to do so would be to give him a de facto recognition as a gentleman, which some of his political opponents were reluctant to do.  However, one time he choose a target who was particularly insecure, an Irish-born Democratic politician who was famous for being a gallant but unmarried ladies man.  The result was the only duel of honor of Abraham Lincoln’s life, one that ended by negotiation where Abraham Lincoln stated that it was not his intent to have impugned upon the honor of his opponent.  As a result, he stopped writing under false names and acquired a well-known and beneficial reputation as an honorable political opponent in open and honest discussion and debate.  Around this time also he decided to retrieve his honor, at least in his own mind, by marrying Mary Todd and overcoming their broken engagement.  A great deal of the fame that Abraham Lincoln has justly deserved, in other words, came because of his well-earned reputation for honor.  He was a man who paid a heavy price–eventually his life–for his fidelity to the dictates of honor, but has been honored ever since as a result of his own honor.

Why do we not dare to do the same?  One of the more ambitious attempts to explain our own societal lack of honor was C.S. Lewis’ arresting image of men without chests.  Our society simultaneously mocks honor and people who seek to live honorably and then bemoans the fact that there are no honorable people.  There are few people who are perverse enough as individuals to live in such a way as brings them into the active contempt of those around with them with no better praise than that of their own moral compass and the expectation of a favorable divine judgment.  Most of us need to hear the praise of others or to feel the affectionate regard of those around us to bolster our strength to resist the corruption of our times.  Most of us cannot even keep the promises we make, for which we offer our own assortment of lame excuses.  Most of us do not even think that we are bound by the promises and commitments of those who came before us, so much so that the thought never enters our minds that not only are our own promises and commitments valid in our times, but that commitments and covenants are valid for all time, irrespective of any changing conditions.  If it is terrifying enough to reflect upon the promises we have committed ourselves to, how much more so is it to realize that people of honor keep the promises that past generations made.  That is almost something to fill the terrors of uneasily sleep for those of us that are prone to such nightmares.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Christianity, History, Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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