Gene’s Blog

What You Say When You Ask A Friend To Resign: How Lincoln Did It
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.

What do you say when someone that you like just isn’t working out? Are there any rules to follow?

Politicians and clergy and leaders of non-profit organizations have to do it all the time. Business leaders have to downsize and say goodbye to employees and vendors that they’re fond of.

Breaking this kind of bad news can be terribly painful, so you need to say it right Fortunately a little-known story from the American Civil War provides some guidance about what should be said

In the fall of 1864, the North was gearing up for a presidential election. It promised to be a bitter, hard-fought, close contest, and the fortunes of Abraham Lincoln were not all that high. In fact, early in the year, everyone thought Lincoln was going down in defeat.

The stakes were high. If Lincoln lost, and his opponent General George McClellan won, the Confederacy was certain to get major concessions. Slavery would be allowed to continue in the Southern states, and the Confederacy might even be recognized as a separate nation.

Lincoln’s party was badly split. One faction, known as Radicals, was threatening to run a third-party candidate–if Lincoln kept Postmaster General Montgomery Blair in his cabinet. The Radicals hated Blair for too many reasons to go into here, but Blair was a symbol of everything that the Radicals did not like about Lincoln’s administration.

So a deal was struck. Lincoln would ask Montgomery Blair to resign. If he did, the Radicals would support Lincoln in the coming election.

On September 23, 1864 Lincoln wrote this letter to Blair.

“You have generously said to me more than once that whenever your resignation could be a relief to me, it was at my disposal. The time has come. You very well know that this proceeds from no dissatisfaction of mine personally or officially. Your uniform kindness to me has been unsurpassed by that of any friend.”

Montgomery Blair understood the reality of politics, that politics involves sometimes doing not what you personally prefer, but what is possible and necessary. He recognized that Lincoln was not following his personal feelings in the matter. Blair’s letter contained this sentence among others that expressed his own personal feelings toward Lincoln:

“I cannot take leave of you without renewing the expressions of my gratitude for the uniform kindness, which has marked your course toward me.”

The Radicals kept their promise. Opposition disappeared as if by magic, prominent Radical politicians began stumping for Lincoln, and Radical newspaper editors started running enthusiastic articles about Lincoln. And Lincoln was re-elected.

If you ever have to write such a letter–one that goes against your own personal feelings, but is necessary for your business or your career–here are five rules to follow:

One. Do not let your personal feelings of loyalty toward one person keep you from doing what is most important. Lincoln felt that he should not knowingly lose an election that would give away what had been bought at such a high cost of treasure and blood.

Two. Your words must make it manifestly clear that there is a difference between your personal feelings and your official responsibility.

Three. Do not go into details explaining your decision. The less you explain the better. Lincoln put it thus: “The time has come.”

Four. Appeal to the other party’s sense of being willing to do something for you.

Five. You may not destroy your friendship if you do this right. Lincoln and Blair remained good friends as long as Lincoln lived. He understood the delicate political situation Lincoln was in. A strong friendship can withstand strong winds.

You may never have to ne tell someone that you won’t be needing them any more. But if you hold an important leadership position, chances are you will.

To do it with grace and skill will require your best forward thinking, and perhaps a backward glance in order to learn how a leader with consummate skill did it.

“The Better Angels Of Our Nature” How Charles Dickens Influenced Abraham Lincoln
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.

Here’s the story of an obscure but beautiful quotation from Charles Dickens that found its way into the First Inaugural Address by Abraham Lincoln.

In 1861, before his inauguration, Lincoln showed a draft of what he intended to say to William Seward, his Secretary of State. Seward recommended that Lincoln conclude with conciliatory words, and sketched out a few sentences for Lincoln to consider.

Seward’s rough draft, which has been preserved, contains the expression “better angel.” Twenty years earlier, in 1841, Charles Dickens had used “our better angels” in his novel “Barnaby Rudge.” There is no evidence that Lincoln had read Dickens, but Seward certainly had.

Lincoln read Seward’s rough draft in which Seward had scratched out the words”better angel” and substituted in their place “guardian angel of the nation.” Lincoln then turned Seward’s discarded two words into the memorable expression “better angels of our nature.”

The quotation from Dickens is below. I like the entire quotation very much, not just because it contains the germ of a concept that Abraham Lincoln immortalized, but because of its wise and spiritual insight.

“The thoughts of worldly men are for ever regulated by a moral law of gravitation, which, like the physical one, holds them down to earth. The bright glory of day, and the silent wonders of a starlit night, appeal to their minds in vain. There are no signs in the sun, or in the moon, or in the stars, for their reading. They are like some wise men, who, learning to know each planet by its Latin name, have quite forgotten such small heavenly constellations as Charity, Forbearance, Universal Love, and Mercy, although they shine by night and day so brightly that the blind may see them; and who, looking upward at the spangled sky, see nothing there but the reflection of their own great wisdom and book-learning…

“It is curious to imagine these people of the world, busy in thought, turning their eyes towards the countless spheres that shine above us, and making them reflect the only images their minds contain…So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed. (italics added)

One final comment. Shakespeare used the words “better angel” in “Othello,” and we know for certain that Lincoln had read “Othello.” The expression is used in a remark made by Gratiano, a nobleman from Venice, after the death of Desdemona to describe enlightened and restrained human impulses. Gratiano speaks of pushing away the ‘better angel” which would hold him back from taking bloody revenge.

THE Lincoln Quotation Book

Don’t get embarrassed using a spurious Lincoln quote. Every quotation in this book is authentic.

The Words Lincoln Lived By

“This is a book to cherish and share.”—Bill Marriott, CEO, Marriott International, Inc.

“Not only does Griessman give us Lincoln quotes, but he also weaves each one into a little jewel of an essay on that particular subject.” Wayne C. Temple, renowned Lincoln scholar, Illinois State Archives

A stirring, inspirational treasury of quotations from our greatest and most admired president, the book offers rich material for interpretation, reflection, and spiritual guidance.

You will also enjoy Lincoln Speaks To Leaders by Gene Griessman and Pat Williams.

The Importance Of Being Polite

Over fifty years ago in 1964 the Canadian poet F. R. Scott wrote the remarkable poem below about what happens when civility and courtesy disappear in a society.

It’s a prescient warning about today. Blunt, unvarnished, telling it like it is,…instead of being a virtue…can instead be a first step toward what the poet called “unrestrained ferocities.”

The first to go are the niceties
The little minor conformities
That suddenly seem absurdities

Soon kindling animosities
Surmount the old civilities
And start the first brutalities

Then come the bold extremities
The justified enormities
The unrestrained ferocities.


”The buck stops with everybody.” October 10, 2019

(Donald Trump’s version of the statement on a famous plaque on the desk of President Harry Truman: “The buck stops here.”)

Immigrants do NOT commit more violent crimes than native-born Americans. Overwhelmingly, studies prove that immigration does not lead to higher crime rates; if anything, it may actually reduce them.
Here’s a short power phrase Lincoln used that you may work for you, too when you have to make a difficult choice.  
If you’d like to skip the details, the power phrase is One war at a time.
Here’s the backstory.
It’s become known to historians as the Trent Affair, an incident that inflamed passions between Great Britain and the US during the first year of the Civil War.
An American warship had stopped a British vessel named The Trent in open seas and forcibly removed and imprisoned two Confederate diplomats.
The British demanded their immediate release or else. “Else” could mean recognizing the Confederacy or worse, going to war on the side of the Confederacy.
Releasing the prisoners would look weak, and war fever was running high. Bowing to British demands would not be popular.
Abraham Lincoln spent his first Christmas day as president with his cabinet locked in a discussion about what to do.
Fighting both the British and the Confederacy was an unthinkable option.
Lincoln cut through to reality with one phrase:
One war at a time.
You can use that same phrase as a way of thinking about a choice between one outcome that is extremely costly and one that will have catastrophic consequences. In other words, you decide which is the worse outcome.
Trump has said if we don’t think a wall will work we should ask the Israelis.
Perhaps we should also ask the Russians how well walls work.  The Berlin Wall didn’t work out all that well.
Maybe we should ask the Chinese how the Great Wall of China worked.  (Hint.The Manchu Qing marched through it and overthrew the wall-building Ming dynasty. )
Or maybe we should ask the Romans how Hadrian’s Wall worked. (Hint. It was abandoned within three decades after it was built.)
There’s a big lesson to be learned from the history of walls. They’re really expensive to build, maintain and man, and soon or later they become relics, usually sooner than later.
There’s a larger question to ask. How in the world did the United States manage to survive, indeed thrive, for going on three centuries without a big, beautiful wall?
If we must have a wall in order to be a nation, don’t we need to start building a northern wall to save us from the Canadians?


Lincoln and Obama Cartoons
This is a fascinating Obama–Lincoln parallel—a political cartoon published during Lincoln’s presidency that depicts Lincoln as an African king. (Source: 2014 edition of “Lincoln and Obama” by Gene Griessman. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University)


The controversy over Robert Gates’ new book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” has raised important questions about how presidents should deal with the military.  I have not read Gates’ book, so I should not comment on it. But I have been asked to comment on how Lincoln dealt with his generals and admirals and other military advisors. See More

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