Lincoln on How to Handle Criticism
By Maria Popova
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) issued the Emancipation Proclamation, granting legal freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans — one of the most revolutionary documents in the history of human rights. Millions rejoiced in this inflection point for justice and reverenced Lincoln’s moral courage. Among them was the twenty-three-year-old artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter, who was moved by what he saw as “an act unparalleled for moral grandeur in the history of mankind.”
A highly gifted artist, Carpenter had attained both critical and commercial success by his early twenties. Having already painted portraits of three presidents and such celebrated public figures as the Romantic poet James Russell Lowell and the visionary newspaperman Horace Greely (who figures prominently in Figuring), he was animated by “an intense desire to do something expressive” commemorating this landmark document. Aided by the financial and social capital of friends, he set out to persuade Lincoln to let him immortalize the occasion in a grand painting.
As soon as he secured the president’s consent, Carpenter left his New York studio and headed for Washington. On February 6, 1864, he met with Lincoln, who invited him to reside at the White House while working on the painting.
So began what would become First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln — a painting Carpenter completed in about four months. For more than a century and a half to come, it would bedeck the United States Capitol as both a benediction and a warning, for the moment it immortalizes would cost Lincoln his life and America its awakening.
Lincoln was heavily criticized for his anti-slavery views and his political idealism. One Democratic newspaper observed that “he has been prostrated often enough in his political schemes to have crushed the life out of any ordinary man.” But this was no ordinary man. He managed to effect such landmark change by cultivating a deliberate discipline in facing criticism. While his wife would later recall that newspaper attacks pained him greatly, Lincoln met them with the sole orientation that makes courageous action in the face of criticism not only possible but sustainable over the sweep of a life.
In his 1866 memoir, Six Months at the White House (public library | free ebook), Carpenter recounts a critical attack on Lincoln by a war committee. When one of the president’s officers, in possession of evidence directly discrediting the very claims of the attack, suggested that he contact the press with the facts to counter the criticism, Lincoln declined with these words:
I do the very best I know how — the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.
In August of 1863, seven months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he had articulated a similar sentiment about the document itself in a letter to one of his friends and early supporters, with whom he nonetheless disagreed on some of the political ideals he held dearest:
The proclamation, as law, either is valid or is not valid. If it is not valid, it needs no retraction. If it is valid, it cannot be retracted any more than the dead can be brought to life.
Complement with Walt Whitman, who celebrated Lincoln as America’s “greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality,” on not letting criticism sink your confidence, Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s brilliant strategy for preempting criticism, and Albert Einstein’s lovely letter of solidarity and advice to Marie Curie when she — even she — was besieged by vicious attacks, then revisit Lincoln on living with loss.
Published March 27, 2019