Act with “Malice Toward None”

04 Jun


Abraham Lincoln had the vision to see that winning the peace after the war would prove almost as difficult winning the war itself.

In a Civil War that ended the lives of over 600,000 souls, one might see how easy it would be for a leader to journey into anger, and prosecute a war with vengeance and retribution at heart.

Lincoln did not.

The President knew the war would be over one day, and that he, if not someone else, would have to sew up the wounds of the Civil War and tend to their healing.

One day, Americans would be one people again, so he held back the Union Army from committing unforgivable acts that might transcend generations of Americans on both sides.

He also discouraged his political colleagues from being too harsh on the soon-to-be-defeated South.

To Lincoln, a true victory meant reunion, and there could be no reunion without the feeling that both sides could eventually come together and bury their differences.

To help ensure that, he punished those in the Union Army who attempted or advocated any heinous act against Southerners.

When the rebels threatened to enslave or kill black Union soldiers, Lincoln agreed to announce a policy to sentence an equal number of captured Southern soldiers to hard labor for each Northern victim.

However, Lincoln never enforced it because he could not figure out a fair way of choosing which soldiers to sentence; not to mention it might have started an unending eye-for-an-eye mentality on both sides.

In his book, President Lincoln, William Lee Miller provides an analysis of Lincoln’s empathy in his position as Commander-In-Chief:

“It requires a distinct moral and intellectual discipline to achieve the combination that Lincoln achieved as war leader: the ability to prosecute the war with persistent energy to subdue the will of the enemy, without indulging in the passionate simplifications that war engenders.”[i]

Lincoln would not say, write, nor do anything in anger or resentment because he seemed to know that if he did, it would be remembered much longer than any other action of his.

“I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.” – Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln also encouraged his army to avoid disturbing non-combatants whenever possible.

He denied General John C. Frémont the right to shoot Confederate sympathizers in Missouri out of concern that they would do the same to Unionists.

He endorsed General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea” only as a means, besides the military tactic of divide and conquer, to show the citizens of the South that their government would not and could not protect their property.

In the political arena, abolitionist “Radical” Republicans promoted a severe punishment of the Southern states, while Lincoln wanted to assimilate them quickly back into the Union with few and modest requirements.

Though he did not live to see it, history may have proved Lincoln correct.

The harsh Reconstruction measures that the radical wing of his own party enacted, which Lincoln did not want, fueled a Southern backlash against African-Americans and Northern reformers that would last for over a century. 

The results?

  • The irony of Lincoln’s assassination by a Southern sympathizer is that it allowed Radical Republicans to enact harsher measures on the South than Lincoln would have allowed.
  • Lincoln gained a certain amount of respect throughout the South for his fair handling of the war.
  • After Reconstruction, Southerners and Northerners were eventually able to come together and bury many of their differences. 

The lesson?

Burning bridges is almost never a good thing.  Do what you need to do to accomplish your goals, but avoid doing the unforgivable.  Never act with malice at heart.

For what organizations today could be doing to put out fires, visit “Fighting Fires Without Burning Bridges – How 21st Century Businesses are Learning to Slash the Cost of Conflict,” by Jane Gunn at

Click on this highlighted link for a lesson in how to Treat Everyone with Respect.

[i] Miller, William Lee (2008-02-05). President Lincoln (Kindle Locations 7033-7035). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


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