2406) Don’t Be an Idler

Tough Love from Abraham Lincoln

Earliest known photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken in about 1847


Abraham Lincoln wrote this letter on December 24, 1848 to his step-brother, John Johnston.  Johnston had written Lincoln that he was ‘broke’ and ‘hard-pressed’ on the family farm in Illinois.  Lincoln denies the loan, but offers what we would call today a ‘matching grant.’  Believing that Johnston was in the ‘habit of uselessly wasting time,’ Lincoln knew that helping Johnston get into the habit of working would be far more beneficial than giving him a loan.


Dear Johnston:

     Your request for eighty dollars, I do not think it best to comply with now.  At the various times when I have helped you a little, you have said to me, “We can get along very well now;” but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again.  Now this can only happen by some defect in your conduct.  What that defect is, I think I know.  You are not lazy, and still you are an idler.  I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day’s work, in any one day.  You do not very much dislike to work, and still you do not work much, merely because it does not seem to you that you could get much for it.

     This habit of uselessly wasting time, is the whole difficulty.  It is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children, that you should break this habit.  It is more important to them, because they have longer to live, and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it, easier than they can get out after they are in.

     You are now in need of some ready money; and what I propose is that you shall go to work, “tooth and nail,” for somebody who will give you money for it.

     Let father and your boys take charge of your things at home– prepare for a crop, and make the crop; and you go to work for the best wages… that you can get.  And to secure you a fair reward for your labor, I now promise you that for every dollar you will (between this and the first of May) get for your own labor,…  I will then give you one other dollar.

     By this, if you hire yourself at ten dollars a month, from me you will get ten more, making twenty dollars a month for your work.  In this, I do not mean you shall go off to St. Louis, or the lead mines, or the gold mines in California; but I mean for you to go at it for the best wages you can get close to home– in Coles County.

     Now if you will do this, you will soon be out of debt, and what is better, you will have a habit that will keep you from getting in debt again.  But if I should now clear you out, next year you will be just as deep in as ever.  You say you would almost give your place in Heaven for $70 or $80.  Then you value your place in Heaven very cheaply, for I am sure you can, with the offer I make you, get the seventy or eighty dollars for four or five months work.  You say if I furnish you the money you will deed me the land, and if you don’t pay the money back, you will deliver possession—

     Nonsense!  If you can’t now live with the land, how will you then live without it?  You have always been kind to me, and I do not now mean to be unkind to you.  On the contrary, if you will but follow my advice, you will find it worth more than eight times eighty dollars to you.


Your brother

A. Lincoln


I Thessalonians 4:11-12  —  Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.  You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

II Thessalonians 3:11-12  —  We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive.  They are not busy; they are busybodies.  Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.

Proverbs 6:9-11a  —  How long will you lie there, you sluggard?  When will you get up from your sleep?  A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest– and poverty will come on you like a thief.


O God, who has commanded that no one should be idle, give us grace to employ our talents and faculties in the service appointed for us; that, whatever our hand finds to do, we may do it with all our might.  Amen.

–James Martineau  (1805-1900)

O Lord, let us not live to be useless, for Christ’s sake.  Amen.

–John Wesley  (1703-1791)