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by William H. Benson

November 29, 2007

     Cyrus McCormick, the original inventor of the mechanical reaper, brought a lawsuit against the John Manny Company of Rockford, Illinois in the summer of 1855 for patent infringement. Because the Manny Company had begun manufacturing reapers similar in design to McCormick’s invention, McCormick sued the company.

   In turn, Manny hired the Philadelphia attorney George Harding. Because McCormick v. Manny would be heard before a Chicago judge, Harding sent his assistant, Peter Watson, to Springfield to find a lawyer who “would understand the judge.” Watson found the capable but unknown Abraham Lincoln, and offered him a retainer to present a case.

     Thrilled at the opportunity, Lincoln all alone went to work. He wrote Watson a series of letters, begging for information but never received back a single reply. Harding and Watson had not bothered to tell Lincoln that the venue had been changed to Cincinnati in Ohio, and that they had hired the prominent attorney Edwin Stanton of Ohio to prepare the legal brief and present the case, and that Lincoln’s services were not needed.

     At the last minute, Lincoln happened to hear that the case was to be held in Cincinnati. There he appeared with his legal brief in his hand and met Harding and Stanton. After introducing himself, he suggested, “Let’s go up in a gang.” Stanton could barely hide his disdain for Lincoln. He drew Harding aside and whispered, “Why did you bring that **** long armed Ape here? He does not know any thing and can do you no good.”

     Pushed to the sidelines and into the audience in the courtroom, Lincoln chose to stay the week to listen to Stanton’s presentation, and was impressed. He sat in “rapt attention, drinking in his words.” He had never before, he later said, “seen anything so finished and elaborated, and so thoroughly prepared.”

     And yet, Stanton continued to snub Lincoln throughout that trial. He refused to speak to Lincoln. He would not eat a meal with him. He never even looked at Lincoln’s brief, “so sure it would be only trash.” The trial ended, and Lincoln went back to Springfield.

     Six years later, voters elected Abraham Lincoln, this “long-armed Ape,” the President of the United States, startling everybody, especially Edwin Stanton, who continued to scorn Lincoln, something Lincoln knew. But then, shortly into his Presidency, Lincoln contacted Stanton and offered him the job as Secretary of War, and Stanton accepted.

     Thus, Lincoln demonstrated “his singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, and bitterness” in order to get the best person for the job.

     Stanton took his job seriously, working fifteen hours each day at a stand-up desk. Gradually, his opinion of Lincoln changed for the better, and the two men forged a very close relationship. Stanton finally admitted, “No men were ever so deceived as we were at Cincinnati,” on the Reaper case. Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 shook Stanton deeply, and it was Stanton, who said of Lincoln, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

     Stanton made the same mistake all human beings make: basing our judgments upon first impressions. We casually dismiss the little, the small, the trivial, the awkward, and the insignificant, not knowing that it is these seemingly inconsequential items or people who can make all the difference, save our lives, or propel us forward.

     In Aesop’s fable, the mouse promised the lion that if he spared his life, someday he would do the same for him. That day came when the lion found himself entrapped in some men’s ropes. It was the mouse who gnawed and severed the ropes freeing the lion.

     King Richard III lost his horse in the final battle of his life. He understood what was at stake, when he cried out, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

     As an afterthought, the directors of Gettysburg’s dedication invited President Lincoln to attend and say a few remarks. On November 19, 1863, he stood and minutes later he finished and sat down. Then, the well-known orator Edward Everett stepped forward and presented his memorized hours-long oration. Lincoln took no offense at the disparity.

     Among the several human virtues, it seems that magnanimity is the one in shortest supply. In its place, lives resentments, wounded feelings, and damaged egos, and it is the rare individual—such as Lincoln—who can overcome them.

     Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, said, “It is due to the president to say, that his magnanimity is almost superhuman. The president is the best of us.”