Nearly All Men Can Stand Adversity, But If You Want To Test a Man’s Character, Give Him Power

Abraham Lincoln? Thomas Carlyle? Robert G. Ingersoll? Horatio Alger Jr.? Apocryphal?

lincoln07Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the following quotation on the website of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Lincoln was credited, but I have seen skepticism expressed on other websites. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that this statement was spoken or written by Abraham Lincoln. The famous orator and free thinker Robert G. Ingersoll employed similar phrases when he was describing Lincoln. QI conjectures that this was the primary nexus of confusion: something that was said about Lincoln was transformed into something that was said by Lincoln.

The overall history and evolution of the saying is long and complex. Part of the semantics can be traced back to a remark by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle in 1841. An exact match for the modern instance with an ascription to Lincoln appeared by 1931.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

In 1841 a set of lectures by Thomas Carlyle on the theme of heroism in history was published in London. Carlyle included a counter-intuitive statement about adversity. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity.

Prosperity may consist of wealth, success, and/or power. It is natural to think that adversity is harsh and damaging while prosperity is easy and beneficial. But the character of an individual may be tested in different ways. The adage suggests that prosperity too often leads to egotistical, dissipated, callous, or self-destructive behaviors. Thus, the saying under investigation used the same keyword “adversity” and partially echoed Carlyle’s observation.

In 1883 a biography titled “Abraham Lincoln, the Backwoods Boy” by Horatio Alger Jr. was published. Alger achieved fame by writing numerous uplifting tomes. The final chapter included a passage between quotation marks that praised Lincoln. The composer of the passage was not identified by Alger. One of the sentences containing the keywords “adversity” and “prosperity” evoked Carlyle’s words. The final sentence was about Lincoln granting clemency and halting an execution: 3

“If you want to find out what a man is to the bottom, give him power. Any man can stand adversity–only a great man can stand prosperity. It is the glory of Abraham Lincoln that he never abused power only on the side of mercy. When he had power he used it in mercy. He loved to see the tears of the wife whose husband he had snatched from death.”

In April 1883 a short piece about Lincoln by Robert G. Ingersoll was printed in the Chicago-based religious periodical “Unity”. QI believes it was an excerpt from a longer essay or speech. Indeed, Ingersoll may have delivered a speech about Lincoln several times and divergent transcripts may have resulted in a variety of texts. The passage below differed from the one in Alger’s book, but QI believes they were both derived from the words of Ingersoll: 4

Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity; but if you wish to know what a man really is give him power. This is the supreme test. It is the glory of Lincoln that, having almost absolute power, he never used it except on the side of mercy. He would never turn a man out of even the smallest office, and leave a stain upon his name, without having given him full and ample hearing. He loved to pardon. He loved to see the tears of joy upon the cheeks of a wife whose husband he had rescued from death.

In December 1885 Robert G. Ingersoll published an essay in “The North American Review”. The beginning of the passage below matched the passage above, but the two texts diverged after the word “mercy”: 5

Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power. This is the supreme test. It is the glory of Lincoln that, having almost absolute power, he never abused it, except upon the side of mercy.

Wealth could not purchase, power could not awe, this divine, this loving man. He knew no fear except the fear of doing wrong.

In 1901 sayings similar to Carlyle’s quotation continued to circulate. The following concise expression was published in a newspaper of Lumberton, North Carolina: 6

Men can stand adversity better than prosperity. The touch of prosperity last fall led to what may be said to be a reckless purchase of guano and stock, and plans for a large cotton acreage.

In 1910 a collection of photographs and commentary titled “Portrait Life of Lincoln” was published, and it included sentences that thematically similar to the quotation although the words were not attributed to Lincoln or anyone in particular: 7

If you want to discover just what there is in a man—give him power. It will either make him or wreck him. Prosperity has ruined more men than poverty. Watch a man when he catches his first glow of success and you will discover just how big or how little he really is.

In 1931 a columnist in a Williamsburg, Iowa newspaper printed a miscellaneous collection of local news items together with some quotations and adages. One statement was an exact match to the modern saying ascribed to Lincoln: 8

Lincoln said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

In conclusion, there is no substantive support for ascribing this quotation to Abraham Lincoln. A precursor that was crafted by Thomas Carlyle appeared in 1841. Robert G. Ingersoll composed a panegyric for Lincoln that contained a passage similar to the quotation. QI conjectures that the quotation was derived directly or indirectly from Ingersoll’s words.

(Great thanks to AZs Politics, Rick Gray, Mrs W, and The Muser whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote who presented a fine analysis of the quotation with excellent citations. Many thanks to quotation expert Mardy Grothe who included a valuable analysis in his database “Dr. Mardy’s Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations”

Notes:

  1. 1841, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History: Six Lectures by Thomas Carlyle, Lecture: The Hero as Man of Letters, Start Page 249, Quote Page 314, James Fraser, London. (HathiTrust) link link
  2. 1841 May, The Monthly Review, Book Review: Carlyle’s Lectures on Heroes, Start Page 1, Quote Page 16, G. Henderson, London. (HathiTrust) link link
  3. 1883, Abraham Lincoln, the Backwoods Boy, Or, How a Young Rail-splitter Became President by Horatio Alger Jr., Quote Page 304, American Publishers Corporation, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1883 April 1, Unity: Freedom, Fellowship and Character in Religion, Volume 11, Number 3, The Exchange Table, True Greatness Exemplified in Abraham Lincoln, by Robert G. Ingersoll (excerpt), Quote Page 55, Column 1 and 2, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1885 December, The North American Review, Volume 141, Motley and Monarch by Robert G. Ingersoll, Start Page 528, Quote Page 531, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1901 July 26, The Robesonian, The Lumber Bridge News: Editorial Notes, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Lumberton, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1910, Portrait Life of Lincoln: Life of Abraham Lincoln, the Greatest American by Francis Trevelyan Miller, Photographs collected by Edward Bailey Eaton, Quote Page 34, The Patriot Publishing Company, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1931 March 26, Williamsburg Journal-Tribune, Homestead, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Williamsburg, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)