This I Believe

Thomas, Benjamin Platt


  • Benjamin Thomas describes how his study of Abraham Lincoln helped him believe that there is a universal struggle between good and evil, and that acknowledging our own imperfections helps us to be tolerant of others.
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And now, This I Believe, a series of living philosophies presented in the hope they may help to strengthen and enrich your life. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. Benjamin P. Thomas is a leading Lincoln scholar. His one volume biography of Lincoln was unanimously praised by the critics. His devotion to the study of all things Lincolnian started thirty years ago, when he became executive secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association. He is the author of five books, four of which are on the great Civil War president. In addition, he was an editorial advisor on the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Benjamin Thomas states his creed against this background of close association with one of the richest minds in history.
I have been privileged over twenty years to search the mind and heart of perhaps the greatest human figure of all time. No one could walk so long with Lincoln and not feel a touch of his spirit. Much of what I believe derives from him. Like others, he experienced years of doubt before coming to understand how the incomprehensible might still be true. In my own case, the attitude of questioning, instilled in college, brought me to denials and rejections. Then through study of Lincoln, I found beliefs to cling to.
At the basis of Lincoln’s thinking was a philosophy of history. He saw it as an everlasting struggle between right and wrong, a struggle between man’s selfishness on the one hand, and his love of justice on the other. Few historians would subscribe to such a simple view. Yet there is that constant struggle in the minds of men and within and between nations.
I believe God planned it that way. In his omnipotence, He could have made us perfect and all knowing. Instead he implanted in us a desire for knowledge and betterment and left us to gain them for ourselves. How little we should appreciate our physical comforts if we obtained them without effort. How sterile life would be without the challenge of the unknown. Just as God gave us a universe to conquer, so he left us spiritually imperfect that we might aspire to perfection, because striving, not fulfillment, makes for strength.
Lincoln said of the clause of our Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal,” that of course this was not so in all respects, nor had our Founding Fathers meant it to be taken literally. They meant to hold it before us, perhaps beyond our reach, but still a goal. I believe God had the same idea when he laid down the laws of life.
A fundamental law of life gears my personal welfare with the welfare of mankind. I can move onward and upward only with the progress of humanity. Thus, self-interest of itself, if I can command no higher motive, demands that I aid my fellow man. But to help him, I must know him. Only with understanding can I trust and respect him and grant him tolerance. With understanding, I do not blame his offenses on his race or his creed or his color, remembering that I, and men of my race, creed, and color, also fall short and offend.
I must recognize that the desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, of all our people—of all people the world over—is no less valid than mine. How wise our Founding Fathers were in saying “the pursuit of happiness,” rather than happiness itself, because only
fools can be supinely happy. For men of mind, there is always more to know and do. Contentment comes only in pursuit, pursuit of the truths of the universe to feed our minds, pursuit of goodness to refresh our spirits, pursuit of kinship with our fellow man to fill our hearts. I believe God meant our world to be that way, and I believe He measures us, not alone by what we do or how often we fall short, but even more by how steadfastly we try.
That was Benjamin P. Thomas, the author of the highly acclaimed one volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. A resident of Springfield, Illinois, he finds relaxation and a change of pace from his scholarly pursuits on his two cattle farms.