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Lincoln on Addiction

Dr. Stanton Peele

Figures for

Texas News



Lincoln's remarks below are about alcoholics. 

They apply to those dependent on heroin or cocaine; a double standard is not justified, particularly since most of them are also alcohol dependent. 

Lincoln said that a nation that demonizes the alcoholic, that breeds the very feelings of stress and isolation that are often at the root of the dependency, that relies on coercion rather than persuasion, will ultimately be less just and less successful ("impolitic"). 

Lincoln makes several key points: 

* Most are simply not vulnerable to drug abuse regardless of the law. For whatever reason, they have no special "appetite" for drugs. 

"In my judgment, such of us as have never fallen victims, have been spared more from the absence of appetite, than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have." 

* The most effective road to recovery does not lie through force but through friendship. 

"If you would win a man to your cause, FIRST convince him that you are his sincere friend. ... On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one of the shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and heart, and tho' your cause be naked truth itself, ... and tho' you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so MUST he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his own best interest." 

" ... it is not much in the nature of man to be driven to any thing; still less to be driven about that which is exclusively his own business; and least of all, where such driving is to be submitted to at the expense of ... burning appetite." 

* There is a moral aversion to "thundering tones of anathema and denunciation." 

"There is in this something so repugnant to humanity, so uncharitable, so cold - blooded and feelingless ... so like throwing fathers and brothers overboard, to lighten the boat for our security ... that the noble minded shrank from the manifest meanness of the thing. " 

* The problem arises not from "the use of a bad thing, but from abuse of a very good thing." 

"Their failing [should be] treated as a misfortune, not as a crime, or even as a disgrace." 


 The extracts above are from a lengthy speech to the Springfield Washington Temperance League, Feb. 24, 1842. From The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Rutgers U. Press, 1953, the Abraham Lincoln Association, Roy P. Basler, Ed. 


 Lincoln's wisdom and compassion are as relevant today [See Peele] as in 1842 when dealing with alcohol abuse was the second largest social issue after slavery, and was a much larger problem than today. 

Lincoln reminds of St. Augustine: 

" ... such things are cured not by bitterness, severity and harshness, but by teaching rather than prohibition, by gentle admonitions rather than threats." 

And Martin Luther : 

"In Christendom it will not do to issue laws, so that there is a general rule pertaining to self-control. For people are not alike." 

And U.S. Senior District Judge John L. Kane, Jr. : 

"The law cannot alter human appetites anymore than it can eradicate the seven deadly sins. "

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