Who was the Johnston in Lincoln’s Debt Letter? John D. Johnston was Lincoln’s Step Brother. Abe sets some boundaries.June 1st, 2010
Dave often talks about the infamous letter that Abe Lincoln penned to a debt-beat, lazy relative who wanted to borrow $80. If you haven’t seen the letter, written on December 24, 1858, or want to enjoy it again, it’s here.
There seems to be a lot of disinformation floating around on exactly who the “Johnston” is that Abe is writing to. Many times, Johnston, is referred to as Lincoln’s brother in-law. It’s easy to see how such a mistake could have been made. Mary Todd Lincoln’s family sounds like a bad Dave Ramsey call. It seems that Mrs. Lincoln could have used some boundaries in her family. Johnston was, in fact, Lincoln’s step brother, John D. Johnston, the son of Lincoln’s father’s second wife – Sally Johnston.
You can tell from the letter that Lincoln has had it with Johnston and sees that giving him $80 is not going to help him. Dave tells folks on his show all the time that giving a drunk a drink is not helping. Abe got this concept at least with Johnston. Of note, the letter to Johnston was written on the the same page as a letter that Abe wrote to his father in which Lincoln gives his dad $20 to keep his land from being foreclosed on in order to payoff a judgment. It seems that Lincoln may have had lots of boundary issues in his life, I don’t know what the story with his father is, but if he was losing his land and had judgments, he for sure was not enjoying financial peace.
It was well known that Lincoln was generous towards people that he cared for but it seems that Johnston’s past behaviors made Abe take a different approach with his brother. In a previous letter, Johnston had stated that he was “broke” and “hard-pressed” on the family farm in Coles County, Illinois. It seems from Lincoln’s response that this was a situation that happened frequently and Lincoln realized that just giving Johnston money was not helping him.
There may have been other reasons for not giving Johnston the money. Dave often tells people that they are too broke to be helping someone else. Lincoln probably didn’t care to put his own family at risk in order to help old Johnny out yet again. I doubt that he was in a position to be doling out $80 too often. In 1858, when Lincoln penned the famous debt letter, he was a professional politician who was very poorly compensated if at all for his efforts at getting the brand new Republican Party off of the ground. He had just lost a race for the Senate to his arch-rival, Stephen Douglas and $80 was a LOT of money. $80 in 1858 is the equivalent to about $1,800 in today’s money.
The New York Times, in an article dated February 11, 1917, stated that this letter “out-Franklins anything of Ben Franklin, in the matter of good advice to the unthrifty.”