endured a steady stream of failure and defeat before becoming President of the United States.
unsourced "Abraham Lincoln Didn't Quit" list is a ubiquitous piece of
American historical glurge that has been printed in countless magazines
and newspaper columns over the decades, including an appearance in a 1967
Reader's Digest collection of humor and anecdotes. It is now a
favorite feature of inspirational
1816: His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.
Life on the American frontier in the early 19th century was no picnic for anyone; it required hours of back-breaking toil and drudgery day in and day out. In the context of their time, however, the Lincolns lived under rather unremarkable circumstances.
To say that the Lincolns were "forced out of their home" in 1816 is rather misleading, because it implies they were suddenly and involuntarily uprooted from their home, with no warning and no place to go. Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas, had owned farmland in Hardin County, Kentucky, since the early 1800s, and he left Kentucky and moved his family across the Ohio River to Indiana in 1816 for two primary reasons:
Kentucky was a slave state, and Thomas Lincoln disliked slavery
--both because his church opposed it, and because he did not want to have to compete economically with slave labor.
- Kentucky had never been properly surveyed, and many settlers in the early 1800s found that establishing clear title to their land was difficult. Thomas Lincoln (and other farmers in the area) were eventually sued by non-Kentucky residents who claimed prior title to their lands.
With plenty of land available in neighboring Indiana, a territory where slavery had been excluded by the Northwest Ordinance and the government guaranteed buyers clear title to their property, Thomas Lincoln opted to move rather than to spend time and money fighting over the title to his Kentucky farm. So, in a moderate sense the Lincolns could be said to have been "forced out of their home," but it did not happen abruptly, and they opted to leave because better opportunities awaited them.
The other part of this statement, that a seven-year-old Abraham Lincoln "had to work to support" his family, is grossly misleading. Young Abraham did not have to take an outside job lest his poor family sink into financial ruin. Like nearly all farm children of his era, Lincoln was expected to perform whatever chores and tasks he was physically capable of handling around the farm. If Abraham worked harder and longer than most other children, it was not because the Lincolns' circumstances were extraordinarily difficult, but because Lincoln was exceptionally tall and strong for his age.
1818: His mother died.
This, at least, is no embellishment. Lincoln's mother, Nancy, did die of brucellosis (known as the "milk sickness") in 1818, when Abraham was only nine years old. A mother's death is a tragedy for any child, and it was a special hardship for a struggling farm family.
1831: Failed in business.
Stating that Lincoln "failed in business" is another misleading claim, because it implies that he was the owner or operator of the failed business, or was otherwise responsible for its failure. None of this is true. Lincoln left his father's home for good in 1831 and, along with his cousin John Hanks, took a flatboat full of provisions down the Mississippi River from Illinois to New Orleans for a "bustling, none too scrupulous businessman" named Denton Offutt. Offutt planned to open a general store, and he promised to make Lincoln its manager when Abraham returned from New Orleans. Lincoln operated the store as Offutt's clerk and assistant for several months (and by all accounts did a fine job of it) until Offutt, a poor businessman, overextended himself financially and ran it into the ground. Thus by the spring of 1832 Lincoln had indeed "lost his job," but not because he had "failed in business."
1832: Ran for state legislature - lost.
did run for the Illinois state legislature in 1832, although as Lincoln
biographer David Herbert Donald noted, "the post he was seeking was not an
1832: Also lost his job - wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
As noted above, Lincoln actually "lost his job" in 1831. The notion that in 1832 Lincoln "wanted to go to law school but couldn't get in" (why he couldn't get in remains unspecified) is just silly. Lincoln did eventually become a lawyer, and he accomplished the feat in the manner typical of his time and place: not by attending law school, but by reading law books and observing court sessions. He was indeed interested in becoming a lawyer as early as 1832, but, as Donald wrote, "on reflection he concluded that he needed a better education to succeed."
1833: Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.
Lincoln and William F. Berry, a corporal from Lincoln's militia company, purchased a general store in New Salem, Illinois, in 1833. (Lincoln had no money for his half; he didn't technically "borrow the money from a friend" but instead signed a note with one of the previous owners for his share.) Lincoln and Berry were competing against a larger, well-organized store in the same town; their outfit did little business, and within a short time it had "winked out."
The debt on the store became due the following year, and since Lincoln was unable to pay off his note, his possessions were seized by the sheriff. Moreover, when Lincoln's former partner died with no assets soon afterwards, Lincoln insisted upon assuming his partner's half of the debt as well, even though he was not legally obligated to do so. Exactly how long it took Lincoln to pay off this debt (which he jokingly referred to as his "national debt") in its entirety is unknown. It did take him several years, but not seventeen; nor, as this statement implies, was he completely financially encumbered until it was paid in full. Within a few months of the store's failure Lincoln had obtained a position as the New Salem postmaster, and by 1835 he was earning money both as a surveyor and as a state legislator.
1834: Ran for state legislature again - won.
In 1834 Lincoln was again one of thirteen candidates running for a seat in the state legislature, and this time he won, securing the second-highest vote total among the field.
1835: Was engaged to be married, sweetheart died and his heart was broken.
Little is known about Lincoln's relationship with Ann Rutledge, including whether or not they were actually engaged. (At the time they met, Ann was betrothed to someone else.) Nonetheless, her death in the summer of 1835 was a terrible blow to Lincoln, sending him into a profound depression.
1836: Had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.
Whether Lincoln experienced a "total nervous breakdown" in the aftermath of Ann Rutledge's death is debatable, but how he found time to stay "in bed for six months" is a mystery. After Ann's funeral he spent a few weeks visiting an old friend, and within a month of her death he had resumed his occasional surveying duties. He surveyed the nearby town of Petersburg in February 1836, undertook a strenuous two-month campaign for re-election during the summer, and served in the state legislature throughout the year. All of this would have been difficult for a man who spent "six months in bed."
1838: Sought to become speaker of the state legislature - defeated.
By the time of the 1838-39 legislative session, Lincoln had twice been an unsuccessful Whig candidate for the position of speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. This was a relatively minor political setback, however, and no mention is made here of the fact that by 1838 he was one of the most experienced members of the legislature, or of any of the other notable successes he achieved between 1834 and 1838, namely:
- He was
re-elected to the state legislature in 1836 and 1838, both times
receiving more votes than any other candidate.
Illinois Supreme Court licensed him to practice law in 1837.
- He became the partner of "one of the most prominent and successful lawyers in Springfield" (where he now lived).
1840: Sought to become elector - defeated.
statement is simply wrong. Lincoln was named as a presidential elector at
the Illinois state Whig convention on
1843: Ran for Congress - lost.
One could claim this as a Lincoln failure in that he wanted to be a Congressman and failed to achieve that goal, but it is technically inaccurate to claim that he "ran for Congress" in 1843 and lost: The election was held in 1844, and Lincoln was not a candidate in that election. Lincoln's failure to achieve his party's nomination at the May 1843 Whig district convention is undoubtedly what is referred to here.
1846: Ran for Congress again - this time he won - went to Washington and did a good job.
Lincoln won a seat as an Illinois representative to the U.S. Congress in 1846.
1848: Ran for re-election to Congress - lost.
Lincoln did not "lose" the 1848 election. He didn't run for re-election to Congress, and this can't be claimed as a failure by assuming that he declined to run because he felt he would lose. He didn't run because Whig policy at the time specified that party members should step aside after serving one term to allow other members to take their turns at holding office. Lincoln, a faithful party member, complied.
1849: Sought the job of land officer in his home state - rejected.
The position referred to here was commissioner of the General Land Office, a federal position, not a state one, and one that came with a fair amount of power and patronage. Since Lincoln's term in Congress was about to expire, his friends urged him to apply for this post, but Lincoln was reluctant to give up his law career. He finally agreed to apply for the job when the choice was deadlocked between two other Illinois candidates and it looked like the appointment might go to someone from outside of Illinois. Whigs from northern Illinois then decided that too many appointments were going to party members from other parts of the state and put up their own candidate against Lincoln. The choice was left to the Secretary of the Interior, who selected the other candidate.
1854: Ran for Senate of the United States - lost.
It should be noted that in Lincoln's time, candidates for U.S. Senate seats in Illinois were not directly elected by popular vote. Voters cast ballots only for state legislators, and the General Assembly of the state legislature then selected nominees to fill open Senate seats. So, in 1854 (and again in 1856) Lincoln was not technically running for the Senate; he was campaigning on behalf of Whig candidates for state legislature seats all throughout Illinois. Nonetheless, after the 1854 state election, Lincoln made it known that he sought the open U.S. Senate seat for Illinois. The first ballot of a divided General Assembly was taken in February 1855, and Lincoln received the most votes but was six votes shy of the requisite majority. When the process remained deadlocked after another eight ballots, Lincoln withdrew from the race to lend his support to another candidate and ensure that the Senate seat did not go to a pro-slavery Democrat.
1856: Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention - got less than 100 votes.
This is both misleading and inaccurate. Lincoln did not "seek" the vice-presidential nomination at the 1856 Republican national convention in Philadelphia; his name was put into nomination by the Illinois delegation after most national delegates were already committed to other candidates. (Lincoln himself was back in Illinois, not at the convention, and did not know he had been nominated until friends brought him the news.) Nonetheless, in an informal ballot, Lincoln received 110 votes out of 363, not at all a bad showing for someone who was little known outside his home state.
1858: Ran for U.S. Senate again - again he lost.
Again, Lincoln was not directly campaigning for a Senate seat, although it was a foregone conclusion that he would be the Republicans' choice to take Stephen Douglas' U.S. Senate seat if his party won control of the Illinois state legislature. Lincoln actually bested Douglas in that Republican candidates received slightly over 50% of the popular vote, but the Republicans failed to gain control of the legislature, and so Douglas retained his seat in the Senate.
1860: Elected president of the United States.
And again in 1864. A pretty good ending for someone who wasn't quite the life-long failure this glurge makes him out to be.
Last updated: 30 July