HE NEVER GAVE UP
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
The statement that the Lincolns were “forced out of
their home” in 1816 isn’t completely false, but it
is somewhat 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
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
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
The other part of this statement, that a
seven-year-old Abraham Lincoln “had to work to
support” his family, is also 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 “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.
The statement that Lincoln “failed in business” in
1831 is another misleading claim, because it implies
that he was the owner or operator of the failed
business, or at least 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 on behalf of 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 elevated
one … [legislators] dealt mostly with such issues as
whether cattle had to be fenced in or could enjoy
free range.” Lincoln finished eighth in a field of
thirteen (with the top four vote-getters becoming
legislators). However, this same year Lincoln also
achieved something of which he was very proud, when
the members of a volunteer militia company he had
joined selected him as their captain. Lincoln said
many years later that this was “a success which gave
me more pleasure than any I have had since.” (He
also noted later in his career that his defeat in
the 1832 legislative election was the only time he
“was ever beaten on a direct vote of the people.”)
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
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
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
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.
Much of Lincoln’s relationship with New Salem
resident Ann Rutledge remains a mystery, and several
aspects of it — including whether or not they were
actually engaged (at the time they met, Ann was
betrothed to someone else) — are based more on
speculation than documented fact. Whatever the exact
nature of their relationship, however, her death in
the summer of 1835 appears to have affected Lincoln
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 the notion that he somehow found
time to stay “in bed for six months” is not. 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.
The 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.
This statement is erroneous. Lincoln was named as a
presidential elector at the Illinois state Whig
convention on 8 October 1839, and he campaigned as a
Whig elector during the 1840, 1844, 1852, and 1856
presidential elections (skipping the 1848 campaign
because he was serving in Congress).
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
1846: Ran for Congress again – this time he won –
went to Washington and did a good job.
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 did not
run for re-election 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 therefore go to a compromise
candidate 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
1854: Ran for Senate of the United States – lost.
In Lincoln’s time, U.S. senators were not elected
through direct popular vote; they were appointed by
state legislatures. In Illinois, voters cast ballots
only for state legislators, and the General Assembly
of the state legislature then selected nominees to
fill open U.S. 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
1856: Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his
party’s national convention – got less than 100
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 the sense that Republican
legislative candidates statewide received slightly
over 50% of the popular vote, but the Republicans
failed to gain control of the state legislature, and
Douglas therefore retained his seat in the Senate.
1860: Elected president of the United States.
And again in1864. A pretty good ending for someone
who wasn’t quite the perennial failure this glurge
makes him out to be.
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