The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.
In more ways than one, Lincoln was the heir of Henry Clay, whom he idolized as “my beau ideal of a statesman.” Literally and figuratively, he hailed from Clay’s neck of the woods – Hardin County, Kentucky, still very much the frontier when Lincoln was born in 1809. So was southwest Indiana, which he later described as “a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals in the woods” at the time his family relocated there when he was a child. The Lincolns eventually settled in Illinois, largely because real estate titles were less confused, thanks to Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinances, which laid down a grid for orderly settlement of the region known as the Old Northwest.
In a brief autobiographical statement he wrote at the time he was first running for president, Lincoln described his childhood unsentimentally: “A[braham] though very young was large of age and had an axe put into his hands at once, and from that within his twentythird year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument – less, of course, plowing and harvesting seasons.” He had little in the way of formal schooling, which all told added up to about a year; “there was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education,” he said of his youth. That he learned to read at all, much less become one of the greatest masters of the English language, is nothing short of miraculous.
Because I have already written about Lincoln as the apotheosis of the self-made man in American history, and because the outlines of his life are familiar to many people who otherwise know little about American history, I will not trace his biography in any detail here. There are, however, two points worth emphasizing. The first is that almost uniquely among the political figures that invoked the myth of the self-made man, Lincoln’s background was authentically modest. In contrast to contemporaries like William Henry Harrison (who won the presidency in 1840 by championing his lowly origins), Lincoln really was born in a log cabin. Besides rural poverty, his childhood adversity included the death of his mother when he was nine years old, chilly relations with a remote father, and chronic depression that dogged him well into adulthood. He had a difficult marriage, endured the death of two sons, and experienced multiple political defeats, most painfully in his U.S. Senate race of 1858, which he began as an underdog and came far closer to winning than anybody had a right to expect.
To be sure, Lincoln had valuable resources, too; his stepmother proved to be understanding and supportive, and his wife was also supportive and politically shrewd (Clay had been a frequent guest in her home in her youth). And there’s simply no other way to understand the confluence of events leading up to Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency in 1860 – a fractured Republican field, a convention in his hometown, and the likelihood in a badly divided electorate that any nominee from his party would go on to win the election – as anything other than astounding good luck. But the sheer unlikelihood of Lincoln’s rise made his vertiginous rise all the more thrilling – and all the more intriguing. Future president Woodrow Wilson evocatively captured what made Lincoln so special, not simply in terms of the man himself but also in terms of what he seemed to represent. “This is the mystery of democracy,” he said in a centennial speech he delivered at Lincoln’s (reputed) birthplace, “that its richest fruits spring up from soils which no man has prepared and in circumstances where they are least expected.”
The other, more important point I’d like to make is that Lincoln didn’t just live the dream. He thought long and hard about it, and discussed it with a passionate clarity that was always more than a mere political talking point. Lincoln’s understanding of the reality of upward mobility helps explain his hatred of slavery. Though always insisted that it was a moral issue – “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing his wrong” – he made the political case against it on the basis of the way it impeded upward mobility, because slave owners privileged (human) property over opportunity.
A speech Lincoln gave in Cincinnati in 1859 is notable in this regard. He began by noting that critics of the emerging capitalist order claimed that all labor must be compelled by either wages or slavery, and that the latter was preferable not only to the master, but also to the slave, who had more personal security than the casual laborer vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the free labor market. His reply:
There is no such thing as a man who is a hired laborer, of a necessity, always remaining in his early condition. The general rule is otherwise. I know it is so; and I will tell you why. When at an early age, I was myself a hired laborer, at twelve dollars per month; and therefore I do know that there is not always the necessity for actual labor because once there was propriety in being so. My understanding of the hired laborer is this: A young man finds himself of an age to be dismissed from parental control; he has for his capital nothing, save two strong hands that God has given him, a heart willing to labor, and a freedom to choose the mode of his work and the manner of his employer; he has got no soil nor shop, and he avails himself of the opportunity of hiring himself to some man who has capital to pay him a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. He is benefited by availing himself of that privilege. He works industriously, he behaves soberly, and the result of a year or two’s labor is a surplus of capital. Now he buys land on his own hook; he settles, marries, begets sons and daughters, and in course of time he too has enough capital to hire some new beginner.
Significantly, Lincoln saw the benefits of such a system in social terms. “This is essentially a People’s contest,” he told Congress as the Civil War was breaking out in 1861. “On the one side of the Union, is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders – to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all – to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
Three years later, Lincoln made the point a different way to a group of Ohio soldiers: “I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House,” he told them. “I am living witness than any of your children may look to come hear as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright – not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.” Slavery threatened this jewel. And when that threat became mortal, Lincoln acted to destroy slavery in order to save it. He lived by that credo, and died so that it may live – for all Americans.
Next: Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Bob Dylan of the 19th century