Lincoln wasn't a failure at 50

tags: Lincoln



Scott A. Sandage is the author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.

After consecutive political defeats in the early 1960s, Richard Nixon decorated his law office with a copper plaque entitled “Lincoln’s Failures.”* You can still buy a version of this plaque in the form of crinkly faux parchment at souvenir stands or as a framed executive motivational poster, and it goes something like this:

Failed in business—1831
Defeated for Legislature—1832
Sweetheart died—1835
Nervous breakdown—1836

And so on, one setback after another, until: Elected president—1860.

“Lincoln’s Failures” had become popular as a newspaper filler item in the early 20th century, and historians and myth busters have been trying to debunk it ever since. They quibble over details (he was only a clerk in a store that closed!) and omissions (he was elected captain of his militia company in 1832!), they note that scholarly consensus keeps changing about Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with his “sweetheart” Ann Rutledge (whose early death hardly counts as his failure) and about his melancholy (which may have counted as a failure in his day but not in ours).

Nevertheless, “Lincoln’s Failures” is a success story, reprinted and adapted everywhere from “Dear Abby” to Chicken Soup for the Soul. It endures because of the emotional truth it conveys—that failure can lead to success—and as a reminder of something that Lincoln himself knew very well: that beneath the great American dream of success lies an even more American fear of failure....




comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list