Our 16th President Came to Genius Out of Failure

By Jan Jacobi, Clayton, Mo., head of the middle school at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School. This commentary appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , February 11, 2000.


A.LincolnAfter visiting the Lincoln sites in Springfield the idyllic town of New Salem where he spent his 20s, his house, the Old State Capitol and the tomb I always feel incomplete. A unifying thread is missing.

The City Fathers of Springfield have recognized this problem and have commissioned Gyo Obata to design an Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Visitors Center. Preparing for this assignment, Gyo asked schoolchildren what they knew about Lincoln and what they might like to learn about him. One seventh grader wrote, He failed many times at many things.

Perhaps that seventh grader got her idea about Lincoln from a poster in some grade school classrooms. It depicts four presidents and lists their failures. Underneath Franklin Roosevelt's picture we are told, FDR flunked out of Columbia Law School.

The Lincoln entry reads, Abraham Lincoln's first business as owner of a dry goods store was a flop. He was later appointed postmaster in his township and had the worst efficiency record in the county. (The latter is news to me. As postmaster, he became an inveterate reader of newspapers, but I didn't realize that reading the mail rather than delivering it had impaired his efficiency.)

At each stage of his life Lincoln knew failure and defeat.

In his 20s, Lincoln struggled with identity issues. By studying grammar and reading extensively, he acquired knowledge and discovered the rhythms of language. In speeches before the New Salem debating club, he honed his orator's voice. In the law and in politics, he found the vehicles that engaged his passion and his talent could emerge.

But against this backdrop of self-discovery came discouragement and failure. He lost his first job, as clerk in Denton Offutt's store, when Offutt's business enterprises collapsed. Lincoln and Berry, a successor store, failed, leaving the partners in debt. If we give moderate credence to the tale of Ann Rutledge, he was unlucky in love.

In his first campaign for the state Legislature, he placed eighth among 13 candidates. In a campaign document, he had stated that if he were to lose, he was too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.

The middle period in Lincoln's life was spent in Springfield. There he became a successful lawyer and made a brief foray into national politics.

He still faced identity issues. Abruptly, he broke off his engagement to Mary Todd and, as a result, experienced a profound depression. The core of it was the failure of will that he saw in himself. Helping his friend Joshua Speed deal with similar apprehensions about marriage, he rallied, and a year later reconnected with Mary.

After his term in Congress, his political career languished. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 galvanized him into action, but in 1855 and 1858, he experienced two bitter defeats in contests for the Senate. In the 1855 campaign, he came agonizingly close to victory.

Lincoln coveted a Senate seat. It was where he saw himself serving most effectively as the country polarized in the late 1850s. In early 1860, when his name first surfaced as a presidential possibility, Lincoln did not think he was qualified.

He wasn't. At least not at the outset. As president, no one has had a steeper learning curve, and no one has brought a slimmer resume.

Failure characterized the first two years of the Lincoln presidency. On the battlefield there were few Union victories. McClellan dithered and Lincoln forbore. Support ebbed for his centrist policies. The Radicals pushed him to declare emancipation a war aim while conservatives tried to pull him away from making it a war about the Negro. His party suffered losses in the mid-term elections. David Donald reports he told the Cabinet that at times, 'he felt almost ready to hang himself.'

statue of A. LincolnGradually Lincoln grew into the president who saved our country. But even in the summer of 1864, influential members of his party asked him to resign as the nominee for the November election. In August 1864, he wrote a sealed memorandum to the Cabinet stating that, in all likelihood, he would be defeated. It was not until his re-election that the issue of his continuing leadership was firmly resolved.

Why should we emphasize Lincoln's failures?

If we want Lincoln's life to be instructive, particularly to schoolchildren, we must give them a flesh-and-blood Lincoln. In giving them a model of perfection, we do a disservice. As a marble icon he is impossible to emulate.

Children need to be taught that failure is often the first step toward ultimate success. Failure is painful, but it can be constructive. Those who fail open themselves to learning and growth.

How did Lincoln cope with these episodes of failure? What kept him going?

He left us no diary entries on this topic. Those closest to him tell us he shared nothing about his inner life. We have to speculate.

The quality that enabled him to cope with failure was his ability to learn from it. If he hit a wall or made a mistake, he turned to logic and intuition, corrected what he could and moved on.

Garry Wills believes Lincoln was a genius. His genius took many forms, but foremost was his ability to read himself and to read others. From the events of his life, we can surmise that he had remarkable powers of self-reflection.

He developed supreme confidence in his faculties. He was ambitious and persistent. He was fatalistic. But, above all, he was a lifelong learner. From that essential element came the capacity to endure.

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