/ Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made Man

Americans revere Abraham Lincoln as perhaps the nation's quintessential self-made man. His remarkable struggle to overcome humble beginnings and achieve the pinnacle of success remains one of the most cherished themes within the Lincoln legend and, indeed, within all of American history. An astute mythmaker, Lincoln himself nurtured this tradition of humble origins to accentuate his own rise from obscurity to distinction. Throughout his life, Lincoln disparaged his own parentage and childhood rather than romanticizing them. In fact, Lincoln self-consciously grounded his entire political career within the context of a personal triumph over inherited adversity. During his very first campaign for public office, he declared, "I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life." Three decades later, Lincoln was still sounding the theme of his own humble origins. Running for president in 1860, he noted that both his parents had descended from "undistinguished families," and he depicted his youth as physically hard and culturally unrewarding. The biography Lincoln authorized for his presidential campaign pictured his family as "poor and uneducated" and concluded that "It would be difficult to conceive of more unpromising circumstances than those under which he was ushered into life." By denigrating his own origins, Lincoln simultaneously identified himself as a "common man" while emphasizing his own self-improvement. Although a polished speaker, adroit politician, and prosperous attorney, Lincoln "grew up in full sympathy with the people." In short, throughout his life he consistently portrayed himself as a "self-made man." [1] Page  [End Page 1]

Following his lead, Lincoln's early biographers elaborated this self-made myth far beyond anything that he would have recognized or approved. They vastly overstated his humble beginnings, denigrated his ancestry, impugned his parents' character, questioned their legitimacy and, eventually, even his own. This "hereditary" impeachment of Lincoln began with his longtime law partner, William Herndon, who likened Lincoln's origins to a "stagnant, putrid pool," and it flourished. During this century, historians and biographers have gradually rehabilitated the reputation of Lincoln's family and his frontier heritage as contributors to the future president's success. As the severity of Lincoln's origins has faded as a biographical theme, however, his reputation as a self-made man has suffered a corresponding decline. Historians argue, justifiably, that his family and childhood gave him a better start in life than they once acknowledged. Further, Lincoln, in his own words, "made friends rapidly" and cultivated powerful personal and political allies during his long climb upward. Finally, Lincoln married well, into one of the wealthiest and most influential families in central Illinois.[2]

Fifty years ago, Richard Hofstadter framed the modern debate when he questioned Lincoln's qualifications as a self-made man, his sincerity in espousing self-improvement, and even the value of the self-made ethic in antebellum America. In short, Hofstadter labeled the self-made ethic a "myth" that Lincoln used opportunistically to advance his own political career and the fortunes of the new Republican party that he headed. Since then, historians such as Gabor Boritt, Edward Pessen, Norman Graebner, and David Donald have re-examined Lincoln's status as a self-made man and identified its various political functions—advancing Whig and Republican ideology and programs, supporting Union and emanci- Page  [End Page 2] pation, and of course advancing Lincoln himself. In short, as both politician and president, Lincoln clearly had practical incentives to espouse the self-made ethic.[3]

In light of its broad cultural appeal and stubborn popular persistence, however, the self-made "myth" deserves another look. In the half-century since Hofstadter's essay, historians and literary critics have debated the self-made ethic both as a fundamental ideal within American society—a literal guiding "myth"—and as an objective historical reality.[4] This reassessment has uncovered surprising complexity within the self-made ethic and put it into its proper historical context. Historians have demonstrated that the self-made ethic performed not merely political functions but also important social and cultural functions during the nineteenth century, both for society as a whole and for individuals such as Lincoln. A comparison of Lincoln with his contemporaries suggests that, whatever the merits of self-improvement for most Americans of his age, Lincoln himself was peculiarly adept at identifying and seizing opportunities for advancement. In short, the circumstances of Lincoln's rise Page  [End Page 3] in life single him out as a real, indeed a typical, self-made man of his age.

During Lincoln's youth, the American economy boomed, particularly during the 1830s. This "Jacksonian Boom," as it was called, rested on a dramatic expansion of agricultural production that coincided with a massive upsurge in westward settlement. Indeed, this First Great Migration, as Malcolm Rohrbaugh has labeled it, lasted from 1815 to 1830 and brought the Lincoln family westward. They moved from Kentucky to Indiana in 1816 and then again to Illinois in 1830. This unprecedented wave of expansion crested between 1832 and 1836, and western land sales reached a historic peak during the 1830s, topping out in 1837. The 1830s also brought a tremendous rise in farm prices, which rose 50 percent between 1834 and 1837 alone. This unremitting expansion coincided exactly with Lincoln's arrival in Illinois, his youth in New Salem, and his arrival in Springfield. Precisely during this short-lived western economic boom, Lincoln came of age, "studied what he should do," and improved himself. His admission to the bar and his move to Springfield occurred in early 1837, just as the boom crested and began to wane. His timing could not have been more fortunate.[5]

The self-made ethic originated precisely during this decade of unprecedented expansion. In fact, it performed an important cultural function during this climactic economic transition. The relatively sudden appearance of a host of new occupational opportunities for young men transformed not only Lincoln personally but American society as a whole. Historians have identified the emergence of an "American entrepreneurial culture" during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, which Robert Wiebe termed the "opening of American society." This period of formative commercial organization spawned a generation of young men who aggressively took advantage of the full range of new economic opportunities becoming available to them for the first time. "The elaboration of a national market," according to Joyce Appleby, "depended on many, many young men leaving the place of their birth Page  [End Page 4] and trying their hand at new careers," just as Lincoln did. Instead of following—and honoring—the traditional paths blazed by their parents and ancestors (for Lincoln, as for most Americans, this was agriculture), these young innovators struck out on their own in a dramatic burst of individualism that carried significant risks but also promised substantial rewards. "The range and sweep of enterprise in this period are awesome," Appleby concluded, "suggesting the widespread willingness to be uprooted, to embark on an uncharted course of action, to take risks with one's resources—above all the resource of one's youth." In the process, a minority of pioneering entrepreneurs redefined "success" in American culture through a "shifting of loyalties from home and habit to self and progress." Success no longer meant maintaining the integrity and independence of a lineal family while passing on a farm or a shop to the next generation. Young men now sought immediate, tangible, personal rewards and joined a new, hectic competition for individual success. In transforming American cultural ideals, these innovative youths set an example for future generations. As Appleby concluded, "Their lives served as models of innovation in a society losing all desire to replicate past ways of doing things." In short, they became America's "new cultural heroes."[6]

Rising through their own exertions and owing little to tradition—and even less to their families—the new entrepreneurs acquired the label "self-made men." Significantly, the label itself was new and was in fact invented in 1832 by Lincoln's own personal "cultural hero," Henry Clay. Just nine years later, Lincoln himself acquired the label. The term echoed the rise of a new commitment to individualism in America. Indeed, the word "individualism" first appeared in 1827 in England and, in an American context, in 1835. In the first book celebrating the self-made man, published in 1848, John Frost posed this definition: "A self-made man means one who has rendered himself accomplished, eminent, rich, or great by his own unaided efforts." The seeds of self-made success lay within the individual rather than society or a family. As Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up, "the reason why this or that man is fortunate is not to be told. It lies in the man; that is all anybody can tell you about it." Lincoln, of course, became the quintessential self-made man, as well as the greatest American cultural hero of all. Page  [End Page 5] As John Cawelti concluded in his analysis of the nineteenth-century self-made ethic, "the legend of Lincoln was the highpoint." [7]

More than just a congratulatory label, the self-made ethic encouraged and facilitated this new quest for individual success. Cultural historians have analyzed the functions that the self-made ethic performed in nineteenth-century society. Arising in the pivotal 1830s, the self-made ethic justified the single-minded pursuit of opportunity. The myth of the self-made man smoothed the potentially acrimonious transition from families as the basis of American society to the new economic order based on individual achievement. Departing from the traditional celebration of the family as the foundation of any stable society, the self-made ethic now celebrated individual advancement, even when achieved at the expense of one's family. Henry Clay himself coined the term in defense of entrepreneurs who earned their wealth rather than inheriting it. Self-improvement, not family, was the new source of success in America. Indeed, historian Susan Gray has recently contrasted the "self-made men" of the mid-nineteenth century with the "family-made men" of an earlier age. Within a fluid and dynamic industrializing economy, inherited wealth and security now seemed less relevant than ever before. By the 1830s, the transition to a new market economy demanded a generation of individuals who were willing to forego the traditional security of a family, to take personal risks in pursuit of profit, and to seize opportunities whenever and wherever they appeared. [8]

Lincoln clearly fit—and benefited from—this contemporary conception of "self-made manhood." Lincoln left his family in 1831, at age 22, and arrived in New Salem, in his own words, "a strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy." In fact, this oft-quoted passage was as much a boast as a lament. As Cawelti observed, "When Page  [End Page 6] he becomes successful, the American self-made man likes to boast of his achievement, to exaggerate the obscurity of his origin." Far from relying on their families for a start in life, self-made men were eager to leave them behind, physically and emotionally, even if that meant years of struggle ahead. Just as Lincoln left both farming and his family with little apparent regret, Appleby argues that self-made men viewed home-leaving "as a deliverance. In retrospect, no regret or nostalgia appears. Moving on meant moving out to a larger world." Like Lincoln, many self-made men never looked back, cutting their family ties, even to the point of resolving never to see their parents again. In a traditional farm economy, such a decision initiated a "dangerous passage," in Carol Nackenoff's description, a passage that few were willing to undertake.[9]

These dangers were real. Throughout American history, most settlers traveled as members of a family rather than individually. Far from disrupting families, westward migration represented an important strategy for keeping families together and improving their lot in life. Family stability eased the hazardous journey westward, and two or three families might strike out together for the frontier. Such pioneer families had a much better chance of surviving and succeeding in their new frontier homes. As Kathleen Conzen summed it up, "To provide for their children, families moved west." A minority of migrants, however, traveled alone. Such "entrepreneurial" settlers forsook their families to pursue economic opportunities through individual advancement, usually in towns and cities. Entrepreneurial settlers were young men who looked beyond their families for economic opportunity, marshaling their own resources to succeed in an increasingly urban world. These were the new self-made men. [10]

True to this pattern, most of Springfield's early settlers came west with their families. Table 1 presents a sample of 130 early settlers Page  [End Page 7] who arrived in Springfield between 1818 and 1848. Three-quarters of these early settlers arrived with their families, either as married adults or children. Married men accounted for more than one-half of the early settlers. They typically married at age 24, usually in their home states, and spent a decade—their late twenties and early thirties—back east establishing a family. On average, they raised two children in the East before coming to Illinois with a stable, nuclear family. In fact, the typical married settler arrived in Sangamon County at age 33 with a wife and two children. Another one-fifth of the settlers were children moving west with their families. They were typically 16 years old on arrival, old enough to travel but still young enough to stay at home for another five years, within the shelter of a family. In short, the typical settler arrived with a family—a nuclear family of two parents and two children—and later augmented their families further with the addition of four more children in Illinois. [11]

side of Springfield town square, circa 1855.
West side of Springfield town square, circa 1855.

side of Springfield town square, circa 1855.
North side of Springfield town square, circa 1855. Page  [End Page 8]

Table 1. Family status of early settlers in Springfield, 1818–1848
Married AdultsChildrenSingle AdultsLincoln
Percent of Settlers53.819.226.9
Age at Arrival33162222
Age at Marriage24263133
Children before Arrival2.3
Children after Arrival4.04.24.34
Total Children6.34.24.34
Age in 185048363841

By contrast, Lincoln and the other single settlers were risk-takers, leaving their families behind to succeed—or fail—on their own. A decided minority in numbers and spirit, they represented just one-fourth of the region's pioneers. These single settlers came west at age 22, on average, just a year after reaching manhood but be- Page  [End Page 9] fore starting families of their own. They arrived alone without any relatives and usually without any resources, such as an education, a business, or a farm. Often possessing little more than youth and optimism, single settlers spent their twenties getting established in their new homes, clerking in a business, apprenticing in a trade, or learning a profession, before even thinking about marriage. In fact, they postponed marriage until age 31, seven years later than the married settlers and about nine years after arriving. They were willing to make this unusual personal sacrifice in hopes of achieving self-made success.

Lincoln fit this mold perfectly. He arrived at age 22, like the average single settler. The typical single settler arrived in 1834 during the economic boom. Lincoln arrived a few years sooner, in 1831, which gave him a leg up on the other young settlers, an extra three years to exploit his economic opportunities. The typical single settler delayed marriage for nine years while becoming established in life. Lincoln delayed his marriage for eleven years after arriving, not because he was particularly homely or awkward around women. This delayed marriage simply made sense for any single settler struggling to get ahead. Finally, after marriage, the typical settler bore four children, as did Lincoln. What did set Lincoln apart from most single settlers, however, was his extraordinary success. Most single settlers foundered and soon moved on. Single settlers were twice as likely as married settlers to pull up stakes after a few years and leave the region. In fact, only one in seven single settlers survived and settled down for as long as a decade. Almost incredibly, only 21 settlers who lived in Sangamon County in 1831—the year Lincoln arrived—survived and remained in the community until 1860. Only one in four settlers arrived alone without a family, and only one in fifteen succeeded over the long run, as Lincoln did. Indeed, this was the basic characteristic of the self-made man, leaving his family behind to go it alone—and succeeding. Lincoln belonged to the tiny minority of his peers who managed to do both.[12]

Further, self-made men not only left their families, they rejected them. Self-made men claimed most of the credit for their own suc- Page  [End Page 10] cesses in life and granted their families, particularly their fathers, little or no thanks at all. In her study of the earliest self-made men in America, for example, Appleby observed a remarkable "display of early independence, with the son's ambition juxtaposed against the father's failure." The result was a formulaic "denial of the father's contribution to the son's life" that was nearly universal in autobiographies of the age, including Lincoln's. Irvin Wyllie observed that "Many self-help handbooks therefore encouraged farm boys to leave home." "A boy at home seldom has a chance," according to one advice book. "Nobody believes in him,—least of all his relations." Upon leaving home, emotional detachment was essential. "The capacity to sever the actual emotional links to the family," according to Appleby, "seems an important factor." Lincoln's emotional distance from his parents, of course, is legendary. Lincoln rarely saw his father and stepmother, although they lived one hundred miles away. He never invited them to Springfield. They never met his wife and children. In a celebrated episode, Lincoln refused to visit his father on his deathbed, concluding that "if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant." Finally, Lincoln named his fourth son Thomas to honor his father only after the old man had died. And he gave the boy a nickname—Tad—rather than calling him Thomas. In this physical and psychological distance from his family, Lincoln was typical of the self-made men of his age. [13]

Significantly, self-made men struggled against their parents, and particularly their fathers, in pursuit of an education. Indeed, their fathers' resistance to education was the single greatest source of friction in their families, frequently causing a breach with their parents that never healed. Lincoln's father, of course, is notorious for contributing virtually nothing to his son's success. Indeed, according to Lincoln, he "never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name." As Lincoln summed up his own experience at home, "There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course when I came of age I did not know much." Among self-made men, the predictable breach with one's family almost invariably centered on education. "Intelligence, an aptitude for learning, an early gift for reading, a yearning for more schooling," according to Appleby, "these were the notes that, in retrospect, or- Page  [End Page 11] chestrated the movement from home and justified the rupture, if not in the eyes of parents, clearly for the departing sons." Hence, Lincoln's own recollection that "After he was twenty three, and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar." A novel and growing social distance from one's family was utterly pervasive among the self-made men of the age and says far less about Lincoln personally than about his emerging culture. Indeed, this was precisely the cultural function of the self-made ethic—"orchestrating the movement from home" among America's ambitious youths. The self-made ethic both encouraged and helped young men to leave their families behind, both physically and emotionally.[14]

The key to success was now self-improvement. The new culture of achievement therefore demanded a strict regimen of self-culture or "self-help." A veritable cult of self-improvement emerged to encourage young men to nurture a host of inner qualities that soon became values within the new society. Self-reliance, industry, frugality, sobriety, loyalty, and honesty all became hallowed virtues, along with the once forbidden qualities of competitiveness, individualism, and ambition. Honesty became the highest virtue. Society no longer judged men according to their family backgrounds but rather their character as individuals. Hence the label "Honest Abe." Cut off from families, self-made men now joined together to improve themselves. In 1827, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the "disposition among men of associating themselves to promote any purpose. (Millions of societies.)" The most important societies for self-made men, of course, were educational—the "intellectual and moral associations of America" that Alexis De Tocqueville celebrated during the 1830s.[15]

Lincoln's education was typical, fulfilling Joseph Kett's image of adolescents practicing "a mixture of formal schooling and private self-education." Lincoln reminisced that "the aggregate of his schooling did not amount for one year." Instead, he joined several self-improvement groups, including the New Salem Debating So- Page  [End Page 12] ciety and the Springfield Lyceum. By and large, however, self-education was solitary, even secretive. As one New Salem acquaintance recalled, "When his associates would return in the Evening to their various homes he would go to his reading & in the morning he would read till his associates would Come back the next day." Indeed, thirty years later Lincoln wrote pointedly, perhaps proudly, that "He studied with nobody." The result was a long period of private study followed by brief but dramatic displays of knowledge in some formal, public setting. Polished orations provoked the "infinite astonishment" of Lincoln's audiences, heightening his reputation for self-improvement. One witness to an early performance remembered that Lincoln "was dressed in a suit of jeans with heavy boots and looked like a farmer, and the people were very much surprised when they heard his speech." In modern parlance, Lincoln and other self-made men consciously "lowered expectations" and then rose to the occasion. Hence the rhetorical value of Lincoln's famed humility. [16]

Self-education, however, was a rare achievement in a pioneer culture, even one on the verge of a commercial revolution. Like most farmboys, Lincoln received little encouragement from his family to forego manual labor to read and think. Back in Indiana, for example, his love of reading and writing earned him little more than a reputation for laziness. John Romine, who hired the boy, recalled that "Abe was awful lazy: he worked for me—was always reading & thinking—used to get mad at him." Lincoln's second cousin Dennis Hanks remembered that "Lincoln was lazy—a very lazy man—He was always reading—scribbling—writing—Ciphering—writing Poetry &c. &c." Even in Illinois, Lincoln's solitary reading habits earned him an unflattering reputation. Stephen T. Logan, cousin of Mary Todd and later Lincoln's law partner, heard about the lazy young newcomer and later reminisced that "The impression that I had at the time was that he was a sort of loafer." Only much later did anyone recognize this diligent reading, think- Page  [End Page 13] ing, and writing as hard work, in fact a new kind of labor, mental work. As Lincoln's brother-in-law Nathaniel Grigsby put it, "Abe worked almost alone from the head." Indeed, during these years Americans redefined work itself, drawing a new distinction between physical and mental labor and enthusiastically endorsing the latter. Lincoln's step-mother made the distinction clearly: "Abe was a good boy: he didn't like physical labor—was diligent for Knowledge, wished to Know." His step-sister drew the same distinction when she recalled that "Abe was not Energetic Except in one thing—he was active & persistant in learning." One hallmark of a truly self-made man was an inexorable rise from manual to mental labor, usually accomplished through diligent—active and persistent—self-education. [17]

The ultimate test of a self-made man was therefore his success, a rapid rise upward in life. The simplest way of dramatizing Lincoln's own remarkable rise is to chart the occupations that he practiced during his lifetime and to compare his career to those of his peers. Table 2 presents the "occupational ladder" that prevailed in Sangamon County in 1840 and matches it against Lincoln's own occupational rise. As defined by the U.S. Census, Sangamon County's occupational ladder had four "rungs" in 1840. Table 2 arrays them from the most inclusive at the bottom—farming—to the most exclusive—professions—at the top. Remarkably, during a mere six years, while living in New Salem without a family, Lincoln climbed steadily upward from the bottom rung to the top. Like most westward settlers in American history, Lincoln arrived in Illinois as a farmer. So did 80 percent of his peers. Farming, of course, was the occupation that he inherited from his family. In one of his autobiographical sketches, Lincoln emphasized that "I was raised to farm work, which I continued till I was twenty two." After arriving in Page  [End Page 14] New Salem, however, he gave up farming and tried his hand—sometimes unsuccessfully—at a variety of nonagricultural pursuits. In fact, during six years, Lincoln practiced at least ten different occupations. He persistently worked his way upward from the manual callings of flatboatman and miller to the commercial occupations of store clerk and merchant. This third, commercial "rung" of the ladder supported only one-in-forty of Lincoln's peers. Finally, at age 28, Lincoln became a lawyer, joining the mere 2 percent of his peers who practiced a profession. By this definition, Lincoln began at the bottom of the occupational ladder and in six years—between ages 22 and 28—worked his way steadily to the top. During this crucial period of his youth, in fact, a family might well have encumbered Lincoln and impeded his rise upward. [18]

Table 2. Lincoln's climb up the occupational ladder in Sangamon County
LincolnSangamon County, 1840
Militia captain23
Store clerk22–23Manufactures/Trades15.7

As a young man, in the Illinois of the 1830s, Lincoln rose from poverty to prominence through self-improvement, hard work, persistence, and individual effort, but above all without the help—or hindrance—of a family. In fact, Lincoln rejected his family as no help at all, a basic characteristic of the historical self-made man. Historians have focused on the symbolic functions of the self-made ethic since Lincoln's death, viewing it as one of his most enduring Page  [End Page 15] legacies. [19] But they have neglected its cultural functions during his own lifetime. Beyond its political uses, the self-made ethic encouraged young men, such as Lincoln, to leave—even flee—their families and their farms, to take risks in the burgeoning commercial economy, to join together to succeed in life, and above all to improve themselves. The self-made ethic eased this often difficult and sometimes painful transition from a society based on families to one based on individual success. In this sense, the ethic—even as a myth—helped to shape the course of Lincoln's personal life, as well as his political career. Indeed, the self-made ethic emerged during Lincoln's formative years and undoubtedly emboldened him, along with his peers, to abandon more traditional paths, to test his own fortunes—or fate—and to depend on himself. The self-made ethic rewarded those few who did succeed, granting them all the credit for their own achievements in life, singling them out as extraordinary individuals, and encouraging others to follow their lead. In short, Lincoln not only contributed to the self-made myth; he benefited from it. Indeed, his life confirmed and strengthened it.

While Lincoln was a congressman in Washington in 1848, his young law partner, William Herndon, asked him for advice about how to succeed. Lincoln, quite typically, pondered the question and then frankly admitted that "I hardly know what to say." After searching for an answer, however, Lincoln soon found it within himself. The key to success was self-improvement. "The way for a young man to rise," Lincoln wrote, "is to improve himself every way he can." To Lincoln, self-improvement meant a combination of hard work and a single-minded, unwavering pursuit of knowledge. "You have been a laborious, studious young man," Lincoln reassured his partner. "You can not fail in any laudable object, unless you allow your mind to be improperly directed." A young man need not depend on his family, rely on his friends, or even go to school. The surest way for a man to succeed, from Lincoln's perspective, was to "improve himself."[20] Page  [End Page 16]


  1. Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), 3:511, 4:60–67; John Locke Scripps, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1860); reprint, ed. Roy P. Basler and Lloyd A. Dunlap (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), 27, 33, 40; John Carroll Power, History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois (Springfield, Ill.: Edwin A. Wilson, 1876), 10. Lincoln, of course, was borrowing rather than creating a rhetorical device. With the rise of democratic politics during the 1820s, presidential candidates—Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison most successfully—consciously fostered an image of humble origins to emphasize their sympathy with voters and their own natural talents and perseverance. Edward Pessen, The Log Cabin Myth: The Social Backgrounds of the Presidents (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984), dissects and largely dismisses the validity of this "log cabin myth" as applied to U.S. presidents and, 24–25, 91–92, Lincoln in particular. return to text
  2. Collected Works 4:64; William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon's Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle (Cleveland: World, 1942), vii; Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Macmillan, 1917). Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 232–43, reviews the controversy over Lincoln's ancestry. David M. Potter, The Lincoln Theme and American National Historiography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948); D. E. Fehrenbacher, The Changing Image of Lincoln in American Historiography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968); and John Y. Simon, House Divided: Lincoln and His Father (Fort Wayne, Ind.: Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum, 1987), put the controversy into broader historiographical context; quote from Simon, House Divided, 3. return to text
  3. Richard Hofstadter, "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth," in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage, 1948), 93–136, esp. 96; G. S. Boritt, "The Right to Rise," in The Public and the Private Lincoln: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Cullom Davis et al. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), 57–70, and Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1978); Jean H. Baker, "Not Much of Me": Abraham Lincoln As a Typical American (Fort Wayne, Ind.: Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum, 1988); Pessen, Log Cabin Myth; Norman A. Graebner, "The Apostle of Progress," in Davis, Public and Private Lincoln, 71–98. return to text
  4. The classic "mobility studies," which question the availability of economic opportunity for most Americans, remain Stephan Thernstrom, Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth-Century City (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964), and The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880–1970 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973). Reconsiderations of the self-made ethic include Irvin G. Wyllie, The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches (New York: Free Press, 1954); John G. Cawelti, Apostles of the Self-Made Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965); Richard Weiss, The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale (New York: Basic Books, 1969); Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: Norton, 1976); Daniel T. Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); Joyce Appleby, "New Cultural Heroes in the Early National Period," in The Culture of the Market: Historical Essays, ed. Thomas L. Haskell and Richard F. Teichgraeber III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 163–88; Carol Nackenoff, The Fictional Republic: Horatio Alger and American Political Discourse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Harvey J. Graff, Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995); and Judy Hilkey, Character Is Capital: Success Manuals and Manhood in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). return to text
  5. Peter Temin, The Jacksonian Economy (New York: Norton, 1969), 17–22, 68–69; Douglass C. North, The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790–1860 (New York: Norton, 1966), 136–37; Malcolm J. Rohrbough, The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789–1837 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 271–94; Graebner, "Apostle of Progress"; Hofstadter, "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth," 99; Malcolm J. Rohrbough, The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 157–217. return to text
  6. Appleby, "New Cultural Heroes," 163–88, esp. 166; Robert H. Wiebe, The Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion (New York: Knopf, 1984). return to text
  7. Quincy Whig, Jan. 1, 1841, quoted in Paul Simon, Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 231; John Frost, Self-Made Men of America (New York: W. H. Graham, 1848), iii; Weiss, American Myth of Success, 6; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson's Complete Works (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1883), 3:92; Appleby, "New Cultural Heroes," 188; Cawelti, Apostles, 44, 95. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 7:880, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to apply the word "individualism" to America in his Democracy in America, first published in 1835. return to text
  8. Wyllie, Self-Made Man; Cawelti, Apostles; E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 18–20; Susan E. Gray, The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 96–97. return to text
  9. Rotundo, American Manhood, 18–20; Wyllie, Self-Made Man, 24; Nackenoff, Fictional Republic, 34; Cawelti, Apostles, 2. return to text
  10. Charles Tilly and C. Harold Brown, "On Uprooting, Kinship and the Auspices of Migration," International Journal of Comparative Sociology 8 (1967):139–64; A. Gordon Darroch, "Migrants in the Nineteenth Century: Fugitives or Families in Motion?" Journal of Family History 6 (Fall 1981):257–77; Robert E. Bieder, "Kinship as a Factor in Migration," Journal of Marriage and the Family 35 (August 1973):429–39; Jack E. Eblen, "An Analysis of Nineteenth-Century Frontier Populations," Demography 2 (1965):399–413; Kathleen Neils Conzen, "A Saga of Families," in The Oxford History of the American West, ed. Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O'Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 314–57, esp. 320, 327–29, 333, 336. return to text
  11. This sample of 130 early settlers includes all white adult men who persisted in Springfield in two or more decennial censuses between 1830 and 1860 and for whom information on place of birth, date of arrival, date of marriage, and number of children appears in the following county histories: Power, Early Settlers; Joseph Wallace, Past and Present of the City of Springfield and Sangamon County, Illinois, 2 vols. (Chicago: S. J. Clarke, 1904); and Newton Bateman and Paul Selby, eds., Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois ... and History of Sangamon County, 2 vols. (Chicago: Munsell Publishing Company, 1912). Gregory S. Rose, "Information Sources for Nineteenth-Century Midwestern Migration," Professional Geographer 37 (February 1985):66–72, assesses the value of county histories for studying migration patterns. John C. Hudson, "North American Origins of Middlewestern Frontier Populations," Annals of the American Association of Geographers 78 (September 1988):395–413, uses county histories to map settlement patterns in the Midwest. Hudson concluded that analysis of 200 early settlers was sufficient to establish the general pattern for an entire county. This study employs a sample of 130 early settlers for the city of Springfield. Throughout the American West, about three-quarters of all settlers arrived with families, and Springfield reflected this general pattern; Eblen, "Nineteenth-Century Frontier Populations." return to text
  12. The comparison of single and married settlers' persistence was calculated from a linkage between Zimri A. Enos, "Springfield Residents before the Deep Snow," Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, Ill., and the U.S. Manuscript Census, Springfield, Illinois, 1840. James W. Adams and Alice Bee Kasakoff, "Migration and the Family in Colonial New England: The View from Genealogies," Journal of Family History 9 (Spring 1984):24–43, esp. 32, similarly found that nuclear families accounted for about one-half of all migrants. return to text
  13. Collected Works, 2:96–97; Appleby, "New Cultural Heroes," 173–78, 182, 184; Matthew H. Smith, Successful Folks: How They Win (Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company, 1878), 204, quoted in Wyllie, Self-Made Man, 28; Simon, House Divided, 10, 13, 15, 18; Rodney O. Davis, Abraham Lincoln: Son and Father (Galesburg, Ill.: Knox College, 1997). return to text
  14. Collected Works, 3:511, 4:61, 62; Appleby, "New Cultural Heroes," 172, 173, 176, 177, 178, 182; Simon, House Divided, 5. return to text
  15. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alexis De Tocqueville quoted in Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815–1840 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 146; Hilkey, Character is Capital; Wyllie, Self-Made Man, 29, 32, 38–50, 96, 141, 170; Joseph F. Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 38; Bledstein, Culture of Professionalism, 241; Graff, Conflicting Paths, 60–61; Joseph F. Kett, The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750–1990 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1994), 46–47, 48, 77–78. return to text
  16. Collected Works, 4:62, 65; Statement of Hardin Bale to William H. Herndon, May 29, 1865, Herndon-Weik Papers, Library of Congress, reprinted in Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, eds., Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 13; Statement of Nathaniel Grigsby, Silas Richardson, Nancy Richardson, and John Romine to William H. Herndon, Sept. 14, 1865, Herndon-Weik Papers, Library of Congress, Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 118; Letter of R. B. Rutledge to William H. Herndon, ca. Nov. 1, 1866, in Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 384; Harvey Lee Ross, The Early Pioneers and Pioneer Events of the State of Illinois (Chicago: Eastman Brothers, 1899), 118. return to text
  17. Statement of Dennis Hanks to William H. Herndon, Sept. 8, 1865, in Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 104; "Stephen T. Logan Talks About Lincoln," Bulletin of the Lincoln Centennial Association 12 (Sept. 1, 1928):1–5, esp. 2; Statement of Nathaniel Grigsby to William H. Herndon, Sept. 12, 1865, in Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 113; Statement of Sarah Bush Lincoln to William H. Herndon, Sept. 8, 1865, in Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 106–7; Statement of Matilda Johnston Moore to William H. Herndon, Sept. 8, 1865, in Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 109. Jonathan A. Glickstein, Concepts of Free Labor in Antebellum America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991); and Stuart M. Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 66–107, dissect the shift from manual to nonmanual work in Jacksonian America. return to text
  18. Collected Works, 3:511–12; Compendium of the Enumeration of the Inhabitants and Statistics of the United States [Sixth Census] (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Allen, 1841), 87. The U.S. Census of 1840 included two additional categories for occupations that were not practiced in Sangamon County—navigation of the ocean and navigation of canals, lakes, and rivers. A seventh category—mining—claimed only three practitioners and has therefore been excluded from the county's occupational ladder. Sangamon County hosted 3,856 gainfully employed men in 1840. return to text
  19. Important historiographical reviews include Roy P. Basler, The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935); Potter, Lincoln Theme; Fehrenbacher, Changing Image of Lincoln; Stephen Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man behind the Myths (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 3–17; and Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory. These studies discuss the cultural foundations and impact of the Lincoln myth after his death but not the cultural functions of the self-made ethic during his lifetime. return to text
  20. Collected Works, 3:497. return to text