As early as 1841, people began applying this stalwart phrase to Lincoln. On New Year’s Day of that year, the Quincy, Illinois Whig described the 31-year-old from Springfield as “a self-made man, and one of the ablest” among all the lawyers and elected officials in the state.
The Whig didn’t need to explain what “self-made” meant. The paper presumed everyone knew the term. Having entered common usage by the late 1820s, it had become a verbal staple, a handy way to praise resourceful men and the nation that had succored them.
Self-made public servants like Lincoln showed to the satisfaction of many that republican liberty really did rule in the U.S., at least in the North and West. The chance to ascend in public responsibility and esteem wasn’t limited to the privileged few. Aristocracy was following monarchy into the dustbin of history.
Disciplined climbers could now rise to distinction without benefit of family fortune or cronyism. All they needed was well-engraved inner character. The self-made man, wrote the prolific commercial author John Frost in his Self-Made Men of America (1848), was “one who has rendered himself accomplished, eminent, rich, or great by his own unaided efforts.”
Lincoln took pride in having risen from a low rung on the social ladder, and said so repeatedly. But he made no pretense of having accomplished that feat without help. True, he’d done it with little material aid from his family, and like many young men of his era, he’d done it by self-consciously distancing himself from his father. (Thomas Lincoln did pass along some vital social capital: the storytelling gift that proved integral to his son’s success.)
When 22, Lincoln strode into New Salem, Illinois, in 1831, “penniless” and “friendless,” as he later wrote. Yet he soon attracted eager backing. William Lee Miller, in his book Lincoln’s Virtues (pp. 24-25), gives a nice summary of all the “boosts and helps and open doors and befriendings” that launched Lincoln on his path to public renown.
After a decade in Illinois, having just been crowned by the Quincy Whig as “one of the ablest” self-made men in the state, Lincoln gave an address in Springfield that spelled out the social underpinnings of self-making. Speaking to the Washingtonian Society, a temperance group, on Washington’s Birthday 1842, he urged all citizens to join the Society by signing its pledge to abstain from spirits.
Those struggling to escape the lure of liquor, said Lincoln, couldn’t be expected to make their way unassisted. They needed the active support of a united community, including people like himself who’d never been tempted by drink. Lincoln took no credit for his own sobriety, attributing it to luck rather than self-discipline. “Such of us as have never fallen victims [sic] have been spared more from the absence of appetite, than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have.”
And he extended his point beyond the issue of alcohol. Everyone, even the morally proficient, had learned self-control by taking their cues from “other people’s actions.” Everybody absorbed community norms by letting the influence of respected models seep into them. Self-making amounted to a social achievement, not just an individual one.
True, Lincoln always held, as he told a small group of free black men whom he invited to the White House 20 years later, that “success does not as much depend on external help as on self-reliance.” His own experience taught him that relentless resolve lay behind the push for personal advancement.
But those starting out with limited means — whether freed slaves or penniless migrants — would likely need some “external help.” Without self-discipline they would surely fail; yet without the moral example and material help of others, self-discipline would languish like seed on rocky ground.
When Lincoln departed from Springfield as president-elect in 1861, he uttered his famous farewell remarks. Once again, as in the 1842 temperance speech, he underlined the social foundations of self-making. Speaking from the rear platform of his train on the day before his 52nd birthday, he thanked his Springfield neighbors for making him into the “old man” he’d become.
“To you, dear friends,” he said in one version of his remarks, “I owe all that I have, all that I am.” “To this place and the kindness of these people,” he says in another version, “I owe every thing.”
A third version, which appeared in the east-coast press on February 12, 1861, has him saying “to this people I owe all that I am.” That’s the phrasing put on this late-1860s pocket-sized card, which mistakenly gives the date of publication — his birthday — as the date of delivery.
Of course, after his death Lincoln couldn’t offer any more correctives to the notion that he’d risen without help. Americans preferred to cherish him post-mortem as the paragon of self-containment, the brooding genius with the generous heart and steely will.
Another famous self-made man, Frederick Douglass, left one of many testimonials to Lincoln’s unassisted mastery in constructing himself. Writing a year after the president’s assassination, he praised Lincoln as so self-sufficient, so original, that he had reinvented even the process of self-creation.
“One great charm of his life,” wrote Douglass, “is that he was indebted to himself for himself. He was the architect of his own fortune, a self-made man, a flat boat captain, a splitter of rails, a man of toil, one who travelled far but made the road on which he traveled — one who ascended high, but with hard hands and honest work built the ladder on which he climbed. Flung upon the sea of life in the midnight storm, without oars or life preservers he bravely buffeted the billows — and with sinewy arms swam in safety, where other men despair and sink.”