Fact Check

Did Abraham Lincoln Endure Failure Before Presidency?

Failed businesses, a lost election, and the death of his mother were all said to have been failures that the 16th president overcame.

Published Jul 11, 2000

Updated Aug 4, 2022
 (Public Domain)
Image Via Public Domain
Abraham Lincoln endured a steady stream of failure and defeat before becoming President of the United States.


The unsourced "Abraham Lincoln Didn't Quit" list reproduced below is a ubiquitous piece of American historical glurge that has been printed in countless magazines and newspaper columns over the decades, including an appearance in a 1967 Reader's Digest collection of humor and anecdotes:

Abraham Lincoln Didn't Quit

Probably the greatest example of persistence is Abraham Lincoln. If you want to learn about somebody who didn't quit, look no further.

Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout his life. He lost eight elections, twice failed in business and suffered a nervous breakdown.

He could have quit many times - but he didn't and because he didn't quit, he became one of the greatest presidents in the history of our country.

Lincoln was a champion and he never gave up. Here is a sketch of Lincoln's road to the White House:

  • 1816: His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.
  • 1818: His mother died.
  • 1831: Failed in business.
  • 1832: Ran for state legislature - lost.
  • 1832: Also lost his job - wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
  • 1833: Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.
  • 1834: Ran for state legislature again - won.
  • 1835: Was engaged to be married, sweetheart died and his heart was broken.
  • 1836: Had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.
  • 1838: Sought to become speaker of the state legislature - defeated.
  • 1840: Sought to become elector - defeated.
  • 1843: Ran for Congress - lost.
  • 1846: Ran for Congress again - this time he won - went to Washington and did a good job.
  • 1848: Ran for re-election to Congress - lost.
  • 1849 Sought the job of land officer in his home state - rejected.
  • 1854: Ran for Senate of the United States - lost.
  • 1856: Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention - got less than 100 votes.
  • 1858: Ran for U.S. Senate again - again he lost.
  • 1860: Elected president of the United States.

It is now a favorite feature of inspirational e-mail lists, web sites, and Chicken Soup for the Soul-type books, and it exemplifies what is so very wrong about turning history into glurge. Abraham Lincoln is the mythical, towering figure of American history, and whatever one thinks of his accomplishments, he was indeed a fascinating character. He truly fulfilled the "anyone can make it in America" ethos; he was the man of little means or education, born in a one-room log cabin, honest and hard-working, who overcame numerous obstacles and failures to become President of the United States when the nation was confronted with its gravest crisis.

One would think the facts of Lincoln's life should be a good enough story for anyone, but no, apparently the truth isn't sufficiently inspirational; it has to be shaped and molded into glurge that depicts Lincoln as a man who endured constant failure and defeat from the time he was born until he was elected President. Lincoln certainly survived his fair share of hardship and setbacks, but he also was remarkably successful in many different endeavors throughout his lifetime. Let's take a look at what this glurge leaves out:

1816: His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.

Life on the American frontier in the early 19th century was no picnic for anyone; it required hours of back-breaking toil and drudgery day in and day out. In the context of their time, however, the Lincolns lived under rather unremarkable circumstances.

The statement that the Lincolns were "forced out of their home" in 1816 isn't completely false, but it is somewhat misleading because it implies they were suddenly and involuntarily uprooted from their home, with no warning and no place to go. Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas, had owned farmland in Hardin County, Kentucky, since the early 1800s, and he left Kentucky and moved his family across the Ohio River to Indiana in 1816 for two primary reasons:

  • Kentucky was a slave state, and Thomas Lincoln disliked slavery — both because his church opposed it, and because he did not want to have to compete economically with slave labor.
  • Kentucky had never been properly surveyed, and many settlers in the early 1800s found that establishing clear title to their land was difficult. Thomas Lincoln (and other farmers in the area) were eventually sued by non-Kentucky residents who claimed prior title to their lands.

With plenty of land available in neighboring Indiana, a territory where slavery had been excluded by the Northwest Ordinance and the government guaranteed buyers clear title to their property, Thomas Lincoln opted to move rather than to spend time and money fighting over the title to his Kentucky farm. So, in a moderate sense the Lincolns could be said to have been "forced out of their home," but it did not happen abruptly, and they opted to leave because better opportunities awaited them.

The other part of this statement, that a seven-year-old Abraham Lincoln "had to work to support" his family, is also misleading. Young Abraham did not have to take an outside job lest his poor family sink into financial ruin. Like nearly all farm children of his era, Lincoln was expected to perform whatever chores and tasks he was physically capable of handling around the farm. If Abraham worked harder and longer than most other children, it was not because the Lincolns' circumstances were extraordinarily difficult, but because Lincoln was exceptionally tall and strong for his age.

1818: His mother died.

This, at least, is no embellishment. Lincoln's mother, Nancy, did die of "milk sickness" in 1818, when Abraham was only nine years old. A mother's death is a tragedy for any child, and it was a special hardship for a struggling farm family.

1831: Failed in business.

The statement that Lincoln "failed in business" in 1831 is another misleading claim, because it implies that he was the owner or operator of the failed business, or at least was otherwise responsible for its failure. None of this is true. Lincoln left his father's home for good in 1831 and, along with his cousin John Hanks, took a flatboat full of provisions down the Mississippi River from Illinois to New Orleans on behalf of a "bustling, none too scrupulous businessman" named Denton Offutt. Offutt planned to open a general store, and he promised to make Lincoln its manager when Abraham returned from New Orleans. Lincoln operated the store as Offutt's clerk and assistant for several months (and by all accounts did a fine job of it) until Offutt, a poor businessman, overextended himself financially and ran it into the ground. Thus by the spring of 1832 Lincoln had indeed "lost his job," but not because he had "failed in business."

1832: Ran for state legislature - lost.

Lincoln did run for the Illinois state legislature in 1832, although as Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald noted, "the post he was seeking was not an elevated one ... [legislators] dealt mostly with such issues as whether cattle had to be fenced in or could enjoy free range." Lincoln finished eighth in a field of thirteen (with the top four vote-getters becoming legislators). However, this same year Lincoln also achieved something of which he was very proud, when the members of a volunteer militia company he had joined selected him as their captain. Lincoln said many years later that this was "a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since." (He also noted later in his career that his defeat in the 1832 legislative election was the only time he "was ever beaten on a direct vote of the people.")

1832: Also lost his job - wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.

As noted above, Lincoln actually "lost his job" in 1831, and the notion that in 1832 Lincoln "wanted to go to law school but couldn't get in" (why he couldn't get in remains unspecified) is both inaccurate and an anachronism. Lincoln did eventually become a lawyer, and he accomplished the feat in the manner typical of his time and place: not by attending law school, but by reading law books and observing court sessions. He was indeed interested in becoming a lawyer as early as 1832, but, as Lincoln biographer Donald wrote, "on reflection he concluded that he needed a better education to succeed."

1833: Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.

Lincoln and William F. Berry, a corporal from Lincoln's militia company, purchased a general store in New Salem, Illinois, in 1833. (Lincoln had no money for his half; he didn't technically "borrow the money from a friend" but instead signed a note with one of the previous owners for his share.) Lincoln and Berry were competing against a larger, well-organized store in the same town; their outfit did little business, and within a short time it had "winked out."

The debt on the store became due the following year, and since Lincoln was unable to pay off his note, his possessions were seized by the sheriff. Moreover, when Lincoln's former partner died with no assets soon afterwards, Lincoln insisted upon assuming his partner's half of the debt as well, even though he was not legally obligated to do so. Exactly how long it took Lincoln to pay off this debt (which he jokingly referred to as his "national debt") in its entirety is unknown. It did take him several years, but not seventeen; nor, as this statement implies, was he completely financially encumbered until it was paid in full. Within a few months of the store's failure Lincoln had obtained a position as the New Salem postmaster, and by 1835 he was earning money both as a surveyor and as a state legislator.

1834: Ran for state legislature again - won.

In 1834 Lincoln was again one of thirteen candidates running for a seat in the state legislature, and this time he won, securing the second-highest vote total among the field.

1835: Was engaged to be married, sweetheart died and his heart was broken.

Much of Lincoln's relationship with New Salem resident Ann Rutledge remains a mystery, and several aspects of it — including whether or not they were actually engaged (at the time they met, Ann was betrothed to someone else) — are based more on speculation than documented fact. Whatever the exact nature of their relationship, however, her death in the summer of 1835 appears to have affected Lincoln profoundly.

1836: Had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.

Whether Lincoln experienced a "total nervous breakdown" in the aftermath of Ann Rutledge's death is debatable, but the notion that he somehow found time to stay "in bed for six months" is not. After Ann's funeral he spent a few weeks visiting an old friend, and within a month of her death he had resumed his occasional surveying duties. He surveyed the nearby town of Petersburg in February 1836, undertook a strenuous two-month campaign for re-election during the summer, and served in the state legislature throughout the year. All of this would have been difficult for a man who spent "six months in bed."

1838: Sought to become speaker of the state legislature - defeated.

By the time of the 1838-39 legislative session, Lincoln had twice been an unsuccessful Whig candidate for the position of speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. This was a relatively minor political setback, however, and no mention is made here of the fact that by 1838 he was one of the most experienced members of the legislature, or of any of the other notable successes he achieved between 1834 and 1838, namely:

  • He was re-elected to the state legislature in 1836 and 1838, both times receiving more votes than any other candidate.
  • The Illinois Supreme Court licensed him to practice law in 1837.
  • He became the partner of "one of the most prominent and successful lawyers in Springfield" (where he now lived).

1840: Sought to become elector - defeated.

This statement is erroneous. Lincoln was named as a presidential elector at the Illinois state Whig convention on 8 October 1839, and he campaigned as a Whig elector during the 1840, 1844, 1852, and 1856 presidential elections (skipping the 1848 campaign because he was serving in Congress).

1843: Ran for Congress - lost.

One could claim this as a Lincoln failure in that he wanted to be a Congressman and failed to achieve that goal, but it is technically inaccurate to claim that he "ran for Congress" in 1843 and lost: The election was held in 1844, and Lincoln was not a candidate in that election. Lincoln's failure to achieve his party's nomination at the May 1843 Whig district convention is undoubtedly what is referred to here.

1846: Ran for Congress again - this time he won - went to Washington and did a good job.

Lincoln won a seat as an Illinois representative to the U.S. Congress in 1846.

1848: Ran for re-election to Congress - lost.

Lincoln did not "lose" the 1848 election. He did not run for re-election because Whig policy at the time specified that party members should step aside after serving one term to allow other members to take their turns at holding office. Lincoln, a faithful party member, complied.

1849: Sought the job of land officer in his home state - rejected.

The position referred to here was commissioner of the General Land Office, a federal position, not a state one, and one that came with a fair amount of power and patronage. Since Lincoln's term in Congress was about to expire, his friends urged him to apply for this post, but Lincoln was reluctant to give up his law career. He finally agreed to apply for the job when the choice was deadlocked between two other Illinois candidates and it looked like the appointment might therefore go to a compromise candidate from outside of Illinois. Whigs from northern Illinois then decided that too many appointments were going to party members from other parts of the state and put up their own candidate against Lincoln. The choice was left to the Secretary of the Interior, who selected the other candidate.

1854: Ran for Senate of the United States - lost.

In Lincoln's time, U.S. senators were not elected through direct popular vote; they were appointed by state legislatures. In Illinois, voters cast ballots only for state legislators, and the General Assembly of the state legislature then selected nominees to fill open U.S. Senate seats. So, in 1854 (and again in 1856) Lincoln was not technically running for the Senate; he was campaigning on behalf of Whig candidates for state legislature seats all throughout Illinois. Nonetheless, after the 1854 state election, Lincoln made it known that he sought the open U.S. Senate seat for Illinois. The first ballot of a divided General Assembly was taken in February 1855, and Lincoln received the most votes but was six votes shy of the requisite majority. When the process remained deadlocked after another eight ballots, Lincoln withdrew from the race to lend his support to another candidate and ensure that the Senate seat did not go to a pro-slavery Democrat.

1856: Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention - got less than 100 votes.

This is both misleading and inaccurate. Lincoln did not "seek" the vice-presidential nomination at the 1856 Republican national convention in Philadelphia; his name was put into nomination by the Illinois delegation after most national delegates were already committed to other candidates. (Lincoln himself was back in Illinois, not at the convention, and did not know he had been nominated until friends brought him the news.) Nonetheless, in an informal ballot, Lincoln received 110 votes out of 363, not at all a bad showing for someone who was little known outside his home state.

1858: Ran for U.S. Senate again - again he lost.

Again, Lincoln was not directly campaigning for a Senate seat, although it was a foregone conclusion that he would be the Republicans' choice to take Stephen Douglas' U.S. Senate seat if his party won control of the Illinois state legislature. Lincoln actually bested Douglas in the sense that Republican legislative candidates statewide received slightly over 50% of the popular vote, but the Republicans failed to gain control of the state legislature, and Douglas therefore retained his seat in the Senate.

1860: Elected president of the United States.

And again in 1864. A pretty good ending for someone who wasn't quite the perennial failure this glurge makes him out to be.


    Canfield, Jack and Mark Victor Hansen.   Chicken Soup for the Soul.     Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1993.   ISBN 1-55874-262-X   (pp. 236-237).

    Donald, David Herbert.   Lincoln.     New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.   ISBN 0-684-80846-3.

    Tan, Paul Lee.   Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations.     Rockville, Maryland: Assurance Publishers, 1979.   ISBN 0-88469-100-4   (pp. 1373-1374).

    Fun & Laughter: A Treasure House of Humor.     Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association Inc., 1967.   (p. 785).


Update [July 30, 2001]: Added Reader's Digest cite in Sources and quick mention of it in opening paragraph in Origins 25.

Update [Feb. 11, 2009]: Reformatted and updated.

Update [Feb. 11, 2015]: Relisted.

Update [Aug. 4, 2022]: Reformatted.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.