#22 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents
Context. In this letter to his law partner written from Washington, Congressman Lincoln offered advice about how to get ahead. William H. Herndon was about a decade younger than Abraham Lincoln. Both were members of the Whig Party and had been active in politics around Springfield, Illinois. Responding to some complaints from Herndon about how older, more established figures in their party were holding back the younger, aspiring politicians, Lincoln identified himself as one of the “old men” and suggested to his friend that he stop blaming others. “The way for a young man to rise,” Lincoln wrote, “is to improve himself every way he can.” (By Matthew Pinsker)
“I suppose I am now one of the old men….”
On This Date
HD Daily Report, July 10, 1848
Lincoln in 1846
William Herndon (age 57)
U.S. Capitol 1846
Herndon as older man
Matthew Pinsker: Understanding Lincoln: Letter to William Herndon (1848) from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.
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Other Primary Sources
Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William Herndon, June 22, 1848
Herndon’s recollection of Lincoln’s July 10, 1848 letter in Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, 1909
How Historians Interpret
“After Congress adjourned on August 14, Lincoln remained for nearly a month in Washington, helping the Whig Executive Committee of Congress organize the national campaign. He corresponded with several party leaders, who reported encouraging news, and he sent out thousands of copies of speeches by himself and other Whigs. Like a benign mentor, he urged young Whigs in Sangamon County to take an active role in the campaign and not passively look for instructions from their elders. ‘you must not wait to be brought forward by the older men,’ he told William Herndon. ‘For instance do you suppose that I should ever have got into notice if I had waited to be hunted up and pushed forward by older men. You young men get together and form a Rough & Ready club, and have regular meetings and speeches.’ When Herndon complained that the older Whigs were discriminating against the younger ones, Lincoln responded with paternal wisdom, urging him not to wallow in jealousy, suspicion, or a feeling of victimhood:”
— Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript By Chapter, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 1, Chapter 8 (PDF), pp. 816
Washington, July 10, 1848
Your letter covering the newspaper slips, was received last night. The subject of that letter is exceedingly painful to me; and I can not but think there is some mistake in your impression of the motives of the old men. I suppose I am now one of the old men—and I declare on my veracity, which I think is good with you, that nothing could afford me more satisfaction than to learn that you and others of my young friends at home, were doing battle in the contest, and endearing themselves to the people, and taking a stand far above any I have ever been able to reach, in their admiration. I can not conceive that other old men feel differently. Of course I can not demonstrate what I say; but I was young once, and I am sure I was never ungenerously thrust back. I hardly know what to say. The way for a young man to rise, is to improve himself every way he can, never suspecting that any body wishes to hinder him. Allow me to assure you, that suspicion and jealousy never did help any man in any situation. There may sometimes be ungenerous attempts to keep a young man down; and they will succeed too, if he allows his mind to be diverted from its true channel to brood over the attempted injury. Cast about, and see if this feeling has not injured every person you have ever known to fall into it.
Now, in what I have said, I am sure you will suspect nothing but sincere friendship. I would save you from a fatal error. You have been a laborious, studious young man. You are far better informed on almost all subjects than I have ever been. You can not fail in any laudable object, unless you allow your mind to be improperly directed. I have some the advantage of you in the world’s experience, merely by being older; and it is this that induces me to advise….
Your friend, as ever