At Quora, the social question & answer website, we have posted the following essential question to help teachers and students organize their thoughts on some of the documents within the Railsplitter theme:

Was Abraham Lincoln self-made or self-invented, especially in the years before he became president?

You can view (and vote) on all of the answers to this question at Quora, which is a free site but one that requires registration.  Or you can see excerpts from some of the most thought-provoking answers below:


Cynthia Smith on Lincoln’s self-invention

Abraham Lincoln was, in my opinion, a self-invented man.  Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and other American presidents, Lincoln’s rise was a calculated climb to the top of the hill, Capitol Hill.  Lincoln was the consummate politician, a man who understood his constituents and played them like a fiddle.  He carefully orchestrated his rise to bigger and better things, although, unlike many politicians of his time and today, his ambition was tempered by a sincere desire to do the right thing. “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition.  Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow, men by rendering them worthy of their esteem.  How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition, is yet to be developed”…1832.  Michael Burlingame stated that like many politicians, Lincoln’s ambitions were rooted in a strong need for deference and approval.  Lincoln’s modest and humble approach appealed to the emotions of the electorate, whether speaking to them about their tax dollars or about other politicians.  This is a common theme borne out in the 1832 campaign statement, his autobiographical sketch to Jesse Fell, the Lyceum speech and the letters to Johnston and Herndon.

Marsha Greco on how Lincoln changed over time

However, over time I think Lincoln became more of a self-invented man. His movements and how he portrayed himself were based off of political motivations as well as the unique circumstances that took shape in his career. As Michael Burlingame described, he most likely had a hand in creating the image of the “rail-splitter” as was advocated during the election of 1860. His views on religion, although not “invented,” were definitely very personal, unique, and self-directed. He was different from northern Whigs when it came to religion, being more of a deist in his early political career. However, this changed as he became increasingly more spiritual during the Civil War. Throughout the later years of the war, and especially in his Second Inaugural Address, he spoke of the role of God in the coming, extent, and results of the war. This differed greatly from his beliefs in 1846 when, after being accused by Peter Cartwright for being against religion, he said that he believed in a “doctrine of necessity.”

Dan Wagenberg rejects self-invention

“Self-invented” connotes an element of flexibility with facts, especially compared when to “self-made.”  If anything, Lincoln went out of his way to minimize many of his accomplishments, as he did with his militia service.  But he did not hesitate to use his experiences in support of his public persona, as he did when he referred to his knowledge of the river in his first campaign speech.  He was using his knowledge in one discipline to support his efforts in another, but he was not “inventing” anything.

Lois MacMillan describes Lincoln as the unequivocal self-made man

Absolutely and unequivocally Lincoln was self-made.  ‘Self-invention’ is more like a car salesman, “not that’s there’s anything wrong with that.” (Seinfeld reference: 57th episode, “The Outing.) When the car salesman sells you a car, you are never sure what is under the hood. There is no question that Lincoln’s ‘engine under the hood’ was a finely tuned machine, an Audi S5 with its supercharged fuel stratified injection in a V6 engine (Ward’s Ten Best Engine 2013.) The question to be asked is how did he build his ‘self-made’ engine? Historians have weighed into his many gifts that must have been self-taught, for “all his schooling did not much amount to one year.”  Even if recent scholarship reveals that it may have been more than one year, his innate genius and thirst for learning is legendary.  Douglas Wilson wrote “Abraham Lincoln is arguably one of the greatest of all American writers.”  Steven Mintz wrote “It is certainly true that Lincoln lacked any formal legal training, either in a law school or from a preceptor. He gained his knowledge of the law largely from reading an eighteenth-century legal treatise, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and researching and arguing contemporary case law.”  Lewis Lehrman wrote “We must not be misled by Lincoln’s simple metaphors; for one of the profound strengths of Lincoln’s political philosophy was his self-taught and masterful grasp of economic theory.” What text did Lincoln read as a young man to become a great writer, a great lawyer and even a great economist and philosopher? I think it was the Caleb Bingham’s Columbian Orator!

Woody Woodruff on being self-made

Abraham Lincoln was a self-made man. We know that because Lincoln told us so, and Honest Abe wouldn’t lie. First, we have to realize that “self-made man” was a demographic stereotype – even a cliché – similar to “poor black washerwoman,” “Irish dock worker,” “pious minister,” and “Boston Brahmin.” Each stereotype had its standard characteristics.  The self-made man came from humble origins. “My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families – second families, perhaps I should say.” He was ambitious, with a clearly defined goal. “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”  He strove to improve his lot in life. “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.” And, of source, he was successful: Lincoln was elected President in 1860 and 1864, and ended the institution of slavery in the U.S.

Simone Duven responds “Both!”

The question I am tasked to answer is this, “Was Abraham Lincoln self-made or self-invented, especially in the years before he became president?” At first blush this question seems able to be readily dispatched with investigation into the thoughts and feelings of Lincoln via his early writings of the time. But there was another question I needed to answer first; “What really is the difference between self-made and self-invented?”…Lincoln’s writings reflect a man that took great pause when putting pen to paper, understanding  the weight and importance of his words on his career and the relationships in his life. Lincoln’s career was shaped by his own actions, and his success was hard wrought by him, making Lincoln a self-made man. However, Lincoln’s words and actions also embody the ideals of the self-invented man- as he wrote his own script and chose how to live. It is for these reasons that I must answer the question regarding whether Lincoln was self-made or self-invented with a resounding, “Both!”. Lincoln continues to confound and refuse a label, still writing his own script, even in death.

Martha Bohnenberger on why both terms make sense

The answer to that question would be yes, as long as, the question was referring to Lincoln self-educating himself. However, the answer would be no, if referring to the stereotypical self-made image of a man in the early 1800s, who was an average Joe-blow who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and through hard work and dedication made a success of himself. Lincoln was by no means an average Joe-blow, he was in fact a profoundly gifted individual to whom success in processing information came very swiftly and effortlessly.

Jimmy Grant wonders whether the terms are really different

As I look at this question my first thought was…how are they different?  Often people seem to use the terms in an interchangeable fashion.  Apparently Ben Franklin is said to have coined this term.  Frederick Douglass also gave a speech on this in 1859.  Given the Franklin and Douglass definition I believe Lincoln was self-made.  I may be oversimplifying but I equate self-invented to hocus pocus. It is like when someone supposedly re-invents themself.  What does that even mean?

Allison Lorenz on defining terms

I have used the term “self-made” in class with students(8th grade) when discussing historical figures such as Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln, but after reviewing the readings and documents I think I may need to revisit my definition of self-made.  Self-made, I believe, is more about working hard and attaining success through advancement of your status in a system that already is established. Now self- invented on the other hand, is more about making yourself successful in a new standard that, through your own hard work, you have created. Self-made men measure themselves and are defined by society through pre-established criteria. Self-invented men, create criteria beyond that of the preconceived notions of success.  I would say Abraham Lincoln is both based on those definitions. No one could argue he came from “not much” and “humble” beginnings to “improve himself every way he can”, using continued, though sporadic, education and hard work to become the known lawyer, husband , father and representative.  He achieved success as most would define it in the 1800’s. He also was self-invented, creating for himself and those around him a society that could be remembered more than “maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others”.

Viviane Puhalovic summarizes period context

Kenneth Winkle’s article on Lincoln and his image as the “self-made man” helps clarify what this label actually meant in the context of the time period. It is important to acknowledge that while Lincoln did break away from tradition and create his own path in life, he was not the only man of the time to do so. As Winkle explains, Lincoln was a typical self-made man of his age. Like others who embraced the new ideal of individualism, Lincoln focused on education, the “cult of self-improvement” and individual progress; he was also typical in distancing himself from his family, especially his father, which in many ways enabled his rise as a self-made man. As Lincoln stated in his Lyceum Address, “towering genius disdains a beaten path.” Indeed, Lincoln, himself, rejected the “beaten path” of the traditional, “family-made” life, but he certainly was not the only one to do so. What did set Lincoln apart from the other “self-mades” of the time, as Winkle demonstrates, is his success on his “self-made” path. Where many failed, Lincoln managed to prevail, which enabled him to then use his chosen lifestyle to his political advantage. Lincoln was able to be proud of his success as a self-made man and publicly celebrate his path as a unique, courageous and venerable one.

Ana Kean on historical traditions

The ethic or myth of the self-made man is a powerful one in American society.  We are familiar with the Horatio Alger stories where a plucky young boy raises himself up by his bootstraps, and real life examples such as Andrew Carnegie (bobbin-boy to richest man in the world).  Even George W. Bush claimed to be a self-made man while downplaying his family wealth and father’s influence.  Part of the American dream is believing we can all achieve success, no matter how the deck is stacked against us in terms of lack of wealth, influence, or origins.  We can debate the usefulness or relevance of this concept today, but there is no doubt it played a large role in Abraham Lincoln’s life.

Jonas Sherr on political traditions

Despite the fact that national elections have historically been reserved for those in an elite class, there have long been attempts by candidates to separate themselves from this truth.  Most voting Americans today can tell you that Joe Biden is from Scranton and that John Edwards’ father was a coal miner.  The ethic of the “self-made man” has long been used to attract the popular vote in elections.  In Abraham Lincoln’s case, he undoubtedly utilizes this same tactic to identify himself with the majority of voters.  However, that doesn’t mean he’s being untruthful….after all, his nickname precludes this.  Lincoln is a self-made man, but he no doubt takes advantage of this fact.


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