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Abraham Lincoln’s rise from a log cabin to the White House has inspired generations of Americans. Here, from our 16th president, are tips about some virtues and ideals that lead to success in life.
Lincoln learned early the value of work. He wrote that his father put an ax into his hands when he was 8 and until age 23 “was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument.”
He worked hard at whatever he put mind his to. As a budding politician, he tromped from farmhouse to farmhouse looking for votes. As a lawyer, he rode from courthouse to courthouse drumming up business and trying cases.
A young schoolteacher once wrote to him asking for advice. “Work, work, work is the main thing,” Lincoln wrote back.
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Self-reliance was another virtue Lincoln developed on the frontier, where if you wanted to stay warm, you split your own firewood. He learned to draw on inner strength.
When he decided to try his hand at the law, there was no law school for him to attend, so he got hold of Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” the standard textbook of that day, and sat on tree stumps studying until he turned himself into an attorney.
He once said the United States is the wonder of the world because here, “every man can make himself.” That’s what he did.
Long before he was president, Lincoln earned a reputation for integrity. When he was 24, a little general store he co-owned failed, plunging him into debt. He vowed to pay back every cent. It took him several years, but he did it.
He was successful as an attorney because people knew he would treat them fairly. Colleagues and clients dubbed him “Honest Abe.”
“Resolve to be honest at all events,” he advised young people considering a legal career, “and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”
Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, said his ambition was “a little engine that knew no rest.” He was driven to succeed, but he was also ambitious to do good for others.
“Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition,” Lincoln wrote the first time he ran for office. “I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”
While a young man living in Springfield, Illinois, he told his best friend, Joshua Speed, that he did not want to die until he had done something to make the world remember him and make it a better place. Years later, as president, he told Speed that signing the Emancipation Proclamation was the realization of that youthful ambition.
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An Eagerness to Learn
Lincoln had less than a year of schooling, but he loved learning. “My best friend is a man who can get me a book,” he said, and he would walk miles through the Indiana woods to lay his hands on one.
While living on the Illinois frontier, he realized he needed to learn more grammar to be a good speaker and writer. He walked several miles to get hold of a textbook called “Kirkham’s Grammar.” The result? Today we have The Gettysburg Address.
“Upon the subject of education,” he once wrote, “I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”
Lincoln’s road to the presidency was a bumpy one. He had successes but also his share of setbacks. He lost his first campaign for the Illinois statehouse in 1832, but he tried again two years later and won, leading to four terms in the legislature.
He had one term in Congress, but it wasn’t particularly notable. When it was over, he thought he might be washed up as a politician. He lost two hard-fought Senate races before being elected president.
Along the way, he learned the value of perseverance and determination. “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing,” he advised.
Family and Friends
Self-reliance was a key to Lincoln’s success, but so were family and friends. On the frontier, pioneers relied on neighbors to help build cabins, raise barns, and husk corn. Again and again, friends stepped forward to help Lincoln—including by helping him break into politics.
“To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything,” Lincoln said upon leaving Illinois for the White House in 1861.
Marriage played a big role in Lincoln’s rise. Mary Todd Lincoln used to tell friends, “Mr. Lincoln is going to be president someday.” She seemed to believe it before he did and pushed him when he needed a nudge. Without her, he may never have been president.
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The Blessing of Freedom
Lincoln grew up with one of the greatest blessings: freedom. Life on the frontier of Lincoln’s youth was often hard, but people were generally free to make their way as best they could. That’s what Lincoln did, and it’s a main reason he cherished freedom.
It was also a chief reason he hated slavery, which robbed people of the ability to make better lives for themselves. Lincoln never lost faith that this country, which he loved deeply, would deliver on the promise of freedom. That’s why, as president, he called America “the last best hope of earth.”
Work. Self-reliance. Integrity. Ambition. Perseverance. An eagerness to learn. Family. Community. Love of country. The blessing of freedom.
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These are some of the virtues and ideals that made America a great nation and have enabled millions to improve their lives. They lie at the core of the traditional American spirit.
Lincoln knew a thing or two about them. As we mark Presidents Day, let’s remember the good they did him, nurture them in young people, and celebrate them together as a nation.
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