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The man who preserved the Union and issued the Emancipation Proclamation came into the world on February 12, Abraham Lincoln was born in humble surroundings, a one-room log cabin with dirt floors in Hardin County, Kentucky. His father, Thomas Lincoln, could not read and could barely his name.

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Americans revere Abraham Lincoln as perhaps the nation's quintessential self-made man. His remarkable struggle to overcome humble beginnings and achieve the pinnacle of success remains one of the most cherished themes within the Lincoln legend and, indeed, within all of American history.

An astute mythmaker, Lincoln himself nurtured this tradition of humble origins to accentuate his own rise from obscurity to distinction.

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Throughout his life, Lincoln disparaged his own parentage and childhood rather than romanticizing them. In fact, Lincoln self-consciously grounded his entire political career within the context of a personal triumph over inherited adversity.

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During his very first campaign for public office, he declared, "I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. Running for president inhe noted that both his parents had descended from "undistinguished families," and he depicted his youth as physically hard and culturally unrewarding. The biography Lincoln authorized for his presidential campaign pictured his family as "poor and uneducated" and concluded that "It would be difficult to conceive of more unpromising circumstances than those under which he was ushered into life.

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Although a polished speaker, adroit politician, and prosperous attorney, Lincoln "grew up in full sympathy with the people. Following his lead, Lincoln's early biographers elaborated this self-made myth far beyond anything that he would have recognized or approved.

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They vastly overstated his humble beginnings, denigrated his ancestry, impugned his parents' character, questioned their legitimacy and, eventually, even his own. This "hereditary" impeachment of Lincoln began with his longtime law partner, William Herndon, who likened Lincoln's origins to a "stagnant, putrid pool," and it flourished.

During this century, historians and biographers have gradually rehabilitated the reputation of Lincoln's family and his frontier heritage as contributors to the future president's success.

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As the severity of Lincoln's origins has faded as a biographical theme, however, his reputation as a self-made man has suffered a corresponding decline. Historians argue, justifiably, that his family and childhood gave him a better start in life than they once acknowledged. Further, Lincoln, in his own words, "made friends rapidly" and cultivated powerful personal and political allies during his long climb upward. Finally, Lincoln married well, into one of the wealthiest and most influential families in central Illinois.

Fifty years ago, Richard Hofstadter framed the modern debate when he questioned Lincoln's qualifications as a self-made man, his sincerity in espousing self-improvement, and even the value of the self-made ethic in antebellum America. In short, Hofstadter labeled the self-made ethic a "myth" that Lincoln used opportunistically to advance his own political career and the fortunes of the new Republican party that he headed. Since then, historians such as Gabor Boritt, Edward Pessen, Norman Graebner, and David Donald have re-examined Lincoln's status as a self-made man and identified its various political functions—advancing Whig and Republican ideology and programs, supporting Union and emanci- [End 2] pation, and of course advancing Lincoln himself.

In short, as both politician and president, Lincoln clearly had practical incentives to espouse the self-made ethic. In light of its broad cultural appeal and stubborn popular persistence, however, the self-made "myth" deserves another look. In the half-century since Hofstadter's essay, historians and literary critics have debated the self-made ethic both as a fundamental ideal within American society—a literal guiding "myth"—and as an objective historical reality. Historians have demonstrated that the self-made ethic performed not merely political functions but also important social and cultural functions during the nineteenth century, both for society as a whole and for individuals such as Lincoln.

A comparison of Lincoln with his contemporaries suggests that, whatever the merits of self-improvement for most Americans of his age, Lincoln himself was peculiarly adept at identifying and seizing opportunities for advancement. In short, the circumstances of Lincoln's rise [End 3] in life single him out as a real, indeed a typical, self-made man of his age.

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During Lincoln's youth, the American economy boomed, particularly during the s. This "Jacksonian Boom," as it was called, rested on a dramatic expansion of agricultural production that coincided with a massive upsurge in westward settlement.

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Indeed, this First Great Migration, as Malcolm Rohrbaugh has labeled it, lasted from to and brought the Lincoln family westward. They moved from Kentucky to Indiana in and then again to Illinois in This unprecedented wave of expansion crested between andand western land sales reached a historic peak during the s, topping out in The s also brought a tremendous rise in farm prices, which rose 50 percent between and alone.

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This unremitting expansion coincided exactly with Lincoln's arrival in Illinois, his youth in New Salem, and his arrival in Springfield. Precisely during this short-lived western economic boom, Lincoln came of age, "studied what he should do," and improved himself. His admission to the bar and his move to Springfield occurred in earlyjust as the boom crested and began to wane. His timing could not have been more fortunate. The self-made ethic originated precisely during this decade of unprecedented expansion. In fact, it performed an important cultural function during this climactic economic transition.

The relatively sudden appearance of a host of new occupational opportunities for young men transformed not only Lincoln personally but American society as a whole. Historians have identified the emergence of an "American entrepreneurial culture" during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, which Robert Wiebe termed the "opening of American society.

Instead of following—and honoring—the traditional paths blazed by their parents and ancestors for Lincoln, as for most Americans, this was agriculturethese young innovators struck out on their own in a dramatic burst of individualism that carried ificant risks but also promised substantial rewards. Young men now sought immediate, tangible, personal rewards and ed a new, hectic competition for individual success. In transforming American cultural ideals, these innovative youths set an example for future generations. As Appleby concluded, "Their lives served as models of innovation in a society losing all desire to replicate past ways of doing things.

Rising through their own exertions and owing little to tradition—and even less to their families—the new entrepreneurs acquired the label "self-made men.

Just nine years later, Lincoln himself acquired the label. The term echoed the rise of a new commitment to individualism in America. Indeed, the word "individualism" first appeared in in England and, in an American context, in In the first book celebrating the self-made man, published inJohn Frost posed this definition: "A self-made man means one who has rendered himself accomplished, eminent, rich, or great by his own unaided efforts. As Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up, "the reason why this or that man is fortunate is not to be told.

It lies in the man; that is all anybody can tell you about it.

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{INSERTKEYS} [End 5] As John Cawelti concluded in his analysis of the nineteenth-century self-made ethic, "the legend of Lincoln was the highpoint. More than just a congratulatory label, the self-made ethic encouraged and facilitated this new quest for individual success. Cultural historians have analyzed the functions that the self-made ethic performed in nineteenth-century society. {/INSERTKEYS}

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Arising in the pivotal s, the self-made ethic justified the single-minded pursuit of opportunity. The myth of the self-made man smoothed the potentially acrimonious transition from families as the basis of American society to the new economic order based on individual achievement. Departing from the traditional celebration of the family as the foundation of any stable society, the self-made ethic now celebrated individual advancement, even when achieved at the expense of one's family.

Henry Clay himself coined the term in defense of entrepreneurs who earned their wealth rather than inheriting it. Self-improvement, not family, was the new source of success in America. Indeed, historian Susan Gray has recently contrasted the "self-made men" of the mid-nineteenth century with the "family-made men" of an earlier age. Within a fluid and dynamic industrializing economy, inherited wealth and security now seemed less relevant than ever before.

By the s, the transition to a new market economy demanded a generation of individuals who were willing to forego the traditional security of a family, to take personal risks in pursuit of profit, and to seize opportunities whenever and wherever they appeared. Lincoln clearly fit—and benefited from—this contemporary conception of "self-made manhood. As Cawelti observed, "When [End 6] he becomes successful, the American self-made man likes to boast of his achievement, to exaggerate the obscurity of his origin.


Just as Lincoln left both farming and his family with little apparent regret, Appleby argues that self-made men viewed home-leaving "as a deliverance. In retrospect, no regret or nostalgia appears. Moving on meant moving out to a larger world. In a traditional farm economy, such a decision initiated a "dangerous passage," in Carol Nackenoff's description, a passage that few were willing to undertake.

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These dangers were real. Throughout American history, most settlers traveled as members of a family rather than individually. Far from disrupting families, westward migration represented an important strategy for keeping families together and improving their lot in life. Family stability eased the hazardous journey westward, and two or three families might strike out together for the frontier. Such pioneer families had a much better chance of surviving and succeeding in their new frontier homes.

As Kathleen Conzen summed it up, "To provide for their children, families moved west.

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Such "entrepreneurial" settlers forsook their families to pursue economic opportunities through individual advancement, usually in towns and cities. Entrepreneurial settlers were young men who looked beyond their families for economic opportunity, marshaling their own resources to succeed in an increasingly urban world.

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These were the new self-made men. True to this pattern, most of Springfield's early settlers came west with their families. Table 1 presents a sample of early settlers [End 7] who arrived in Springfield between and Three-quarters of these early settlers arrived with their families, either as married adults or children. Married men ed for more than one-half of the early settlers. They typically married at age 24, usually in their home states, and spent a decade—their late twenties and early thirties—back east establishing a family.

On average, they raised two children in the East before coming to Illinois with a stable, nuclear family.

In fact, the typical married settler arrived in Sangamon County at age 33 with a wife and two children. Another one-fifth of the settlers were children moving west with their families. They were typically 16 years old on arrival, old enough to travel but still young enough to stay at home for another five years, within the shelter of a family. In short, the typical settler arrived with a family—a nuclear family of two parents and two children—and later augmented their families further with the addition of four more children in Illinois.

West side of Springfield town square, circa North side of Springfield town square, circa [End 8].

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Table 1. By contrast, Lincoln and the other single settlers were risk-takers, leaving their families behind to succeed—or fail—on their own. A decided minority in s and spirit, they represented just one-fourth of the region's pioneers. These single settlers came west at age 22, on average, just a year after reaching manhood but be- [End 9] fore starting families of their own.