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Failures of Abraham Lincoln (1800s)

by Ron Kurtus (revised 11 October 2011)

Although Abraham Lincoln is rated as one of the best American presidents, it is often pointed out that he had numerous failures in his career, until he was suddenly elected as president in 1860. This was mean to show that even a failure can become president, if he doesn't give up. But the problem is that, although Lincoln did have many set-backs, he was really a highly successful man by the time he was elected president.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.

List of Lincoln's failures

A common list of the failures of Abraham Lincoln (along with a few successes) is:

That looks like a pretty glum résumé, making you wonder how he ever made it to the top. But when you really think of it, to run for office or high positions so many times, you have to have something on the ball and have more successes than meet the eye.

Chronology of Lincoln's career

Lincoln actually was considered a fairly successful politician in Illinois and a leader of the Whig party in his state, as well as a successful lawyer. The true chronology of his career is as follows.


At age 22, he lost his job because his father wanted to move the family.


At age 23, he was elected company captain of Illinois militia in the Black Hawk War. Because of his Black Hawk War involvement, he did not spend sufficient time campaigning and was defeated in running for the Illinois State Legislature. Note that he was only 23-years old.


At age 25, he started a store in New Salem, Illinois with a partner. He was appointed postmaster of New Salem and deputy surveyor of Sangamon County. Unfortunately, his partner died causing the business to fail. Lincoln later paid off the whole debt for the failed business. Then he was elected to the Illinois State House of Representatives. That certainly seems like a busy and successful year for someone only 25.


Lincoln's sweetheart, Ann Rutledge, died.


At age 27, Lincoln reportedly had a nervous breakdown. (Many scholars believe this to be a fabrication of William Herndon made after Lincoln had died. Herndon had been a law partner of Lincoln, but they did not get along. Considering Lincoln's other accomplishments that year, a nervous breakdown was unlikely.)

Lincoln was re-elected to Illinois State Legislature and led the Whig political party delegation in moving Illinois state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. He also received a license to practice law in Illinois state courts and became law partner of John T. Stuart.


At age 29, he was nominated for Illinois House Speaker by Whig caucus but did not win the election, because the Whigs could not garner enough votes. He then served as the Whig Floor Leader.


Lincoln was chosen presidential elector for the first Whig convention. He also was admitted to practice law in U.S. Circuit Court.


At age 31, he was re-elected to Illinois State Legislature. He also argued his first case before Illinois Supreme Court.


He established a new law practice with Stephen T. Logan


At age 33, he was re-elected to Illinois State Legislature. Lincoln was also admitted to practice law in U.S. District Court. He was becoming a very successful lawyer, as well as a popular legislator.


At age 34, Lincoln wanted to run for Congress but for the sake of Whig party unity, agreed to hold off until 1846 to allow other party candidates to represent the state. Thus, he really was not defeated for nomination for Congress, as stated in the list of his "failures".


Lincoln established his own law practice with William H. Herndon as junior partner. (After Lincoln had been assassinated, Herndon claimed that Lincoln had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1836. This apparently was an effort to get back at Lincoln's widow.)


At age 37, Lincoln won the election for U.S. Congress.


At age 39, Lincoln's term in office was up and was not a candidate for Congress, per an agreed-upon arrangement among the Whigs. He did however try to get an appointment as Commissioner of the General Land Office at Washington D.C. but didn't get appointed.


Lincoln was admitted to practice law in U.S. Supreme Court. He was offered appointment as governor of the Oregon Territory, but he declined the position.


He was elected to the Illinois State Legislature but declined the seat to run for U.S. Senate.


At age 46, Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate but then willingly deferred his Whig votes, as a political move, to allow Trumbull to win the seat. It was a intentional move and not a defeat as the list claims.


At age 47, Lincoln received votes in the Philadelphia Republican convention for the vice presidency. He did not campaign and was not running for the office at that time, so he did not gain the nomination.


At age 49, he ran for the U.S. Senate and won the popular vote. However, in those days the state legislatures selected the Senate representative. Usually, they would select the winner of the election, but the 1858 Illinois State Legislature chose Lincoln's rival, Stephen Douglas, to remain in office.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson eliminated that practice with the 17th amendment to the constitution.

Thus, Lincoln ran for the Senate and was defeated.


Lincoln had a very successful and lucrative law practice but hesitantly agreed to run for the presidency.


At age 51, Lincoln became president of the United States.

Purpose of failure list

Abraham Lincoln had a very successful career up to becoming president. But for anyone trying different things, there can be a number setbacks. For some reason, writers exaggerated the setbacks or defeats, in order to use them to inspire people to overcome life's difficulties with Lincoln as a model.

The failure list is great for motivational seminars and graduation speeches, but it is far from reality.


Abraham Lincoln is rated as one of the best American presidents, but it is often noted that he had numerous failures in his career. In realty, he was a very successful politician and lawyer. The supposed list of setback is meant to show that even a failure can become president, if he doesn't give up.

Never give up

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


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(Notice: The School for Champions may earn commissions from book purchases)

Top-rated books on Abraham Lincoln

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard; Henry Holt and Co. (2011) - Best seller

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