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Show Grit, Never Quit • Abraham Lincoln’s Entrepreneurial Legacy

Filling Gaps in The American Education System

Growing up a home-alone kid, I learned a ton of history through the stories of epic poets, writers, and artists  — Twain Dickens, and Greek Philosophers being a few of my literary heroes. It soon occurred to me that adults didn’t have all the answers, least of all most history books or the American education system.

My first year in college (1987), I was doing a history report on America’s Founding Fathers and Legacies. I stumbled on an obscure history book titled Decision in Philadelphia. It’s a dramatic summary that chronicles the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention and contradicts nearly every history lesson I learned in high school. Largely based on notes from Benjamin Franklin, Decision in Philadelphia exposes the many shortcomings of America’s Founding Fathers, not least of which was the failure to abolish slavery or even provide women’s rights. That one book inspired me to always search for legacy clues if I wanted to fill gaps in my education. I ended up watching a ton of war movies too.

A few years years later, I saw Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-Winning film Lincoln. It was a stellar period piece on Lincoln’s crusade to end slavery (an Oscar-worthy performance by actor Daniel Day Lewis) but Lincoln’s origin story is completely missing since this particular war period is set only between 1860-1865. I soon concluded that my American education (even through film) still had glacial-sized gaps (no matter how well-intentioned our parents, preachers, professors, politicians, and favorite movie producers). Spielberg’s Schindler’s List certainly comes to mind as an epic truth about the Holocaust, but I digress. The lesson from my study of Lincoln was to always consider the earliest part of the origin story — that’s where gritty stuff often leaves clues.

Lincoln’s Entrepreneurial Origin & Legacy

By the time I was a sophomore at USC, I had read a dozen books on Abraham Lincoln. These days, my favorite historian is Presidential biographer Dolores Kearns Goodwin. My Cliff Notes from her book, and others, are below:

Most people know that Lincoln was born to humble beginnings but the many tragedies to follow are what make his story so remarkable. His parents were uneducated farmers. At 7, his family was forced from their home. His father was illiterate and his mother died when he was 9. His only sister died in childbirth a few years later. His grandfather was killed when Lincoln was 23. At 24, Lincoln went bankrupt, but he spent the next seventeen years paying off debts to friends and colleagues. The legend of Honest Abe begins.

As a young man, Lincoln failed in business and couldn’t get into law school, making him a fascinating footnote in history as one of ten Unites States Presidents who never graduated from college. Nonetheless, he studied law and became a lawyer. In his 20s, Lincoln was twice defeated for state legislature. At 26, he was engaged, but his fiancé died. Lincoln had a nervous breakdown. At 33, he was married to Mary Todd. They had four sons but three of them died at ages 4, 11, and 18 (this was not uncommon in the 19th century, especially for illnesses we could easily treat today). Nonetheless, trauma and tragedy were a steady drum beat in a life that was only just beginning. 

Lincoln’s professional career was equally troubled. At 29, he ran for Speaker of the State Legislature and was defeated. Once elected to state legislature, he was defeated several times running for Congress. At 45, he ran for Senate and lost. At 47, he ran for vice president and lost. At 49, he ran for Senate and lost again.

In spite of all the personal and professional setbacks, Lincoln pressed on. Then in 1860, age 50, he ran for President, won the election, and changed the course of history. Today, Lincoln is the most quoted and revered of U.S. Presidents, fondly remembered as a statesman and champion of civil-rights. If not for his assassination in 1865, there were countless achievements to come. Still, the arduous road to the White House provides Lincoln’s most enduring legacy…

Show Grit. Never Quit. 

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