Abraham Lincoln knew himself well—something we seldom allow for and perhaps do not want in a great man. It is harder to feel a legitimate pride in our own understanding when the hero has been there first. “My mind,” Lincoln wrote to a friend, “is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch any thing on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.” But his self-knowledge was not confined to smaller traits. At a low moment in the mid-1850s, he made an entry in a notebook comparing his apparent fate of obscurity to the fortunes of his rival Stephen Douglas. The two, Lincoln recalled, had started out in politics at the same time:
We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me,the race of ambition has been a failure—a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success. His name fills the nation; and is not unknown, even, in foreign lands. I affect no contempt for the high eminence he has reached. So reached, that the oppressed of my species, might have shared with me in the elevation, I would rather stand on that eminence, than wear the richest crown that ever pressed a monarch’s brow.
A shade of the public voice is audible, even here; the intimacy looks beyond itself. His hope of performing some lasting good for “the oppressed of my species” is mixed with his deepest sense of who he is. He consoles himself for the defeat of his ambition with a regret that Douglas achieved his eminence without laying the groundwork for a genuine legacy. Douglas has served only himself—under the banner of “popular sovereignty,” a cause without a principle—so that any good he does will terminate in himself.
A lull in one’s middle years can seem the harbinger of lasting defeat. Probably Lincoln would not have written like this a few years earlier, for his political career, through his twenties and thirties, had been in fact a prodigious success. In 1832, at the age of twenty-three, he made his first run for office to represent New Salem in the Illinois legislature. Though defeated, he proved his popularity in another way by being elected captain of his company in the Black Hawk War. On a second try in 1834, he became one out of four elected from a slate of thirteen. Much of the following year he devoted to the study of law; and when he passed the bar two years later, he moved to Springfield. He was reelected three times to a seat in the state house, in 1836, 1838, and 1840; and he turned down chances to run for governor in 1841 and 1844—a quest he saw as futile in a state that was mainly Democratic.
Lincoln made friends easily and was admired for his energy and political acumen …