Richard Hofstadter's Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

'Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth' is an influential essay written by historian Richard Hofstadter in 1948. In it, Hofstadter challenges some of our most cherished stories about Lincoln in order to make a point about the way we understand history.

Honest Abe?

Everyone knows the inspiring story of Abraham Lincoln. Born poor in a log cabin, he would come home from a long day of working in the field to spend his nights studying and educating himself. Due to his grit and determination, he rose from poverty to be a prominent lawyer and eventually became president, where he saw America through the Civil War and put an end to slavery.

It's a great story, one that has inspired generations of Americans. But is it just that - a story? That's the provocative claim made by historian Richard Hofstadter in his influential essay 'Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth'. The essay appears in Hofstadter's 1948 book The American Political Tradition, and it is part of a larger argument Hofstadter makes about how we view history.

According to Hofstadter, placing great leaders of the past on a pedestal is dangerous because it overlooks the pragmatic concerns and political compromises needed to actually govern the country. In the case of Lincoln, Hofstadter looks at how Honest Abe played up his humble roots for political gain and delayed taking a stand on the issue of slavery until it became politically advantageous.

The American Political Tradition

It is important to understand Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth in the context of the larger work it is a part of. Hofstadter published The American Political Tradition in 1948, at the age of 32, and it immediately created controversy and caused people to rethink history. Today, it is recognized as one of the most important books on American history ever published.

As laid out in his introduction, Hofstadter is taking issue with previous historians who have mythologized great leaders of the past, such as Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. Though he does not use the term, he is criticizing what is known as the Great Man theory of history, which holds that history can be understood by looking at the work of important men who have shaped history through their intelligence, charisma, and accomplishments.

Hofstadter is arguing that this view discounts the larger forces at work in history and particularly the role of compromise and pragmatic necessity in getting things done. He argues that men like Lincoln and Jefferson were not titanic figures who shaped history through sheer force of will, but shrewd politicians who cut deals to satisfy the differing needs of various groups.

'Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth'

Hofstadter's essay on Lincoln is chapter five of The American Political Tradition and perhaps its most famous section. It is frequently anthologized and assigned in classes separate from the rest of the book.

After pointing out that Lincoln's story resonates deeply with Americans because it hits on themes of both Christian charity and capitalist self-determination, Hofstadter then sets out to largely dismantle it. He claims that Lincoln was 'thoroughly and completely the politician, by preference and by training.' By this, he means that Lincoln's life was dedicated to politics from a young age, despite attempts by biographers to cast him as a self-made businessman or a Christian preacher. Instead, Hofstadter argues, Lincoln could put on those personas when it benefited him politically.

Hofstadter's first big claim is that the self-made man image is one the supposedly humble Lincoln went out of his way to perpetuate. Hofstadter claims that young Lincoln was lazy in chores and got away from physical labor as quickly as he could. But when running for office, his campaign gave him the nickname 'the rail splitter', playing up his brief time cutting logs for fences to make him more appealing to working-class voters.

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