Abraham Lincoln brings lessons about succeeding after failure
“It is amazing what Abraham Lincoln did and from where he came.”
Those words were spoken by Ron Carley, who appeared in-character (and sometimes stepped out of character) as Abraham Lincoln – clad in period clothing, evoking Lincoln’s famous stovepipe hat, black suit, and bowtie indigenous to the 1860s – when he spoke to a crowd of 50 students at HFC on Nov. 7.
“The road to success was not an easy one for Lincoln,” said Carley, who detailed the Great Emancipator’s triumphs and tragedies.
Lincoln was born into abject poverty in one-room log cabin on Feb. 12, 1809, in the waning days of the Thomas Jefferson administration. Yet he managed to rise to power, becoming the 16th president of the United States.
Lincoln had no formal education. In fact, he even dropped out of grade school. His father, Thomas Lincoln, wanted him to become a farmer and frontiersman. Lincoln refused, because he disliked the hard labor associated with frontier life, despite being strong and athletic and standing 6’ 4”. This strained relations between father and son.
Mostly self-taught, Lincoln was an avid reader, having read and reread, most notably, the Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, and Aesop’s Fables. A self-educated lawyer, Lincoln eventually earned his law license in 1839 and went into private practice in Springfield, IL.
At the age of 23, Lincoln bought a general store in New Salem, IL in 1832. The business wasn’t successful and he went bankrupt; it took years for him to pay off his debts. It was good for history that he did not prosper as a shopkeeper; this failure pushed him on toward other goals.
He lost his first love, Ann Rutledge, when she died in 1835 of typhoid fever. Lincoln suffered what is sometimes called a nervous breakdown. In fact, he suffered from depressive tendencies throughout his life.
Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate and lost twice. He also ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and lost twice before finally getting elected in 1846. The failures deepened his resolve.
In 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd. Together, they had four sons: Robert, Edward, Willie, and Tad. The era was not kind to children. Edward died when he was 3 and Willie died at age 11. Tad died at age 18, six years after his father’s death.
In 1860, Lincoln was elected president by less than 40 percent of the popular vote. He gave his inaugural address knowing that Army sharpshooters were guarding him from any Confederate sympathizers. He was heavily criticized by both Democrats and Republicans – his own party –while in office and was despised by half the nation.
His presidency further polarized the American South on the issue of slavery and states’ rights, resulting in many southern states seceding from the Union and the beginning of the Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history.
Still, he worked tirelessly to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which formally outlawed slavery throughout the nation. After the South surrendered, putting an end to the Civil War and reuniting the Union, Lincoln died at the hands of an assassin named John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865 at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.
Yet despite all of Lincoln’s shortcomings and all of his failures, so many people have been inspired by him. To this day, Lincoln is considered by scholars, historians, and the general public to be one of the greatest presidents in American history. With the exception of Jesus Christ, no historical figure has been written about as much as Lincoln. He is the subject of more than 18,000 books and counting. The Lincoln Memorial and Mount Rushmore pay tribute to him.
“Lincoln will go down as one of the greatest presidents in the annals of history. He epitomizes the American dream: He came from nothing to eventually becoming the president of the United States. Despite his personal demons, despite everything that was thrown at him – and these were significant traumas – Lincoln managed to soldier on. Such resilience and such strength of character are truly awe-inspiring,” said HFC history professor Sam Plaza, who invited Carley to speak, as Lincoln, at the College.
“Lincoln never gave up. He was a man who learned from his mistakes and had a drive inside of him that allowed him to overcome nearly insurmountable odds,” said Carley.
Carley also shared little-known facts about Lincoln: • He was the first successful Republican candidate to become president • He was the first person born outside the original 13 colonies to become president • He served as his own campaign manager when running for president • He campaigned for Zachary Taylor, the 12th president of the United States, in Jackson, MI – his only appearance in Michigan • He was a wrestler with a record of 300-1 • He was instrumental in making Springfield the capital city of Illinois
“Lincoln is rated as the No. 2 president in American history, second only to George Washington himself. In fact, Washington was Lincoln’s hero and his favorite president. Lincoln was self-educated, a common man who grew out of nothing. He’s quite a study,” said Carley.
When director Steven Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln – starring Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis in the titular role – was released on Oct. 8, 2012, there was a resurgence of interest in Lincoln. For Halloween that year, Carley dressed up as Lincoln.
“At first, it was just a lark. When I dressed up, I saw myself in the mirror and thought, ‘My gosh, I really do look like Lincoln!’ I dressed as Lincoln again the next Halloween. A friend suggested that I should do it more than once a year,” said Carley.
It inspired him to start a new path. To do so, Carley had to read up on Lincoln, educating himself on every aspect of the Great Emancipator’s life.
“It’s one thing to look like him, but it’s another thing to act like him. You have to know about his family, his friends, his opponents, the key players during the Civil War – everything about him. I’m still learning. In fact, not a day goes by that I don’t learn more about Lincoln,” he said.
Carley has appeared as Lincoln at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, where the chair Lincoln sat in when he was assassinated is on display. He reenacted the Gettysburg Address on Veterans Day for Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn. He’s also spoken in classrooms, participated in numerous parades, and traveled to Springfield, IL and Gettysburg, PA.
“It’s a great blessing to be able to portray such a great man,” said Carley. “It’s made me a better human being.”
After the presentation, Carley answered questions and posed for photos. He handed out his business card, which is black on one side and white on the other to demonstrate “all things being equal.”
“It was a good presentation. I found it very informative,” said HFC student Sean Moses, of Melvindale, who aspires to become a history teacher.
“I’m a history buff. The Civil War has always fascinated me,” said HFC student Kimberly Copeland, of Dearborn Heights. “If not for Lincoln’s morality, the outcome of the Civil War could have been much different – and not for the better. He thought about the good of the country and the people, always putting them before himself.”