Your setbacks in life are paving the way to future progress

Lincoln's disappointing setbacks in 1855 contributed to his presidency

“I have these terrible voices in my mind,” Junayd, a friend of mine, told me over dinner almost a year ago when he was going through a challenging time. As empathetic as I was in hearing out his struggles, I experienced a strange relief that I was not alone in erupting terrible and despicable ideas.

Just this past Friday, I felt so agonizingly demotivated and frustrated, as if everything in the world was against me. And it happens often. Sometimes they are triggered by tiny unfulfilled wishes and unsatisfied ephemeral lusts, other times they are awaken by hard work not recognized, talent not acknowledged, jealousy of others’ skills, status, and virtues, and ambitions too grand to be achieved.

Besides influences from experiences in my childhood, the cause of this mental state is a sense of a lack of progress in life. It’s the disillusioned assumption that a career is not moving anywhere, the hopeless feeling of not having someone to love, or the bitter frustration over a goal nowhere within reach. When I was younger, this lack of progress and the ensuing loss of motivation would always sink me into despair, impatience, and unwise decisions. But then, I learned think about Abraham Lincoln in 1855 whenever there was no visible progress.

Lincoln’s Year of Frustrations

1855 was but a brief period in Lincoln’s 56 years of life, summed up in a little over 10 pages in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 916-page Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Yet these were no small setbacks for a 46-year-old lawyer who had, by the life expectancy of his time and his age, already spent 2/3 of his ambitious life with little accomplishment outside of Illinois. In contrast, many of his future Cabinet members, most notably William Seward and Salmon Chase, had already risen to national prominence.

Senate Election: 47 lost to 5

The election held by the Illinois state legislature in February saw two main candidates for the Senate seat, Lincoln, with 47 votes from the anti-slavery Whigs, and James Shields, with 41 votes from the pro-Nebraska Democrats (a.k.a. Douglas Democrats after Lincoln’s rival Stephen Douglas). A majority of 51 votes was needed to win the seat and, unfortunately, a small group of 5 anti-Nebraska (anti-slavery) Democrats, led by Norman Judd, was determined to vote a third Democratic candidate, Lyman Trumbull, instead of Lincoln.

During the election, the Douglass Democrats cunningly switched support from James Shields to the widely popular Democratic governor Joel Matteson, aiming to secure the votes of the anti-slavery Democrats. After 9 ballots, Lincoln could not gather a majority and realized that he must gave up his candidacy in favor of Trumbull to prevent the Douglas Democrats from winning. Therefore, Lincoln ordered his 47 men to be controlled by Trumbull’s 5, giving Trumbull the majority to win the Senate seat.

Many of Lincoln’s friends were inconsolable, believing that this was “perhaps his last chance for that high position”. Kearns Goodwin wrote:

Despite the dignity of Lincoln’s public demeanor, he privately suffered a brutal disappointment, describing the ordeal as an “agony.” Though he had engineered Trumbull’s victory for the sake of the anti-Nebraska cause, it was difficult to accept the manner of his loss.

Law Practice: The Ape from the Countryside

Later in the summer, Lincoln was involved in McCormick v. Manny, a celebrated intellectual patent lawsuit of the time. Because the case was to be tried in Chicago Illinois, George Harding, the nationally renowned patent lawyer representing the defendant, reached out to Lincoln via his associate Peter Watson as his local partner who “understood the judge and had his confidence”. Soon after, the case was transferred to Cincinnati Ohio, so Harding teamed up with an outstanding Ohioan lawyer Edwin Stanton, failing to inform Lincoln of the change.

Having done his work, Lincoln arrived at the Burnet House in Cincinnati, where the lawyers were lodged, only to be humiliated by his colleagues:

Years later, Harding could still recall the shock of his first sight of the “tall, rawly boned, ungainly back woodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing, his trousers hardly reaching his ankles, holding in his hands a blue cotton umbrella with a ball on the end of the handle.” Lincoln introduced himself and proposed, “Let’s go up in a gang.” At this point, Stanton drew Harding aside and whispered, “Why did you bring that damned long armed Ape here…he does not know any thing and can do you no good.” With that, Stanton and Harding turned from Lincoln and continued to court on their own.

Stanton made sure that Lincoln was to remove himself from the case and Harding never opened the documents Lincoln prepared, “so sure that it would be only trash.” Instead of drowning himself in anger by such humiliating treatment, Lincoln stayed for the trial and “stood in ‘rapt attention…drinking in [Stanton’s] words,’” finding his sophisticated arguments “a revelation.” Never had Lincoln “seen anything so finished and elaborated, and so thoroughly prepared,” and he told a friend after the hearing that he’d go home and study law because he needed to be ready when these college-trained lawyers come West to Illinois.

Despite reciprocating the humiliations from Harding and Stanton with grace, Lincoln was nevertheless deeply affected by this event, telling a friend that “I never expect to be in Cincinnati again. I have nothing against the city, but things have so happened here as to make it undesirable for me ever to return here.”

The Story Continued

Except for Mary Todd Lincoln, who had an unwavering faith in Lincoln’s abilities, it was probably impossible for anyone to tell that this man would one day become the greatest of all U.S. presidents.

Indeed, Lincoln would be passed as a vice president candidate by the newly-founded Republican party in the 1856 Presidential Election. In 1858, he would enter a senate race against his long-standing rival Stephen Douglas and lost the campaign again. An average person would have given up after so many failures and humiliations, yet Lincoln carried on. The 1856 campaign made him the leading Republican in the state of Illinois and the 1858 senate campaign featured the famous Lincoln-Douglass debates, elevating him to the national level and making him a viable presidential candidate for the 1860 election.

And what happened to those anti-Nebraska Democrats who stood in Lincoln’s path to the U.S. Senate?

Neither Trumbull nor Judd would ever forget Lincoln’s generous behavior. Indeed, both men would assist him in his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1858, and Judd would play a critical role in his run for the presidency in 1860.

What happened to the Edwin Stanton that so humiliated Lincoln?

Unimaginable as it might seem, after Stanton’s bearish behavior, at their next encounter six years later, Lincoln would offer Stanton “the most powerful civilian post within his gift”—the post of secretary of war. Lincoln’s choice of Stanton would reveal, as would his subsequent dealings with Trumbull and Judd, a singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness. As for Stanton, despite his initial contempt for the “long armed Ape,” he would not only accept the offer but come to respect and love Lincoln more than any person outside of his immediate family.

La Fin

Every time I read these 10 pages of Lincoln’s disappointing 1855, I would close the book, overwhelmed by tears, and think of his extraordinary qualities in the face of personal setbacks. A power-hungry person would not have seen the larger picture and give up their best chance to advance their career. An average 46-year-old would soon reach the complacent state of their career trajectory, relying mostly on past experiences than on continuous learning. Not Lincoln. Having a moral compass in mind, he gave up all his votes to send the second best candidate into the Senate. Seeing the gap between his and Stanton’s law practices, his reaction was not jealousy or despair but the will to learn and improve.

One would find that Lincoln’s life before his presidency was filled with failures. Yet each time he slid down the mountain, he climbed back up again. He climbed slowly but each time brought him closer to the peak. Reading Lincoln gives me consolation in knowing that a lack of visible progress does not mean there is no progress. Progress does not just come from successes but also from failures and setbacks. Failures give us time to think, to rest, and to find a better route forward. Failures test and strengthen our characters. Failures pave the way for real, concrete progress in our lives.

It might take me a long time before I could truly eradicate my “terrible voices,” but with Lincoln in my mind, I have a role model to remind myself of taking on setbacks and failures with a little grace and dignity. So my friends, whenever you feel despair or impatient, try thinking about Lincoln in 1855. There can be progress in setbacks.