• Archive

Losers and the American Dream

A new history of "losers" in American business, researched in part at Harvard Business School's Baker Library, explores the tension between the American Dream and those who fail to achieve it.

Editor's Note: The myth of the American Dream—from bootstraps to billionaire, if that is what you are capable of achieving—has been well explored. But what of this nation's losers? If we live in a country where anything is possible, then what do we think of those who don't succeed? What do people who fail think of themselves?

In his book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, Carnegie Mellon history professor Scott A. Sandage looks at the stories of near-anonymous people who dreamed big and fell far, while at the same time exploring our shifting attitudes toward those Willy Lomans in our midst.

In researching this book, which won the 2003 Thomas J. Wilson Prize for best first book accepted by Harvard University Press, Sandage used as a primary source the R.G. Dun & Co. Collection ("http://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/collections/dun/") at Baker Library, Harvard Business School. Comprised of thousands of credit reports on businesses and individuals from locations throughout the United States, the R.G. Dun & Co. credit ledgers document the success and failure of businesses and entrepreneurs across America in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

A new birth of failure
Civil War bankrupts wrote their own version of history, yet they shared Abraham Lincoln's vision of a new nation. Even as the clash became a war for abolition, it continued to be a war for ambition—for the right to transcend one's origins. From Fort Sumter to Appomattox, Lincoln defined the war this way. "I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of success in this contest," he said in August 1864, greeting the 166th Ohio Regiment as it made ready to muster out. "Hundred days men" like them were serving short hitches to ease troop shortages that summer. Lincoln often made time to thank such units—in words that not only defined the war but also presaged postwar capitalism. Lincoln addressed the Ohio troops on the White House lawn during the warmest August anyone recollected, in a city noted for torrid summers. At dawn and dusk, Lincoln commuted on horseback between the presidential mansion and a summer cottage on the edge of town. It was cooler there, and he could work undisturbed in an unceremonious white suit and Panama hat: small comforts in the war's bleakest month. With Sherman stalled in Georgia and Grant dug in outside Petersburg, opposition newspaper editors called Lincoln "an egregious failure." Even his own political advisors confided to each other, "I fear he is a failure." Friend and foe badgered him to withdraw from the 1864 presidential election.1

Three days before addressing the 166th Ohio, Lincoln consulted Frederick Douglass in the White House. Lincoln resolved to defy public demands that he repudiate emancipation and sue for peace. Making plans should he be forced to give in, he asked Douglass to organize a federally backed underground railroad, to help as many slaves escape to the North as possible. On 22 August—the same day the Buckeye regiment listened to the president's speech—the editor of the New York Times sent Lincoln a private letter, warning that unless he would drop emancipation from his peace terms, he could not be reelected. Lincoln pondered what to do: When his cabinet met the next morning, he would ask them to sign a blind pledge to make peace on any terms if he lost. With such matters cluttering his desk, even working in shirtsleeves barely made the office less stifling. Maybe Lincoln welcomed the chance to step outside and greet the Ohio soldiers under the blistering sun.2

Who was more uncomfortable: almost a thousand soldiers in scratchy wool uniforms or the man in the long black coat? "The countenance of the President . . . was inexpressibly sad," wrote a member of another Ohio regiment Lincoln had greeted earlier in the summer. "He heard the music, saw the crowd, but his mind was evidently not there." The soldiers, at least, could daydream of going home. Hold out for victory, the president was telling them, "not merely for today, but for all time to come." In a great, muscular hand he held his stovepipe hat, because despite the heat he always uncovered to show respect for the troops. The front ranks could see him sweating with them. Rivulets moistened the face Walt Whitman had described exactly ten days earlier, upon glimpsing the president as Lincoln rode into the city that morning: "Abraham Lincoln's dark brown face, with the deep cut lines, the eyes . . . with a deep latent sadness in the expression."3

Lincoln's high tenor voice squeaked some, but it carried like a bugle call, each word a clear, distinct note that made him easy to hear and understand. "I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House," he was saying. "I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has." Perhaps wandering thoughts outnumbered his words—nearly a thousand visions of fathers and children back in Ohio, interrupted by scattered sighs in the ranks of men anxious to return to neglected farms and shops. Even if some barely listened, they knew that Father Abraham started out life as a poor boy with dreams like theirs. It did not take a Walt Whitman to recognize a tanned brow accustomed to manly sweat.4

Even as the Civil War became a war for abolition, it continued to be a war for ambition.

"It is in order that each of you may have an open field," Lincoln was saying about why they fought, "and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence." A fair chance. He was speaking their language, telling them what the struggle meant and why it must go on, even two or three more years. The president talked fast—quicker than you might guess his Kentucky twang could go. He would spit out two or three mouthfuls of words before he paused to accentuate two or three phrases that he especially wanted you to remember. He was nearly finished now: ". . . that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations."5

The race of life. No one knows which words Lincoln stressed that day, but no phrase stuck longer in this intensely ambitious and competitive man's vocabulary. In 1852, he had exalted the race of life in a eulogy to Whig statesman Henry Clay, coiner of the phrase "self-made manhood," an ideal Lincoln deliberately embodied. In the presidential race of 1860, Lincoln promised "the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else. When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition." He said, "I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it." The slogan graced his first message to Congress in 1861, only three months into a war "whose leading object is . . . to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life." After 1863, "unfettered" took on a more liberal (and literal) meaning, yet emancipation enlarged Lincoln's creed without changing it. Individual success was devalued unless all could strive freely, and freedom was a meaningless abstraction without "a fair chance" to succeed.6

In those dog days of August 1864, when he risked his office rather than break the promise of emancipation, surely Lincoln tried all of his old stump-speaking tricks to make the soldiers hear "equal privileges in the race of life" and embrace it as their true cause. He spoke fewer words that day than in his brief elegy at Gettysburg nine months earlier, where on a pasture of death Lincoln heralded "a new birth of freedom." Now, on the White House lawn, addressing men lucky enough to have avoided the graveyard, he translated the poetry of Gettysburg into plain talk that the greenest private could grasp.7

"It is for this that the struggle should be maintained," he concluded, barely three minutes after he began. "The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel." The jewel of liberty, a new birth of freedom, the race of life: All three named Lincoln's vision of a nation of strivers, which gradually but irrevocably linked the war for ambition to the war for abolition. This duality encompassed what he meant by "a new birth of freedom": a fresh chance at self-made manhood, a right to rise for white men as well as for black men. This vision did not get Lincoln reelected in 1864—military victories clinched that. But it did get him killed. John Wilkes Booth, after hearing Lincoln promote limited Negro suffrage, vowed that the tyrant had given his last speech. At first a reluctant emancipator, Lincoln's faith that individual effort alone should earn men success or failure in life ultimately cost him his own.8

After the war, the defender of this faith was the White House visitor of August 1864, Frederick Douglass. Virtually Lincoln's peer as a writer, Douglass was a peerless orator, gifted with a lordly, basso voice the emancipator lacked. Douglass's most popular lecture, which he gave more than fifty times between 1859 and 1893, was entitled "Self-Made Men." It asked why, "in the race of life, the sons of the poor often get even with, and surpass even, the sons of the rich?" An escaped slave who had taught himself to read, Douglass faced the public as living proof that indeed the race went to the swift, that people are "architects of their own good fortunes . . . indebted to themselves for themselves." Douglass's biography was so well known that he need not draw explicit parallels to the exemplar of his speech: "the King of American self-made men . . . ABRAHAM LINCOLN." No better model of work and self-improvement existed than "the fortitude and industry which could split rails by day, and learn grammar at night at the hearthstone of a log hut." Douglass baptized the freedmen in the entrepreneurial identity now vindicated by war. Our motto, he exclaimed, is "Go ahead!"9

Douglass was a politician, not a motivational speaker. His paean to the race of life exposed the fraud of Reconstruction to the "scorching irony" that had made him famous. Once the postwar twaddle about forty acres and a mule died down, the former slaves got nothing but freedom—no parcel of land made fertile by bondage, no coin to reimburse stolen generations. Night riders, sharecropping debts, crooked labor contracts, and segregation precluded anything like a fair chance. If self-made men "owe[d] little or nothing to birth, relationship, [or] friendly surroundings," asked Douglass, who fit that part better than the freedmen? "I have said, `Give the Negro fair play and let him alone,'" he explained. "It is not fair play to start the Negro out in life, from nothing and with nothing, while others start with the advantage of a thousand years behind them." The race of life should not be rigged. "For his own welfare, give [the Negro] a chance to do whatever he can do well. If he fails then, let him fail! I can, however, assure you that he will not fail." Anyone who accepted the Lincoln myth and the race of life as articles of faith, Douglass implied, must concede that racial equality was unassailable. Politicizing the gospel of self-help, the great orator preached it in earnest.10

The war had changed the terms of political and economic identity in ways that expanded the constituency of failure.

The war had changed the terms of political and economic identity in ways that expanded the constituency of failure. In Douglass's words, "Liberty and slavery" gave way to a new measure of human worth: "success and failure." Trying to live up to these normative ideals, postwar generations faced hazards that neither bankruptcy laws nor constitutional amendments could relieve. New chances meant new risks. Civil rights created a new basis of identity for all, but even if political equality were enforced, economic inequality was inescapable. One scholar explains, "even as Lincoln celebrates the freedom of opportunity . . . he also inscribes a new logic for assigning blame." The logic is this: In a fair race, losers have only themselves to blame. The problem in postwar America was that fortunate sons ran alongside former slaves, and bond brokers edged out ditch diggers; the contestants included black and white, rich and poor, male and female. If Lincoln overlooked the dark side of his ideal, Douglass did not. In "this eager, ever moving mass which we call American society," Douglass explained, "life is not only a race, but a battle, and everybody [is] trying to get just a little ahead of everybody else." Off the dais, Douglass beheld a painful example in his three hapless sons and a daughter who married a ne'er-do-well. Confessing his "many failures in life" in an 1876 letter to his implacable father, Charles Douglass admitted, "It seems that under any circumstances I am to fail in my undertakings, and my life is to be one series of blunders." Identity seemed to be more a matter of new risks than new rights.11

This was a common story after the Civil War. The Douglasses were a rare family, black or white—except in their encounters with success and failure as the definitive categories of human worth in postemancipation America. Coming up from slavery only to go down in failure, they approximated a saying attributed to another self-made man, Andrew Carnegie: "Three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves." Entrepreneurial individualism ended with the war it won. The age of go-ahead became the Gilded Age when business innovators remade self-made manhood on an unimagined scale. Men like Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller embodied different myths from those of Douglass or Lincoln. In the same era when Reconstruction failed to establish political equality, corporate industrialization challenged the limits of "an open field and a fair chance . . . in the race of life." Black and white, workman and tycoon would be—in theory but not in reality—just so many equal competitors in the race of life. "Properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men," Frederick Douglass said. "The term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist. . . . We have all either begged, borrowed, or stolen." Many families would resort to some of these strategies in the postwar decades, after learning the hard way that the celebrated "new birth of freedom" also brought forth a new birth of failure.12

Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Born Losers: A History of Failure in America by Scott A. Sandage, pp. 218–225, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2005 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

[ Buy this book ]

Scott A. Sandage is an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University.


1. Abraham Lincoln, "Speech to One Hundred Sixty-Sixth Ohio Regiment," in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 7:412. Jim Leeke, ed., A Hundred Days to Richmond: Ohio's "Hundred Days" Men in the Civil War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 193–198, 252n1. Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, ed. Michael Burlingame (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 131–132. Michael Burlingame, ed., With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860–1865 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), 150–154. Stefan Lorant, Lincoln: A Picture Story of His Life, rev. ed. (New York: Bonanza Books, 1975), 222–223. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 517–523, 524, 528.

2. Donald, Lincoln, 523–530. David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 182–184.

3. "H. W.," Summit County Beacon, 9 June 1864; this soldier's letter home describes Lincoln greeting the 164th Ohio Regiment at the White House on 28 May 1864; quoted in Leeke, ed., Hundred Days, 193. Walt Whitman, Memoranda during the War [and] Death of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972 [1875–1876]), 22–24.

4. Walter B. Stevens, A Reporter's Lincoln, ed. Michael Burlingame (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 102, 235, 294n33. Richard Hofstadter, "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth," in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage Books, 1989 [1948]),121–173.

5. Stevens, Reporter's Lincoln, 72–73.

6. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), chap. 8. Lincoln, "Eulogy on Henry Clay" (1852), Collected Works, 2:121–132, esp. 121. Lincoln, "Speech at New Haven, Connecticut" (1860), Collected Works, 4:13–30, esp. 24. Lincoln, "Message to Congress in Special Session," 4 July 1861,Collected Works, 4:421–441, esp. 438.

7. Lincoln, "Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg," Collected Works, 7:23.

8. Donald, Lincoln, 530–545, 588. Daniel Walker Howe, "Self-Made Men: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass," chap. 5 in Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), esp. 147–149.

9. Frederick Douglass, "Self-Made Men: An Address Delivered in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in March 1893," in The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One, ed. John W. Blassingame et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 5:545–575, esp. 550, 566, 571.

10. Ibid; 550, 557. Howe, Making the American Self, 153–156.

11. Douglass, "Self-Made Men," 572, 554. Blight, Frederick Douglass' Civil War, 203–206, Charles Douglass quoted on 205. Wai-chee Dimock, Melville and the Poetics of Individualism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 198.

12. Ray Ginger, Altgeld's America: The Lincoln Ideal versus Changing Realities (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1958), 3–7. Andrew Carnegie, Triumphant Democracy (1886), quoted in Familiar Quotations, ed. John Bartlett and Justin Kaplan (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1992), 525. Douglass, "Self-Made Men," 549.