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The New Salem Pilgrimage

John Fraim

One of the best-selling books of all time is a self-help book called How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Published in 1936 in the middle of the Great Depression, it did not start-off as a book but rather a series of lectures that Carnegie was giving in New York City. One of the people who attended one of Carnegie’s lectures was Leon Shimkin, an editor at Simon & Schuster. Shimkin felt the lectures could be turned into a book and convinced Carnegie of this.

The book was a huge success, selling millions of copies and going through some 17 printings in its first year. Though mostly ignored, if not derided, by critics, it is widely considered now to be one of the most influential (and best-selling) books in American history. As a result, Carnegie found himself the father of what would become the enormous self-help genre.

The 2006 Edition of How to Win Friends & Influence People

Born in 1888 on a farm in Maryville, Missouri, he was son of a poor farmer and attended rural one room schools. In 1904, at age 16, his family moved to a farm in Warrensburg, Missouri where he began his interest in speaking in public. During high school, he grew interested in the speeches at the various assemblies around the area.

After high school, he attended State Teacher’s College in Warrensburg. His family was too poor to afford the $1 a day it cost for room and board, so Carnegie continued to live at home while riding to and from school daily on horseback. He took advantage of these solitary rides to practice reciting speeches and fine-tuning his oratory style. He was an ambitious student but not much of an athlete. But he realized “I could at least stand up and speak with a little more vitality and enthusiasm than the average speaker.” He joined the school’s debate team but was initially unsuccessful. The son of a poor farmer, he was shunned by fellow students because of his shabby, ill-fitting clothes.

One day, he watched a speaker at a Chautauqua event give a lecture in Warrensburg. These events brought entertainment to rural communities throughout the country and featured popular speakers, musicians, entertainers and preachers. He adopted the man’s speaking style and mannerisms with great success and soon became a popular student and gave public speaking lessons to his fellow students. But when he failed Latin, Carnegie left college in 1908 without finishing his bachelor’s degree.

State Teacher’s College in Warrensburg (Circa 1908)

Carnegie’s first job after college was selling correspondence courses to ranchers. He then moved on to selling bacon, soap and lard for Armour & Company and was successful that he made his sales territory of South Omaha, Nebraska the national leader for the firm. After saving $500, he quit sales in 1911 in order to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a Chautauqua lecturer. However, he ended up instead attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York but found little success as an actor. When a production he was cast in ended, he returned to New York.

In New York he lived at the YMCA on 125th Street. It was here that his old love of public speaking came back and he got the idea to teach public speaking. He persuaded the YMCA manager to allow him to instruct a class in return for 80% of the net proceeds. In his first session, he had run out of material. Improvising, he suggested that students speak about “something that made them angry,” and discovered that the technique made speakers unafraid to address a public audience.

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From this 1912 debut, the Dale Carnegie Course evolved. Carnegie had tapped into the average American’s desire to have more self-confidence, and by 1914, he was earning $500 (about $12800 today) every week. During WWI, he served in the U.S. Army spending time at Camp Upton. After the Army, he returned to teaching public speaking and teaching courses at the YMCA.

In 1915, he co-authored the book Public Speaking with Joseph Esenwein and in 1920 was published Public Speaking: The Standard Course of the United YMCA. During this time, he had also been lecturing at Carnegie Hall and in 1926, a collection of his writings was assembled into Public Speaking: A Practical Course for Businessmen (1926).

Ten years after his Public Speaking book, Simon & Schuster published How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book was a bestseller from its debut. By the time of Carnegie’s death, the book had sold five million copies in 31 languages, and there had been 450,000 graduates of his Dale Carnegie Institute. It has been stated in the book that he had critiqued over 150,000 speeches in his participation in the adult education movement of the time.

Early Copy of How to Win Friends

There were a number of things that led up to the creation of How to Win Friends. For one, there was the spirit of the times it appeared in and the desire of many Americans to better themselves through a type of personal system. It was also a continuation of Carnegie’s belief in the power of public speaking and salesmanship. The combination of the two had been constants in his life from his early years.

But perhaps the greatest event that led to the creation of How to Win Friends was Carnegie’s discovery of a soulmate in the period between 1926 and 1936. This soulmate was certainly not his first wife. In 1921, he married Lolita Baucaire but the childless marriage was an unhappy one that ended in divorce in 1931. It was during this unhappy time in his life that he discovered his true soulmate and fellow traveler in life. Like Carnegie, this person had lived in Missouri and come from a poor farming family. Like Carnegie, he had a great belief in the power of public speaking and self-education. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

Young Lincoln Circa the Time of New Salem

Like most Americans, Carnegie knew a basic history of Lincoln, but it was not until he was in London in the late 1920s and early 30s that a renewed interest in Lincoln was ignited in him. As Carnegie describes it, he was having breakfast at the Hotel Dysart in London and reading the newspaper and a column called “Men and Memories” by the late T.P. O’Connor (or Tay Pay) reputed “Father of the House of Commons.” As Carnegie notes, “On that particular morning, and for several mornings following, ‘Tay Pay’s’ column was devoted to Abraham Lincoln – not to his political activities but to the personal side of his career: to his sorrows, his repeated failures, his poverty, his great love for Ann Rutledge, and his tragic marriage to Mary Todd.”

He read the series with “profound interest” and was surprised that although he had spent the first twenty years of his life not far from Lincoln country and had a keen interest in United States history, he discovered that he really didn’t know Lincoln. It was a revelation to Carnegie and he observed, “The fact is that I, an American, had had to come to London and read a series of articles written by an Irishman, in an English newspaper, before I realized that the story of Lincoln’s career was one of the most fascinating tales in all the annals of mankind.”

Carnegie soon discussed the subject with a number of his fellow-countrymen and discovered they also had the same meager understanding of the real Lincoln. All they knew about Lincoln, Carnegie says, is that he had been born in a log cabin, had walked miles to borrow books and then read them at night, stretched out on the floor in front of the fireplace; that he split rails, became a lawyer, told funny stories, said that a man’s legs ought to be long enough to reach the ground, was called “Honest Abe,” debated with Judge Douglas, was elected President of the United States, wore a silk hat, freed the slaves, spoke at Gettysburg, declared that he wished he knew what brand of whisky Grant drank so he could send a barrel of it to his other generals, and was shot by Booth in a theater in Washington.”

Albert Beverage’s Abraham Lincoln – One of Carnegie’s Main Sources for Lincoln the Unknown

This set Carnegie on his path to discover the “unknown” Lincoln. As he recalls, he went over to the British Museum library and read a number of Lincoln books. The more he read, the more fascinated he became. Finally, his interest “caught on fire” and he became determined to write a book aboutLincoln. He knew he did not have the temperament to write another “learned treatise for the benefit of scholars and historians.” Besides, he reasoned, there was little need for another book of that kind, for many excellent ones are already in existence. However, after reading many Lincoln volumes, Carnegie says, “I did feel that there was a genuine need for a short biography that would tell the most interesting facts about his career briefly and tersely for the average busy and hurried citizen of today.”

He began work in Europe and labored over it for a year there and then for two years in New York. But he was unhappy with what he had written and tore up all he had written and tossed it into the wastebasket. Something was missing from his story of Lincoln.

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The story began to come to him when he decided to go to Illinois and to write of Lincoln on the land where he dreamed and toiled. Carnegie’s trip to Illinois to discover the unknown Lincoln was a true turning point in his life. In many ways, a spiritual renewal and awakening for him and a discovery that he had a soulmate in the great American president.

For months Carnegie lived among people whose fathers had helped Lincoln survey land and build fences and drive hogs to market. For months he delved among old books and letters and speeches and half-forgotten newspapers and musty court records, trying to understand Lincoln. In one summer, he journeyed to the little town of Petersburg because it is only a mile away from the restored village of New Salem where Lincoln spent the happiest and most formative years of his life. There he ran a mill and a grocery store, studied law, worked as a blacksmith, refereed cockfights and horse-races, fell in love, and had his heart broken.

New Salem, Illinois

The small village came and went fast and even in the height of its glory New Salem never had more than a hundred inhabitants, and its entire existence covered a span of about ten years. Shortly after Lincoln left the village it was abandoned. As Carnegie notes, “bats and swallows nested in the decaying cabins, and for more than half a century cows grazed over the spot.”

In 1922, the State of Illinois secured the site and made a public park and built replicas of the log cabins. Twelve log houses, the Rutledge Tavern, ten workshops, stores, mills and a school where church services were held have been reproduced and furnished as they might have been in the 1830s. The furnishings, including many articles actually used by the New Salem people of Lincoln’s time and others dating back to the same time period, were assembled and donated to the state by the Old Salem Lincoln League. The collection includes such early-nineteenth-century articles as wheat cradles, candle molds, cord beds, flax hackles, wood cards, dough and cornmeal chests and early American pewter.

A Map of New Salem

Carnegie’s trip to New Salem took on the characteristics of something close to a spiritual pilgrimage to where Lincoln had lived in his 20s, from 1831 to 1837. There was a desire in Carnegie to take Lincoln out of the long, scholarly books in great libraries like the British Museum and present him in his native soil. Perhaps this had been the problem with his first attempt to write about Lincoln in places like Europe and New York City. He had to return to where Lincoln grew up and was molded. In doing so, Carnegie was also returning to his own home and memories of his youth.

One cannot help but get a sense of the powerful effect this had on Carnegie in the late 20s and early 30s when he came to New Salem and restarted his book on Lincoln. His own words provide proof enough of this emotional effect on him and are best told in his own lyrical words:

The same white oaks under which Lincoln studied and wrestled and made love are still standing. Every morning I used to take my typewriter and motor up there from Petersburg, and half of the chapters of this book were written under those trees. What a lovely spot in which to work! In front of me flowed the winding Sangamon, and all about me the woods and the hayfields were musical with the call of the bob-white; and through the trees flashed the color of the blue jay, the yellowhammer, and the redbird. I felt Lincoln there.

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Carnegie writes that he often used to go there alone on summer nights “when the whip-poor-wills were crying in the woods along the banks of the Sangamon” and the “moonlight outlined Rutledge’s tavern against the sky.” It stirred Carnegie to realize that on such nights, about a hundred years ago, young Abe Lincoln and Ann Rutledge had walked over this same ground arm in arm in the moonlight, listening to the night-birds and dreaming ecstatic dreams that were destined never to come true.”

The Rutledge Tavern and Inn

Perhaps the major discovery Carnegie made in New Salem about Lincoln was that the young Abe Lincoln found the only supreme happiness that he ever knew. It was happiness related to finding his true love in life, Ann Rutledge the daughter of the founder of New Salem, James Rutledge from South Carolina. In 1828, James Rutledge, built a home he later converted to a tavern and inn and Lincoln boarded briefly at the tavern. Rutledge organized the debating society where Lincoln practiced public speaking.

The story goes that Rutledge was engaged to marry John MacNamar, a dubious character who left for New York and promised to marry her upon his return. Rutledge and Lincoln met after this and supposedly fell in love while MacNamar was away and she promised to marry Lincoln after MacNamar released her. For a time, Rutledge and MacNamar exchanged letters, but his letters became more formal and “less ardent in turn” and eventually ceased completely.

Ann Rutledge

In 1835, a wave of typhoid hit New Salem and Ann Rutledge died at the age of 22 on August 25, 1835. MacNamar never returned before her death. Historian John Simon notes “Available evidence overwhelmingly indicates Lincoln so loved Ann that her death plunged him into severe depression.”

It was tough for Carnegie to write the chapter dealing the death of Ann Rutledge. Again, Carnegie’s words describe writing this chapter the best.

I put a little folding table and a typewriter in a car and drove out over country roads and through a hog lot and a cow pasture until I reached the quiet, secluded spot where Ann Rutledge lies buried. It is utterly abandoned now, and overgrown. To get near her grave, it was necessary to mow down the weeds and brush and vines. And there, where Lincoln came to weep, was set down the story of his grief.

Many of the other chapters of his book were written in Springfield and some in the sitting-room of the old home where Lincoln lived for sixteen unhappy years. Some at the desk where he composed his first inaugural address. And other chapters, notes Carnegie, were written “above the spot where he came to court and quarrel with his wife Mary Todd.”

The Grave of Ann Rutledge (“Where Lincoln came to weep.”)

The book Lincoln the Unknown was published in 1932 in the early years of the Great Depression. It is a short little book of 250 pages and begins with the story of Lincoln’s mother, the illegitimate daughter of Lucy Hanks. It remains true to Carnegie’s original desire to write a “a short biography that would tell the most interesting facts about his career.”

Carnegie succeeded in this task. Dixon Fox, professor of history at Columbia University noted that it is “A fascinating book, as dramatic as a Sabatini novel. It is just in portraiture and wise in emphasis. It is the most vivid volume I have read on Lincoln’s whole life.” Famous travel writer Lowell Thomas wrote it was “The most amazing story in American history. It is a Lincoln book that perhaps could not have been written until today – and a book that no man can read without profit. I know of no other short work on Lincoln which presents so much of him and presents it so unforgettably.”And, Carnegie’s old college friend and fellow author Homer Croy noted, “It’s a wonder! I’ve always been a Lincoln bug and have read many volumes on him. This comes nearer to making Abraham Lincoln a living, breathing human being than any book that I have ever read. This book takes Lincoln out of the sky, moves him into the house next door and makes a neighbor of him. He’s as human as a pair of overalls flapping on the clothes-lines.”

Early Edition of Lincoln the Unknown

The book became a central part of Carnegie’s method of looking at biographies of successful people to garner wisdom for his later books. In 1934, he published Little Known Facts About Well Known People. In 1937, there was his Five-Minute Biographies focusing on a particular experience in the lives of famous people. The books were short and opened the lives of famous people to common readers rather than an elite, scholarly readership.

Carnegie certainly used examples of Lincoln’s life in creating his 1936 How To Win Friends and Influence People. The first chapter of the famous book is titled “If You Want to Gather Honey, Don’t Kick Over the Beehive.” In this chapter, he observed that when you study the lives of considered great leaders, you generally notice they handle criticism with extreme caution and do everything to preserve the self-esteem of those they reproach. Rather than condemn people, it is better to try and understand them and discover the motive for their actions. This is much more productive than criticizing, and it makes us more tolerant, understanding, and good.

For example, in the chapter on leadership in How to Win Friends, he includes a famous letter Lincoln wrote to General Joseph Hooker, at a point when the Civil War seemed to be turning against the Union. Lincoln’s intent was to get the general to change tactics, but he preceded each admonishment with a compliment. “I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like,” wrote Lincoln, who added three more items of praise before carefully saying that he wanted the general to alter his strategy.

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While Carnegie went on to create a huge company and invent the self-help genre, his discovery of unknown Lincoln on his trip to New Salem was a turning point in his life. It was a Lincoln that was unknown to Carnegie just as much as Carnegie’s previous life was unknown to him. He found a new way to communicate his message in the form of short biographies. But more than anything else, he found a fellow traveler on the path of life. His short biography of Lincoln is a powerful story paying huge dividends to the reader. But almost as powerful is the story of how Carnegie came to write it.

(John Fraim is the author of a number of books, including the short biography of John Coltrane titled Spirit Catcher.)


The Best Biographies of Abraham Lincoln.

Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America by Steven Watts.

(Best Biography on Dale Carnegie)

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