The Odd Couple: Abraham Lincoln and Dale Carnegie

Lincoln and Carnegie: The Odd Couple

Lincoln and Carnegie: The Odd Couple

Dale Carnegie was a dynamic presence in the early 1900s. His book How to Win Friends and Influence People sold over 15 million copies since it was first published in 1936. During his career he was a newspaper columnist, teacher, radio personality, author, public speaker, and entrepreneur, but Carnegie is most remembered for his self-help books and corporate training business, Dale Carnegie Training. Carnegie’s fundamental principles and techniques from the early 1900s are still being taught today in the Dale Carnegie courses and seminars all around the world. Carnegie’s Legacy of self-improvement and a dedication to serving the business community seems in stark contrast to the Great Emancipator. What could this odd couple have in common?

Early Life

Dale CarnegieDale Carnegie was born in 1888 in Missouri.  His family suffered extreme poverty. His father was a failed farmer and his mother a deeply religious Sunday school teacher. Carnegie’s mother was an outgoing woman. She enjoyed teaching and speaking in church, and she encouraged Carnegie to do the same. His mother also believed and supported Carnegie’s education.

Life on the Missouri farm was difficult. The family worked long, hard hours every day. Even after Carnegie was accepted to State Teachers’ College, he still woke up early to work the farm every day. Then, he would put on his one clean suit and walk or ride a horse a few miles to school. Carnegie stayed at home because he did not have enough money to pay the $1 a day room and board at State Teachers’ College.

While at Teachers’ College, Carnegie found success on the debate team. He was so successful he taught his classmates different strategies of effective public speaking. Carnegie enjoyed public speaking. He also enjoyed writing and hoped to one day be a successful author. Dale Carnegie graduated in 1908. Over the next four years, Carnegie held different jobs with very little success. He managed to save enough money to move to New York City in 1912 and pursue his dreams of becoming an actor. He studied at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. However, Carnegie did not find much success as an actor.

Running out of money, options, and living at the YMCA Carnegie decided to go back to what he knew best, education and public speaking. He started working at the YMCA as a public speaking instructor. It was during this time Carnegie perfected his techniques as a teacher of public speaking and created his philosophy of how to develop and maintain relationships. Carnegie’s classes were a huge success. His classes would soon evolve into the Dale Carnegie courses.

Publications and Connections to Lincoln

As the popularity of the Carnegie Courses grew, Dale Carnegie wrote The Art of Public Speaking with Joseph Berg Esenwein in 1915. Since college Carnegie had aspirations of becoming a writer, but he experienced little success. The Art of Public Speaking focused on three principles of public speaking:

  • Man should be and think and feel things that are worthy of being given forth.
  • The man must enthrone his will to rule over his thought, his feelings, and all his physical powers, so that the outer self may give perfect, unhampered expression to the inner.
  • No one can learn how to speak who does not first speak as best he can.

The Art of Public Speaking included famous poems and speeches for the reader to use as practice including several poems about Lincoln. One speech, Abraham Lincoln,  was written by Henry Ward Beecher. The authors remarked on Lincoln’s effectiveness as a speaker. The Gettysburg Address was also a speech used as an exercise, and it was described by the authors as one of the few immortal speeches that was not delivered for a selfish or a narrow cause. They stated that it was born out of a passionate desire to help humanity.

When an awkward giant like Abraham Lincoln rose to the sublimest heights of oratory he did so because of the greatness of his soul- his very ruggedness of spirit and artless honesty were properly expressed in his gnarly body. The fire of character, of earnestness, and of message swept his hearers before him when the tepid words of an insincere Apollo would have left no effect. But be sure you are a second Lincoln before you despise the handicap of physical awkwardness.

The Art of Public Speaking (Posture)

In 1920, Dale Carnegie wrote Public Speaking: the Standard Course of the United Y. M. C. A. Schools. The book served as a manual for instructors teaching public speaking courses at any local YMCA. The book identified essential qualities of the instructor and methods of instruction, and it often identified Lincoln as an accomplished orator and a fierce debater. Furthermore, Carnegie gave two examples of debate topics that would not be ideal because there were not two sides to the question. One example of a less than ideal topic was “Resolved, Lincoln was a great man” which he countered, “No reasonable man would argue against…they may be good subjects for an address but they furnish no issue for a debate.”

In 1921, Carnegie married Lolita Baucaire, self-proclaimed countess. The marriage was an unhappy one, and they divorced ten years later. Soon after the divorce, a friend inquired about Mrs. Carnegie. Carnegie replied, “Oh hell, we couldn’t get along. We got divorced.”  Dale Carnegie’s second wife, Dorothy Carnegie remarked that he said marrying Baucaire was the worst mistake of his life.

Dale Carnegie’s YMCA. classes were growing in popularity quickly. To accommodate the growing demand, he started the Dale Carnegie Institute. It was also around this time that Carnegie chose to change the spelling of his last name from Carnagey to Carnegie. This change was a shrewd move to make his courses more marketable by capitalizing off the name of the wealthy steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie. In 1926 Carnegie wrote Public Speaking: a Practical Course for Business Men. In this book, Carnegie once again referred to President Lincoln as an example of an exemplary impromptu and prepared speaker. In the chapter about keeping the audience interested, he told a story of a young Lincoln using emotion to help him with a case for a widow of a Revolutionary War hero who had been swindled by a pension agent. Carnegie urged the reader to be like Lincoln and study successful speakers and practice. In another different chapter about speakers having a clear purpose, Carnegie detailed how Lincoln always succeeded famously because he knew where he wanted to go and how to get there.  He used Lincoln as an example for improving diction and increasing vocabulary by demonstrating how Lincoln read books to grow and develop as a speaker.

In the 1930s, the need for middle management employees was growing. Carnegie began to expand the purpose and goals for his classes. He started focusing on the needs of businessmen. The taught his students how to interview, give persuasive arguments, and maintain positive relationships. He inspired his students by having them share with each other how they put what they learned into action in the workplace.

Lincoln the Unknown

According to the official Dale Carnegie Training website (retrieved in 2012), Carnegie was an admirer of President Lincoln. Carnegie believed the best way learn the history of success was to read about history’s most successful people. In 1932, he published Lincoln the Unknown. It took Carnegie ten years to write the book. Despite his efforts, the book was not a great success.

Lincoln the Unknown by Dale Carnegie

A surprisingly good read

In the forward, Carnegie explained why he chose to write the book. He had been in London reading the newspaper. A newspaper columnist for The Morning Post, T. P. O’Conner, had dedicated several days of his column to Abraham Lincoln. O’Conner focused his stories on Lincoln the man rather than the politician. He discussed Lincoln’s sorrows, repeated failures, Ann Rutledge, and marriage to Mary Todd. Carnegie thought that Lincoln’s story was “one of the most fascinating tales in all the annals of mankind”. Carnegie was surprised and somewhat offended to learn so much about President Lincoln from an Irish writer for a British newspaper. Indeed, he knew about Honest Abe the rail-splitter, the great speaker, and the President who set the slaves free; but that was all Carnegie knew. He talked to his friends about Lincoln and was surprised by how little they knew as well. He resolved to learn more.

The more Carnegie researched Abraham Lincoln the more interested he became. Carnegie set out to write a biography about Lincoln. This biography would not be a scholarly one; he believed there were many fine examples of those in existence. Carnegie stated he neither possessed the qualities of an academic nor a historian to write a scholarly biography. Therefore, he chose to write a brief biography for the average person.

Carnegie began writing Lincoln’s biography in Europe. He found after a few years that researching in Europe was not sufficient. He relocated to Illinois to continue his research. While in Illinois, he met with men whose fathers had worked with Lincoln. Carnegie read old books, letters, speeches, newspapers, and court documents.  He visited the same sites where Lincoln once stood.

He spent one summer in Petersburg, IL which was close to the recently restored village New Salem which is now a national historic site. Carnegie believed this is where Lincoln spent his “happiest and formative” years. Carnegie wrote that he enjoyed sitting and writing under the same white oaks where Lincoln must have studied, wrestled, and made love. At night he’d romanticize about Lincoln and Ann Rutledge walking around the small village holding hands in the moonlight. When Carnegie wrote his chapter on Ann Rutledge’s death, he visited her gravesite. He was disappointed that her gravesite had been overgrown and abandoned.

Carnegie also spent time researching in Springfield, IL. He visited places where he believed Lincoln had once been. He wrote in different locations around town including the sitting-room where Lincoln and Mary Todd lived.

Lincoln's Home in Springfield, IL

Lincoln’s Home (National Historic Site) in Springfield, IL via Ian Manka

Carnegie told Lincoln’s story of an unfortunate child born into poverty. He wrote about Lincoln’s thirst for knowledge and his need to help his family. In the book Carnegie described Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s first love, as a beautiful girl with blue eyes and auburn hair.  The courtship was short-lived; Rutledge died of typhoid fever in 1835.  In contrast, Carnegie was not quite so diplomatic with Mary Todd Lincoln. He described her as ambitious and bad-tempered. Moreover, he said she was haughty and had an exalted opinion of her own superiority. Carnegie spent a great deal of the book depicting the relationship of Lincoln and Todd. The picture was that of an unfortunate and tragic marriage. He shared a less than loving love letter between Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln as documentation of their unhappy relationship.

Mary Todd Lincoln (Public Domain)

Mary Todd Lincoln

Carnegie Finds Success

As Dale Carnegie’s classes grew, he observed that for people to be successful they needed more than outstanding public speaking skills. They needed good people skills and there were no books available to fill that need. Carnegie decided to change that. In 1936, How to Win Friends and Influence People was published. The book came at a time when the country was in turmoil due to the Great Depression. For many this book was the answer to the disillusionment felt due to the hard times. The book was wildly successful. Simon & Schuster originally printed 5000 only copies of the book. How to Win Friends and Influence People went on to be a colossal success. The public loved it. Some critics were not quite so kind to Carnegie or his book.  There was even a parody book by Irving Tressler called How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.

In the first edition of his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie referred to Lincoln as an example of study yet again. He told several stories about Lincoln as antidotes. He also used Lincoln’s quotes. When faced with an issue Carnegie suggested the reader take out a five-dollar bill, look at it, and think of how would Lincoln handle the problem. Carnegie identified Lincoln as having great qualities like knowing how to treat others, being persuasive, and using words with focus and finesse.  On his chapter about making your home life happier, Carnegie dedicated most of the chapter and used Mary Todd Lincoln as an example why one should not nag. He said the greatest tragedy in Lincoln’s life wasn’t his assassination but his marriage. Moreover, he stated Mrs. Lincoln nagged and harassed the life out of him.

After the huge success How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie’s popularity surged. He gave lectures to large crowds including a lecture at Carnegie Hall. He expanded his institute across the world. Carnegie even had his own radio show. In 1944, Carnegie married a second time. He married one of his former students, Dorothy Price Vanderpool, a woman over 20 years his junior.  Together, Vanderpool and Carnegie continued to expand the Institute worldwide. Dale Carnegie died of Hodgkin’s disease on November 1, 1955.

The Odd Couple

Many say Dale Carnegie started the self-improvement business with his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. But what was a driving force for him? Who or what inspired Dale Carnegie? It is evident from his writings he admired Abraham Lincoln and identified with him. They had similar beginnings. Both were poor when they were young. Both were from small, rural towns. Both enjoyed learning and worked hard to be successful. Indeed, they shared a similar story of poverty, failure, sadness, disappointment, and great success. Carnegie also identified with what he believed to be Lincoln’s unhappiness in his marriage with Mary Todd Lincoln. At the time of his research for Lincoln the Unknown, Carnegie was having his own marital woes. Perhaps that is why he had so much venom for the former first lady.

Dale Carnegie valued Lincoln as a man and as speaker. In his book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Carnegie said Lincoln had a “forgiving spirit”. Carnegie identified Lincoln as a great speaker and admirable person in every self-help book he wrote. He used speeches, quotes, and stories from Lincoln’s life. For example, he discussed the Lincoln-Douglas debates in several of his books. He often noted that while Douglas was more suave and graceful than the ungainly and awkward Lincoln, Lincoln outperformed him debate after debate. It was Lincoln’s charming style and focused thoughtful words that won the audiences over.

From his very first book he wrote to his last, Carnegie wrote about Lincoln time and time again. He often wrote about Lincoln’s qualities as a speaker, leader, writer, debater, orator, learner, husband, and politician. Not only did Carnegie see Lincoln as a great man and politician, but he saw him as a great speaker and communicator.

At face value it seems as if there could be no way that Lincoln’s legacy could have anything to do with the man many consider to be the father of self-help. It is evident that Carnegie was greatly influenced by Lincoln and his legacy. Carnegie spent years studying him, wrote a biography on him, and used him as a model in all of his self-help books. Lincoln’s influence was due more than just the fact they shared similar backgrounds. Indeed, Carnegie was inspired by the man. The man who loved his country, loved to read, believed in equality and fair treatment of others, worked hard, experienced many failures and disappointments, demonstrated true grit, and knew how to communicate effectively with others. Carnegie wrote in his book Lincoln the Unknown “he one of the greatest storytellers that ever lived”.


1. The Art of Public Speaking (audiobook)

2. Dale Carnegie Biography from A & E

Note: This is an updated version from an article I wrote for the International Lincoln Association.

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