Scott A. Sandage is a cultural historian who specializes in the nineteenth-century United States and in the changing aspects of American identity. He is the author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2005) and an abridgement of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (2007). His current book project, "Laughing Buffalo: A Tall Tale of Race and Family on the Half-Breed Rez," focuses on mixed-blood families to show how federal Indian policy, court decisions, early anthropologists, folklore, and family traditions have shaped racial identity in the United States. Active as a public historian, he has been a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, the National Park Service, and the Andy Warhol Museum as well as to the creators of an off-Broadway play, film and radio documentaries, and the 2009 exhibition, "Lincoln in New York: A Bicentennial Celebration." In 1999–2000, he chaired a scholarly panel to recommend inscriptions for the wheelchair sculpture belatedly added to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
Although Abraham Lincoln called himself "a flat failure" in 1856, scholars of his life and career have generally rejected his self assessment as both inaccurate and unreasonable. Nevertheless, during the twentieth century his litany of pre-presidential setbacks became a classic bit of popular culture, immortalized in motivational posters, newspaper filler items, and continuously reforwarded emails. Unraveling this conflict between memory and history (or historiography), this lecture explores both the changing meanings of failure in modern America and the contest between scholarly and vernacular interpretations of the past.