Copyright © 1995 DAVID HERBERT DONALD.All rights reserved.
Annals of the Poor
Abraham Lincoln was not interested in his ancestry. In his mindhe was a self-made man, who had no need to care about his family tree. In1859,f when friends asked him for autobiographical information to helpbarest outline of his family history: "My parents were both born in Virginia,of undistinguished families - second families, perhaps I should say: Thenext year, when John Locke Scripps of the Chicago Tribune proposed towrite his campaign biography. Lincoln told him: "Why Scripps, ... it is agreat piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of early life. It canall be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find inGray's Elegy.
The short and simple annals of the poor
That's my life, and that's all you or any one can make of it"
Lincoln knew almost nothing about his mother's family, the Hankses, whomoved from Virginia to Kentucky about 1780. They were a prolific tribe, forthe most part illiterate but respectable farmers of modest means. Theirtended to name all the males James of John, and the females Polly, Lucy, orNancy. Abraham Lincoln's mother was one of at least eight Nancy Hanksesborn during the 1780s. Abraham Lincoln believed that his mother was illegitimate.It was a subject that he rarely discussed, but in the early 1850s, whiledriving his one-horse buggy from Springfielf over to Petersburg, Illinois, hefound himself talking about it. He and his law partner, William H. Herndon,were about to try a case in Menard County court that involved a questionof hereditary traits, and Lincoln observed that illegitimate children were"oftentimes sturdict and brighter than those born in lawful wedlock" Toprove his point he mentioned his mother, who he was "the illegitimatedaughter of Lucy Hanks and a well-bred Virginia farmer or planter." From"this broad-minded, unknown Virginia" Lincoln believed he inherited thetraits that distinguished him from the other members of his family ambition,mental alertness, and the power analysis.
Lincoln may well have been correct in reporting that his mother was bornout of wedlock. A grand jury in Mercer County, Kentucky, presented a chargeof furnication against his grandmother Lucy (or "Lucey," as it is spelled inthe old records), and there were several recorded instances of bastardyamong Hanks women of her generation. Since no wedding certificate wasever found for Lucy. there was room for endless speculation about Lincoln'smaternal grandsire.
But Lincoln's remark - if Herndon accurately reported them after a lapseof many years - were not based on any research into his Hanks ancestry.Instead they reflected his sense that he was different from the people whom hegrew up. Like other gifted young men, he wondered how he couldbe the offspring of his ordinary and limited parnts. Some in Lincoln'sgeneration fancied themselved the sons of the daupline, who allegedly fledto America during the French Revolution. Lincoln imagined a noble Virginiaancestor.
Of his Lincoln ancestor he knew only a little more that he did about theHankses. From his father he learned than his grandfather Abraham, for whomhe was named, had move from Virginia was on the early 1780sThere was a vague family tradition that earlier Lincolns had lived inPennsylvania, where they had been Quakers, but as he recorded, the family hadlong since "fallen away from the popular habits." Apart fromthat, William Dean Howells reported in his 1860 campaign biography, therewas only "incertitude, and absolute darkness" about Abraham Lincoln's fore-bears.
Further research would have showed that the Lincolns did come fromVirginia and that an earlier generation had indeed belonged to the Societyof Friends in Pennsylvania. In turns, these could be traced to the originalSamuel Lincoln, who emigrated from the County of Norfolk, England, andsettled in Hingham, Massachusetts. In 1937. A weaver in England, Samuelbecame a prosperous trader and businessman in America, where he have apillar of the church and begat eleven children who bore names like Daniel,Thomas, Mordecai, and Sarah, which became tradition in the family. Samuel'sgrandson, Mordecai (1686-1736), was perhaps the most successfulmember of the family. An ironmaster and wealthy handover in Pennsylvania,he was a member of the eighteenth, century economic and social elite,he married Hannah Slater, who was at once the daughter, the niece, and thegranddaughter of members of the New Jersey assembly and the niece of theacting royal governor of that colony. It was their son, John Lincoln (1710-1788), who moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where he establishedhimself on a large farm in fertile Rockingham County. Mordecai wasso successful that he could afford to give his son, Abraham Lincoln's grandfather,210 acres of the best soil in Virginia. In sum, Abraham Lincoln, insteadof being the unique blossom on an otherwise barren family tree, belongedto the seventh American generation of a family with competent means, areputation for integrity, and a modest record of public service.
A closer study of the historical records would also have given AbrahamLincoln a different, and probably a kindlier, view of his father, Thomas. Itwas Thoma's father, the senior Abraham Lincoln, who sold his farm inVirginia and led his wife and five children over the mountains to seek theirfortune. They had heard much of the rich lands in Kentucky from theirdistant relative, Daniel Boone, and they found in that vast, largely unsealedterritory, which was still part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, all theopportunities Boone had promised. Within a few years the Lincolns ownedat least 5,544 acres of land in the richest sections of Kentucky.
But the wilderness was dangerous. In 1786, while Abraham Lincoln andhis three boys, Mordecai, Josiah, and Thomas, were planting a cornfield ontheir new property, Indians attacked them. Abraham was killed instantly.Mordecai, at fifteen the oldest son, sent Josiah running to the settlement halfa mile away for help while he raced to a nearby cabin. Peering out of a crackbetween logs, he saw an Indian sneaking out of the forest toward his eightyear-old brother, Thomas, who was still sitting in the field beside theirfather's body. Mordecai picked up a rifle, aimed at a silver pendant on theIndian's chest, and killed him before he could reach the boy. This story inlater years Thomas Lincolnm repeated over and over again, so that it became,as Abraham said, "the legend more strongly than all others imprinted uponmy mind and memory."
Both Thomas Lincoln and his son seem to have overlooked the economicconsequences of the tragedy. According to Virginia law, which prevailed inthe Kentucky region, the ancient rule of primogeniture was still in effect,and Mordecai Lincoln, the oldest son, inherited his father's entire estatewhen he came of age. In due course he became one of the leading citizensof Washington County, Kentucky, a man of considerable property, who wasinterested in breeding fine racehorses. The only Lincoln relative whomAbraham Lincoln ever knew, Mordecai was a man of considerable wit andgreat natural gifts, and his nephew once remarked that "Uncle Mord hadrun off with all the talents of the family." He had also, in effect, run off withall the money. Left without a patrimony, the other two Lincoln boys had tofend for themselves.
Thomas, the youngest, had a difficult time. The tragedy abruptly endedhis prospects of being an heir of a well-to-do Kentucky planter, he had toearn his board and keep. Abraham Lincoln never fully understood how hardhis father had to struggle during his early years. It required an immenseeffort for Thomas, who earned three shillings a day for manual labor ormade a little more when he did carpentry or cabinetmaking, to accumulateenough money to buy his first, a 23H-acre tract on Mill Creek inHardin County, Kentucky. He became a familiar in Elizabethtown andHogdenville, a stocky, well-built man of no more than average height, witha shock of straight black hair and an unusually large nose. "He was anuneducated man, a plain unpretending plodding man," a neighbor remembered;one who "attended to his work, peaceable - quiet and good natured.""Honest" was the adjective most frequently used to describe ThomasLincoln, and he was respected in his community, where he served in themilitia and was called for jury duty. Never wealthy, Thomas owned a respectableamount of property, by 1814 ranking fifteenth (out of ninety-eightlisted) in the county.
In 1806 he married Nancy Hanks, and the couple built a little house inElizabethtown, where eight months later Sarah, their first daughter, wasborn. By 1809, Thomas Lincoln had bough another farm, this time one ofthree hundred acres, on the south fork of North Creek (not far from Hogdenville).It was called the Sinking Spring Farm, because it had a magnificentspring that bubbled from the bottom of a deep cave. Here, on a little knollnear the spring, he built a one-room log cabin, measuring sixteen by eighteenfeet. The sturdy building, which had only a dirt floor and no glasswindow, was as large as about 90 percent of the pioneer cabins of theregion.
Here Abraham Lincoln was born on February 2, 1809. He had no recollectionof the power of his birth, because his parents moved before he wastwo years old. The land on the Sinking Spring Farm proved very poor, "abarren waste, so to speak," as one contemporary described it, "save somelittle patches on the creek bottoms," and Thomas quickly learned that itwould not support his family. He bought a smaller but more fertile farm,some ten miles to the northeast, on Knob Creek
Here, once again, the family lived, as did most of their neighbors, in aone-room log cabin, but the setting was beautiful. The creek, which ranthrough the property, was so clear that you could see a pebble in ten feet ofwater; the bottomland, where Thomas planted corn, was rich and easy tocultivate; and on both sides rose small, sleep hills, so clearly defined andseparate as to be called "knobs" - after which the creek was named.
It was of this Knob Creek farm that Abraham Lincoln had his earliestmemories, but few of them concerned his mother, who remains a shadowyimage. It is not even clear what she looked like. No one ever bothered todraw a likeness of Nancy Hanks Lincoln and the age of photography was farin the future. Many years later those who had known her described hervariously as being tall or of average height, thin or stout, beautiful or plain.Most agreed that she was "brilliant" or "intellectual." According to tradition,she was able to read, but, like many other frontier women, she did not knowhow to write and had to sign legal documents with an X. Abraham musthave remembered how his mother set up housekeeping, cooked the familymeals, washed and mended the scanty clothing that her husband and childrenwore, and perhaps helped in the farming. But of her life on KnobCreek he recorded only that she gave birth to a third child, named Thomas,who died in infancy. On the rare occasions in later years when he mentionedher, he referred to his "angle mother," partly recognition of her lovingaffection, but partly to distinguish her from his stepmother, who was verymuch alive. If he ever said, as Herndon, reported, "God bless my mother, allthat I am or ever hope to be I owe to her," it was a tribute not so much toher maternal care as to the genes that she allegedly transmitted from hisunnamed grandfather.
Lincoln's Knob Creek recollections were of working in what he called"the big held," of seven acres, where is father planted corn and the sonfollowed, dropping two pumpkin seeds in every hill on every otherrow. Once, as he remembered, there was a big rain in the hills, though nota drop fell in the valley, and "the water coming down through the gorgeswashed ground, corn, pumpkin seed and all clear off the field." He alsoremembered going for two brief periods to an "A.B.C. school," some twomiles from the Lincolns' cabin, where he was sent, according to a relative,"more as company for his sister that with the expectation that he wouldlearn much." It was first taught by one Zachariah Riney, about whom little isknown except that he was a Catholic, and then by Caleb Hazel, who accordingto a contemporary, "could perhaps teach spelling, reading and indifferentwriting and perhaps could cipher to the rule of three, but had noother qualifications of a teacher, except large size and bodily strength tothrash any boy or youth that came to his school." Abraham probably masteredthe alphabet, but he did not yet know how to write when the familyleft Kentucky.
In general, young Lincoln seems to have been an entirely average littleboy, who enjoyed playing, hunting, and fishing. Perhaps he was quieter thanhis playmates and kept his clothes clean longer, but there was not much todistinguish him. As a relative declared, "Abe exhibited no special train inKentucky except a good kind - somewhat wild nature."
In 1816, when Abraham was only seven years old, the Lincolns moved acrossthe Ohio River to Indiana. Many years later he stated, quite accurately, thathis father left Kentucky "partly on account of slavery; but chiefly on accountof the difficulty in land titles in Ky." In Thomas Lincoln's mind the twocauses were interrelated. He had religious grounds for disliking slavery. Heand his wife joined the Separate Baptist Church, whose memebers acceptedtraditional Baptist beliefs, like infant baptism and predestination, but refusedto endorse any formal creed. Adhering to a very strict code of morality,which condemned profanity, intoxication, gossip, horse racing, and dancing,most of the Separate Baptists were opposed to slavery. Abraham shared hisparents' views. He was "naturally anti-slavery," he remarked in 1864, adding,"I cannot remember when l did not so think, and feel."
Thomas Lincoln's hostility to slavery was based on economic ase well asreligious grounds. He did not want to compete with slave labor. Kentuckyhad been admitted to the Union in 1792 as a slave state, and in the central,bluegrass region of the state "nabobs" were accumulating vast holdings ofthe best lands, tilled by gangs of black slaves. Hardin County, just to thewest of this region, was not so well suited to large scale agriculture, but itsinhabitants felt threatened. By 1811 the county had 1,007 slaves and only1,627 white males over the age of sixteen.
Small farmers like Thomas Lincoln also worried about the rights to theirland. Kentucky never had a United States land survey, it was settled in arandom, chaotic fashion, with settlers fixing their own bounds to the propertythey claimed: a particular tree here, a rock there, and so on. Soon themap of the state presented a bewildering overlay of conflicting land claims,and nobody could be sure who owned what. So uncertain were land titlesthat Kentucky became one of the first states to do away with the freeholdproperty qualification for voting - not so much out of devotion to democraticprinciples as because even the wealthy often had trouble proving theyowned clear title to their acres. Naturally the courts were filled with litigation,and the lawyers in Kentucky were busy all the time. To a small farmer likeThomas Lincoln, who was unable to pay the attorneys' fees, it seemed thatthey were all working for the rich, slaveholding planters.
He had trouble gaining a clear title to any of the three farms that hepurchased in Kentucky. The details were exceedingly complicated, and notparticularly important: one had been improperly surveyed, so that it provedto be thirty eight acres smaller than what he thought he had purchased;another had a lien on it because of a small debt by a previous owner; in thecase of the Knob Creek farm, non-Kentucky residents brought suit againstThomas and other occupants of the rich valley, claiming prior title. Havingneither the money nor the inclination to fight for his claims in court, heheard with great interest of the opening of Indiana, territory from whichslavery had been excluded by the Northwest Ordinance. Here the UnitedStates government had surveyed the land and offered purchasers guaranteedtitles to their farm.
In the fall of 1816 he made a trip across the Ohio to explore the regionand stake out a claim. He found what he wanted in the heavily wooded,almost totally unoccupied wilderness on Pigeon Creek, in Perry (later Spencer)County, In southern Indiana. After selecting the site, he constructedwhat was called a "half-faced camp," a rough shelter, with no floor, aboutfourteen feet square, enclosed on three sides but open on the fourth. Then,blazing trees to mark boundaries and heaping piles of brush on thecorners of the tract he expected to occupy; he returned to Kentucky, gatheredhis small family and his few possession, and set out for his new home.The Lincolns arrived in Indiana just as the territory was admitted to theunion as a state.
The land Thomas claimed was in unbroken forest, so remote that forpart of the distance from the Ohio there was no trail and he had to Hackout a path so that his family could follow. It was wild region, Abrahamremembered, and the forests were filled with bears and other threateninganimals. Many years later, when he revisited the region, his childhood fearssurfaced in verse:
When first my father settled here,
"t'was then the frontier line.
The panther's scream, filled night with fear
And bears preyed on the swine.
The Lincolns stayed in the half-faced camp for a few days after they arrived,until Thomas, probably with the assistance of members of the otherfamilies, but because of the freezing weather the men could not work upthe usual mixture of clay and grass for chinking between the logs and thewinds still swept through.
The family was able to get through the winter because they are deer andbear meat. "We all hunted pretty much all the time," one of the partyremembered. Young Abraham did his part, too. In February 1817, just beforehis eight birthday, he spied a flock of wild turkeys outside the new logcabin. He seized a rifle and, taking advantage of one the chinks, "shotthrough a crack, and killed one of them." But killing was not for him, andhe did not try to repeat his exploit. Recalling the incident years later, he saidthat he had "never since pulled a trigger on any larger game."
The immediate task before the Lincolns was to clear away enough treesand undergrowth so that they could plant corn Thomas could only do somuch, and he had to enlist the services of his own. Though Abraham wasonly eight years old, he was, he recalled, "large of his age, and had an axeput into his hands at once; and from that till within his twentythird year, hewas almost constantly handling that most useful instrument - less, of course,in plowing and harvesting seasons."
That first year in Indiana was a time of backbreaking toil and of desperateloneliness for all the family, but by fall they fairly settled Thomas wasso satisfied with the site that he had chosen that he undertook the sixty-miletrip to Vincennes in order to make initial payments on two adjoining eight-acretracts he had claimed. Nancy also began to feel more at home, becauseElizabeth (Hanks) and Thomas Sparrow, her aunt and uncle, who had losttheir home in Kentucky through an ejectment suit, came to the Pigeon Creekneighborhood. They stayed for a while in the Lincolns' half faced camp untilthe could build their own cabin a nearby lot. Sarah and Abraham rejoicedbecause the Sparrows brought with them the eighteen-year-old DennisHanks, illegitimate nephew of Elizabeth Sparrow. They had knownDennis on Kentucky - indeed, he claimed to be the second person to touchAbraham after his birth - and they welcomed this young man of endlessloquacity and irrepressible good spirits.
But shortly afterward everything began to go wrong. First, Abraham hada dangerous accident. One of his chores was to take corn to Gordon'smill, some two miles distant, to be ground into meal. When he got there, hehitched his old mare to the arm of the gristmill. Because it was getting lateand he was in a hurry to get home before dusk, he tried to speed up themare by giving her a stroke of the whip with each revolution. She lashedout at him with a kick that landed on his forehead, and he fell bleeding andunconcious. At first it was though that he was dead and his father wassummoned. He could not speak for several hours, but he revived sufferedno permanent damage.
Then the Pigeon Creek community was devastated buy an attack of whatwas called milk sickness (more properly, brucellosis). It was a mysteriousailment, which settlers realized was somehow connected with the milk oftheir cows, but it was not until many years later scientists discoveredthat the cows, which ran wild in the forest, had been eating the luxuriantbut polsonous white snakeroot plant. Dizziness, nausea, and stomach painswere the initial symptoms, followed by irregular respiration and pulse, prostration,and coma. Death usually occurred within seven days. Thomas andElizabeth Sparrow were first afflicted, and Thomas Lincoln saved roughboards to make coffins to bury them in. Then Nancy fell ill. She struggledon, day after day, for a week, but she knew she was falling. Calling herchildren to her bedside, she "told them to be good and kind to their father- to one an other and to the world," she died on October 5, and ThomasLincoln buried another coffin on a wooded knoll a quarter fo a mile fromthe cabin.
The next year may have been the hardest in Abraham Lincoln's life. Withthe help of Dennis Hanks, who moved in with the Lincolns after the Sparrowsdied, Thomas was able to put food on the table. "We still kept uphunting and farming." Dennis remembered. "We always hunted[;] it madeno difference what came, for we more or less depended on it for a living- nay for life." Sarah, who had her twelfth birthday in February 1819, tried tocook and keep house, but at times she felt so lonesome that she would sitby the fire and cry. To cheer her up, Dennis recalled, "me `n' Abe got `er ababy croon an' a turtle, an' tried to get a fawn but we couldn't ketch any."
Abe - as Dennis and the other children insisted on calling the boy, eventhough he always disliked the nickname - left no words describing his senseof loss. His wound was too sensitive to touch. But many years later he wrotea letter of condolence to a bereaved child: "In this sad world of ours, sorrowcomes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony; because ittakes them unawares ... I have had experience enough to know what I say."
Deeper consequences of the loss of his mother before he was elevenyears old can only be a matter of speculation it is tempting to connecthis subsequent moodiness, his melancholy, and his occasional boots ofdepression to his cause, but the connections are not clear and these patternsof behavior appear in persons who have never experienced such loss. Perhapshis mother's death had something to do with his growing aversion tocruelry and bloodshed. Now, he began to reprove other children in theneighborhood for senseless cruelry to animals. He scolded them when theycaught terrapins and heaped hot coals on their shells, to force the defenseless animals out of their shells, reminding them "that an ant's life was to itas sweet as ours to us. "Certainly the death to his mother, coming so soonafter the deaths of other friends and neighbors, gave a gloomy cast to hismemories of his Indiana home. In the 1840s, revisiting his old neighborhood,he recorded his thoughts in verse:
My childhood's home I see again.
And sadden with the view:
And still, as mem'ries crowd my brain,
There's pleasure it too
I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I'm living in the tombs.
Within a year of Nancy's death, Thomas Lincoln recognized that be and hisfamily could not go on alone, and he went back to Kentucky to seek a bridein Elizabethrown he found Sarah Bush Johnston, whom he had perhapsunsuccessfully courted before he wed Nancy. She was the widow of theHardin County jailer and mother of three small children. There was no timefor a romantic engagement; he needed a wife and she needed a husband.They made a quick, businesslike arrangement for him to pay her debts andfor her to pack up her belongings and move with him to Indiana.
The arrival of Sarah Lincoln marked a turning point in Abraham Lincoln'slife. she brought with her, first, her collection of domestic possessionscomfortable bedding, a walnut bureau that bad cost her forty-five dollars,table and chairs, a spinning wheel, knives, forks, and spoons, so that theLincoln children a felt they were joining a world of unbelievable luxury. Herchildren - Elizabeth John D., and Matilda, who ranged from nine to fiveyears in age, brought life and excitement to the depressed Lincoln family.But most of all she brought with her the gift of love. Sarah Bush Lincolnmust have been touched to see the dirty, ill-clad, hungry Lincoln children,and she set to work once, as she said, to make them look "more human.""She soaped - rubbed and washed the children clean," Dennis Hanks remembered,"so that they look[ed] pretty neat - well and clean."
At her suggestion, the whole household was reorganized. Thomas Lincolnand Dennis Hanks had to give up hunting for a while to split logs and makea floor for the cabin, and they finished the roof, constructed a proper door,and cut a hole for a window, which they covered with greased paper. Thecabin was high enough to install a loft, reached by climbing pegs driven intothe wall, and here she installed beds for the three boys - Dennis Hanks,Abraham, and John D. Downstairs she had the whole cabin cleaned, a decentbedstead was built, and Thomas used his skill as a carpenter to make anothertable and stools. Remarkably, these reforms were brought about with aminimum of friction.
What was even more extraordinary, Sarah Bush Lincoln was able to blendthe two families harmoniously and without jealousy. She treated her ownchildren and the Lincoln children with absolute impartiality. She grew especiallyfond of Abraham. "Abe never gave me a cross word or look and neverrefused in fact, or even in appearance, to do anything, I requested him," sheremembered. "I never gave him a cross word in all my life.... His mind andmine - what little I had [-] seemed to move together - move in the samechannel." Many years later, attempting to compare her son and her stepson,she told an interviewer: "Both were good boys, but I must say - both nowbeing dead that Abe was the best boy I ever saw or ever expect to see."
Starved for affection, Abraham returned her love. He called her "Mama,"and he never spoke of her except in the most affectionate terms. After hehad been elected President, he recalled the sorry condition of ThomasLincoln's household before Sarah Bush Johnston arrived and told of theencouragement she had given him as a boy. "She had been his best friendin this world," a relative reported him as saying, "and ... no man could lovea mother more than he loved her."
The years after Sarah Bush Lincoln came to Indiana were happy ones foryoung Abraham. Afterward, when he spoke of this time, it was as "a joyous,happy boyhood," which he described "with mirth and glee," and in hisrecollections "there was nothing sad nor pinched, and nothing of want." Hisparents enrolled him, along with the other four children in household,in the school that Andrew Crawford had opened in a cabin about a milefrom the Lincoln house. Though Sarah Bush Lincoln was illiterate, she hada sense that education was important, and Thomas wanted his son to learnhow to read and cipher.
Possibly young Lincoln knew how to read a little before he enteredCrawford's school, but Dennis Hanks, who was only marginally literate himself,claimed credit for giving Abraham "his first lesson in spelling - readingand writing." "I thought Abe to write with a buzzards quill which I killed witha rifle and having made a pen - put Abes hand in mind [sic] and moving hisfingers by my hand to give him the idea of how to write." Abraham learnedthese basic skills slowly. John Hanks, another cousin who lived with theLincolns for a time, thought he was "somewhat dull ... not a brilliant boy-butworked his way by toil: to learn was hard for him, but he worked slowly,but surely." But Abraham's stepmother understood him better, recognizedhis need fully to master what he read or heard. "He must understand everything- even to the smallest thing - minutely and exactly," she remembered"he would then repeat it over to himself again and again - some times inone form and then in an other and when it was fixed in his mind to sun himbe ... never lost that fact or his understanding of it."
Abraham attended Crawford's school for one term, of perhaps threemonths. Crawford, a justice of the peace and man of some importance inthe area, ran a subscription school, where parents paid their children'stuition in cash or in commodities. Ungraded, it was a "blab" school, wherestudents recited their lessons aloud, and the schoolmaster listened throughthe din for errors. He was long remembered because, according to onestudent, "he tried to learn us manners" by having the pupils practice introducingeach other, as though they were strangers. After one term Crawfordgave up teaching, and the Lincoln children had no school for a year, untilJames Swaney opened one about four miles from the Lincoln house. Thedistance was so great that Abraham, who had farm chores to perform, couldattend only sporadically. The next year, for about six months, he went to aschool taught by Azel W. Dorsey in the same cabin that Crawford had used.With that term, at the age of fifteen, his formal education ended. All told, hesummarized, "the agregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year."
In later years Lincoln was scornful of these "schools, so called, "which heamended: "No qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond 'readin,writin, and cipherin,' to the Rule of Three [i.e., ratio and proportions]. If astraggler supposed to understand latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood,he was looked upon as a wizzard."
Though his censure was largely deserved, a school system that producedAbraham Lincoln could not have been wholly without merit. Indeed, histeachers, transient and untrained as they were, helped him master the basictools so that in the future he could educaate himself. Dilworth's SpellingBook, which he and Sarah had begun to use in Kentucky, provided hasintroduction to grammar and spelling. Beginning with the alphabet andArabic and Roman numerals, it proceeded to words of two letters, then threeletters, and finally four letters. From these the student began to constructsentences, like: "No man may put off the laws of God." Dilworth's then wenton to more advanced subjects, and the final sections included prose andverse selections, some accompanied by crude woodcuts - which may havebeen the first pictures that Abraham had ever seen. Other readers, likeThe Columbian Class Book and The Kentucky Preceptor, expanded andreinforced what he learned from Dilworth's.
Through constant repetition and drill the boy learned how to spell. Indeed, he because so proficient that it was hard to stump him in the schoolspelling bees. He was generous with his knowledge. Many years later a girlin his class told how he helped her when the teacher gave her a difficultword. "defied." which she was about to misspell "defyed." When she cameto the fourth letter, she happened to look at Abraham, who pointed to hiseye, and, taking the hint, she spelled the word correctly.
He also learned to write, in a clear, round hand. The handwriting of a bitof doggered in his sum book is recognizably that of the future president.
Abraham Lincoln is my name
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast[e] and speed
and left it here for fools to read.
So adept did he become that unlettered neighbors in the Pigeon Creekcommunity often asked hint to write letters for them.
Even more important was the ability to read. One he got the hang of it,he could never get enough. "Abe was getting hungry for book[s]," DennisHanks recalled, "reading every thing he could lay his hands on." He wouldcarry a book with him when he went out to work, and read when he restedJohn Hanks remembered that when Abraham returned to the house fromwork, "he would go to the cupboard, snatch a piece of corn bread, takedown a book, sit down in a chair, cock his legs up as high as his head, andread."
His contemporaries attributed prodigies of reading to him, but bookswere scarce on the frontier and he had to read carefully rather than extensively.He memorized a great deal of what he read. "When he came across apassage that struck him." his stepmother remembered. "he would write itdown on boards if he had no paper and keep it there till he did get paper - thenhe would re-write it - look at it [and] repeat it."
Other than classroom texts, has first books were the few that Sarah BushLincoln had brought with her from kentucky. One was her family Bible.Abraham read it at times, she remembered. "though not as much as said, hesought more congenial books - suitable for his age." The Pilgrim's Progresswas one of them, and the biblical cadences of Lincoln's later speeches owedmuch to John Bunyan. Another of Sarah Bush Lincoln's books was Aesop'sFables, which it was said Abraham read so many times that he could write itout from memory. The morals of some of the stories became deeply ingrainedin his mind, like the lesson drawn from the fable of the lion and thefour bulls: "A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand." In his stepmother'scopy of Lessons in Elocution, by William Scott, he studied basiclessons on elocutin, and the selections in this book were probably hisintroduction to Shakespeare. Among the set pieces it included was KingClaudius's soliloquy on his murder of Hamlet's father. "O, my offence isrank. it smells to heaven." It remained one of Lincoln's favorite passages.
History also fascinated him. He probably read William Grimshaw's Historyof the United States, which began with the discovery of America and endedwith the annexation of Florida. With a sharp denunciation of slavery as "aclimax of human cupidity and turpitude," Grunshaw stressed the importanceof the American Revolution and exhorted students: "Let us not only declareby words, but demonstrate by our actions, that 'all men are created equal.'"Even more than history, biography interested young Lincoln. He enjoyedthe autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, but it was Parson Mason Weems'sLife of George Washington that stirred his imagination. Many years later,when he was on his way to Washington and his first inaugural, he told theNew Jersey Senate that Weems's account of Washington's heroic struggles atTrenton - "the crossing of the river, the contest with the Hessians; the greathardships endured at that time" - had made an indelible mark on his mind."I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was," he said, "that there musthave been something more than common that those men struggled for."
The pioneer schools of Indiana also gave Lincoln a good grounding inelementary mathematics. His teachers probably never used an arithmetictextbook but drew their problems from two handbooks, Thomas Dilworth'sSchoolmaster's Assistant and Zachariah Jess's American Tutor's Assistant. Becausepaper was scarce, he often had to cipher on boards, and his stepmotherrecalled, "when the board would get too black he would shave it offwith a drawing knife and go on again." Then from somewhere he found afew sheets of paper, which he sewed together to form a little notebook inwhich to write down the problems and his answers. In if he recordedcomplicated calculations involving multiplication (like 34,567,834 x 23,423)and division (such as 4375,703 divided by 2,432), which he completed withexceptional accuracy, and he also solved problems concerning weights andmeasures, and figured discounts and simple interest. Apparently ratio andproportion taxed his instructors to their limits, but he was able to work outsimple problems such as: "If 3 oz of silver cost 17s[billings] what will 48 ozCost." Neither the student nor the teachers seemed quite to get the idea of"casting out nines," a cumbersome and inaccurate method of verifying longdivision. Nevertheless, he liked the logic and the precision of mathematics,and years later after serving a term in Congress, he went back to the subjectand worked his way through most of a geometry textbook.
What Lincoln learned from school was not all in books. Here for the firsttime he had a chance to see children from other families and to pit his witsagainst theirs. Taller than most of the other students, he wore a coonskincap and buckskin pants that were always too short, so that, a classmateremembered, "there was bare and naked six or more inches of Abe Lincoln'sshin bone." Unconscious of his peculiar appearance, he would rapidlygather the other students around him, cracking jokes, telling stories, makingplans. Almost from the beginning he took his place as a leader. His classmates admired his ability to tell stories and make rhymes, and they enjoyedhis first efforts at public speaking in their eves he was clearly exceptional,and he carried away from his brief schooling the self-confidence of a manwho has never met his intellectual equal
These happy years of Lincoln's boyhood were short, for his relationship withhis father began to deteriorate. Thomas was perceptibly aging. After anexceptional burst of energy at the time of his second marriage, he began toslow down. He was probably not in good health, for one neighbor rememberedthat he became blind in one eve and lost sight in another. He was nota lazy man, another settler reported, but "a tinker - a piddler - always doingbut doing nothing great."
He was under considerable financial pressure after his marriage becausehe had to support a household of eight people. For a time he could rely onDennis Hanks to help provide for his large family, but in 1826 Dennismarried Elizabeth Johnston, Sarah Bush Lincoln's daughter, and moved tohis own homestead a half mile or so away. As Abraham became an adolescenthis father grew more and more to depend on him for the "farming,grubbing hoeing making fences" necessary to keep the family afloat. Healso regularly hired his son out to work for other farmers in the vicinity,and by law he was entitled to everything the boy earned until he came ofage.
Generally an easygoing man, who, according to Dennis Hanks, "couldbeat his son telling a story - cracking a joke," Thomas Lincoln was not aharsh father or a brutal disciplinarian. He encouraged Abraham to go toschool, though he had a somewhat limited idea of what an educational consisted,and he rarely interrupted his son's studies. "As a usual thing," SarahBush Lincoln remembered, "Mr Lincoln never made Abe quit reading to doany thing if he could avoid it. He would do it himself first." But DennisHanks said that Thomas thought his son spent too much time on his books,"having sometimes to slash him for neglecting his work by reading." Thefather would not tolerate impudence. When Abraham as a little boy thrusthimself into adult conversations, Thomas sometimes struck him. Then, asHanks recalled, young Abraham " never balked, but dropt a kind of silentunwelcome tear, as evidence of his sensations."
As Abraham became a teenager, he began to distance himself from hisfather. His sense of alienation may have originated at the time of his mother'sdeath, when he needed more support and compassion than his stolid fatherwas able to give. It increased as the boy got older. Perhaps he felt that hisplace in the household had been usurped by the second family ThomasLincoln acquired when he remarried; contemporaries noted that Thomasseemed to favor the stepson, John D. Johnston, more than he did his ownson. He disagreed with his father over religion. In 1823, Thomas Lincolnand his wife joined the Pigcon Baptist Church, as did his daughter Sarahsoon afterward; but Abraham made no move toward membership. Indeed,as his stepmother said, "Abe had no particular religion - didn't think ofthese question[s] at that time, if he ever did." That difference appears tohave led to the sharpest words he ever received from his father. ThoughAbraham did not belong to the church, he attended the sermons, and afterwardclimbing on a tree stump, he would rally other children aroundhim and repeat - or sometimes parody - the minister's words. OffendedThomas, as one of the children recalled, "would come and make him quit- send him to work."
The heavy chores he had to perform contributed to his dissatisfaction.The boy had limited energy because at about the age of twelve he begangrowing so rapidly. By the time he was sixteen he had shot up to six feet,two inches tall, though he weighed only about one hundred and sixtypounds. One contemporary remembered he ws so skinny that he had aspidery lok. He grew so fast that he was tired all the time, and he showeda notable lack of enthusiasm for physical labor. "Lincoln was lazy - a verylazy man," Dennies Hanks concluded. "He was always reading - scribbling- writing - ciphering Poetry." The neighbors for whom he workedagreed that he was "awful lazy," and, as one remarked, "he was no land topitch in at work like killing snakes." Their dissatisfaction doubtless contributedto the friction between father and son.
But Abraham's pulling away from his father something more significantthan a teenage rebellion. Abraham had made a quiet reassessment ofthe life that Thomas lived. He kept his judgment to himself, but years laterit crept into his scornful statements that his father "grew up, literally withouteducation," that be "never did more in the way of writing than to bunglinglysign his own name," and that he chose settle in a region where "therewas absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education." To Abraham Lincolnthat was a claiming verdict. In all of his published writings, and, indeed,even in reports of hundreds of stories and conversations, he had onefavorable word to say about his father.
By the time Abraham Lincoln was in his late teens, he was itching to getaway from Pigeon Creek. One after another, his ties to home and to thecommunity were snapped. When he was seventeen, his sister, Sarah, marriedneighbor, Aaron Grigsby, and the couple set up housekeeping severalmiles from the Lincoln cabin Then Matilda. Sarah Bush Lincoln's youngestdaughter, who had been very fond of Abraham, married Squire Hall andalso moved away. A year and a half later Sarah Lincoln Grigsby died inchildbirth. Abraham blamed the death of his sister on the negligence of theGrigsbys in sending for a doctor, and the ensuing quarrel further alienatedhim from his Pigeon Creek neighbors.
Increasingly he began to go further aheld from his father's cabin. A contemporaryremembered that he went all over the county attending "houseraisings, log rolling corn shucking and workings of all kinds." To be sure,he got bored easily and on many of these occasions, as Dennis Hanksremembered, "would Commence his pranks tricks - jokes stories, andall would stop - gather around Abe and listen." At the age of sixteen he,together with Dennis Hanks and Squire Hall, got the idea of making moneyby selling firewood to the steamers plying the Ohio River, and they set towork sawing logs at Posey's Landing, only to find that demand was slack andmoney was scarce. They were finally able to swap nine cords of firewoodfor nine yards of white domestic cloth, out of which, Hanks reported, "Abehad a shirt made, and it was positively the first which shirt which ... he hadever owned or worn." Next he hired out to James Taylor, who ran a ferryacross the Ohio River in the same vicinity; when he was not helping on theriver, he plowed, killed hogs, and made fences, doing what he rememberedas "the roughest work a young man could be made to do." He earned $6 amonth, with 314 extra on days when he slaughtered hogs. In what sparetime he had, he built a little flatboat, or rowboat. When two men asked himto row them out into the river so that they could take passage on a steamerthat was coming downstream, he sculled them out, helped them aboard,and lifted their heavy trunks onto the deck. As they left, each of them tosseda silver half-dollar on the floor of his boat in payment. "I could scarcelybelieve my eyes as I picked up the money." Lincoln recalled nearly fortyyear later. "I could scarcely credit that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar inless than a day.... They world seemed wider and fairer before me."
The lure of the river was irresistible, promising escape from the constrictedworld of Pigeon Creek. The next spring, when James Gentry, whoowned the local store, decided to send a cargo of meat, corn, and flourdown the rivers for sale in New Orleans, Lincoln accepted the offer toaccompany his son, Allen, on the flatboat, at a wage of $8 a month. Theymade a leisurely trip, stopping frequently to trade at the sugar plantationsalong the river in Louisiana, until the dreamlike quality of their journey wasrudely interrupted. "One night," as Lincoln remembered, "they were attackedby seven negroes with intent to kill and rob them. They were hurtsome in the melec, but succeeded in driving the negroes from the boat, andthen `cut cable' `weighed anchor' and left." New Orleans was by far thelargest city the two country boys had ever seen, with imposing buildings,busy shops, and incessant traffic. Here they heard French spoken as readilyas English. In New Orleans, Lincoln for the first time encountered largenumber of slaves. But neither boy made any record of their visit to theCrescent City; perhaps it was too overwhelming.
Returning to Indiana, Lincoln dutifully handed over his earnings to hisfather, but he began to spend more and more time away from home. Heliked to go to the village of Genrtyville, about a mile and a half from home,where he occasionally helped out at James Gentry' store, and he workedsometimes with John Baldwin, the local blacksmith. As always, he was full oftalk and plans and jokes and tricks, and he gathered about him all the youngmen who were about to come of age and were restless in the narrow societyof southern Indiana.
In the spring of 1829, Lincoln and his little gang pulled off the mostimaginative, and longest remembered, of their pranks when two sons ofReuben Grigsby - Reuben, Jr., and Charles - were married. The Lincolnshad been carrying on something of a feud with Grigsby family sinceSarah's death, and when Abraham was not invited to the wedding celebration,he "felt nulled - insulted." Through a confederate he arranged thatwhen the party was over and the bridegrooms were brought upstairs totheir waiting brides, they would be led to the wrong beds. The mix-up was,of course, immediately discovered, but it became the cause of great gossipand much laughter in the Genryville community. Its fame grew becauseLincoln wrote out a scurrilous description of the affair, which he entitled"The Chronicles of Reuben" in language supposed to be reminiscent of theScriptures, he recounted the story and then went on in verse to tell ofanother Grigsby brother, Billy, who was turned down by the girl he wooed.
You cursed baldhead,
My suitor you never can be;
Besides, your low crotch proclaims you a butch
And that never can answer for me.
Rejected, Billy turned to a male lover, Natty
... he is married to Natty
So Billy and Natty agreed very well;
And mammas well pleased at the match
Years afterward the doggerel was still remembered in southern Indiana.According to one sender, parts of it were known "better thant th Bible - betterthan Watts hymns."
If the whole eposide had any significance, it indicated than Lincoln neededto break away from home. He realized this as well as anyone. He longed tobecome a steamboat man and asked a neighbor, William Wood, to go withhim to the Ohio River and give him a recommendation to a ship's captain"Abe," Wood said, "your age is against you - you are not 21 yet" I knowthat, the young man replied, "but I want a start," Unwilling to break the lawor to offend his neighbor, Thomas Lincoln, Wood did make some discreet,though unsuccessful, inquiries in Aabraham's behalf in Rodsport.
But Abraham still legally owed Thomas Lincoln another year of labor, andhe remained with his father out of obligation and with his stepmother outof affection. Early in 1830 he helped them move from Spencer County.Indiana, into Maron County, Illinois, John Hanks had alreday settled thereand seem back glowing reports of the fertility of the Lincoln lands, and DennisHanks was eager to move with his family. A rumor of a new outbreak of themilk sickness in southern Indiana triggered the Lincoln's decision to go withthem. Selling his lands, his logs, and his corn, Thomas Lincoln gathered uphis household and in March started off in a wagon drawn by two yoke ofoxen.
Abraham did his best to keep the company cheerful, making jokes as thegoaded on the oxen. Such roads as there were proved almost impassable;the ground was still frozen winter, and it muched a little each day onlyto freeze back at nigh. When the party crossed the Wabash River at Vincennes,river was so high that the road was covered with water for halt a mile at a stetch. Everywhere the streams were swollen, and usually therewere no bridges. At one crossing Lincoln's favorite little fice dog jumpedfrom the wagon, broke through the ice, and began struggling for his life. "Icould not bear to lose my dog, "Lincoln recalled many years later, "and Ijumped out of the wagon and waded waist deep in the ice and water[.] gothold of him and helped out and saved him."
After passing through the village of Decatur, which consisted of fewerthan a dozen log cabins, the Lincolns went on about ten miles to a tract ofland on the north bank of the Sangamon River, which John Hanks had stakedout for them. That summer they broke up fifteen acres of land, and Abrahamand John Hanks split the rails to fence them in Abraham already felt somuch at home in Illinois that he signed a petition, along with forty-fourother "qualified voters," asking for a change of polling place for elections - eventhough he had not lived in the state the six months required to qualifyas an elector.
That summer, too, he made his first political speech, addressing a campaignmeeting in front of Renshaw's store in Decatur. Two established politicians, candidates for the state legislature, made addresses, and when theyfailed to follow custom and offer the crowd something to drink, the boysabout the store urged Lincoln to reply, expecting him to ridicule the candidates'stinginess. It was a small affair, but a notable step in Abraham's continuingeffort to distance himself from his father. To put himself forward andmake a public speech was something that Thomas Lincoln would never havedreamed of doing. But Abraham had for several years been reading anti-JacksonNational Republican newspapers, like the Louisville Journal, and heardently favored Henry Clay's "American system," which called for internalimprovements, a protective tariff, and a national bank. He surprised hisaudience at Decatur, which had been expecting some rude political humor, with a plea for improving the Sangamon River for transportation. Showingno evidence of stage fright except for frequently shifting his position to easehis feet, he ended with an eloquent picture of the future of Illinois.
Abraham Lincoln was now a man, both physiologically and legally, andready to leave the family nest forever. How he would support himself wasnot clear. He was willing to try anything - so long it was not his father'soccupations of farming and carpentry. So when Denton Offutt, a busting,none too scrupulous businessman, asked him and John Hanks to take anotherflatboat loaded with provisions down to New Orleans, Lincoln, havingnothing better to do, promptly accepted. When he went over to the riverlanding at Sangamo Town to help build the boat for Offutt, he left his father'shouse for good. He did not yet know who he was, or where he was heading,but he was sure he did not want to be another Thomas Lincoln.