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By David Herbert Donald

Chapter One: Annals of the Poor

Abraham Lincoln was not interested in his ancestry. In his mind he was a self-made man, who had no need to care about his family tree. In 1859, when friends asked him for autobiographical information to help barest outline of his family history: "My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families - second families, perhaps I should say: The next year, when John Locke Scripps of the Chicago Tribune proposed to write his campaign biography. Lincoln told him: "Why Scripps, ... it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray'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, who moved from Virginia to Kentucky about 1780. They were a prolific tribe, for the most part illiterate but respectable farmers of modest means. Their tended to name all the males James of John, and the females Polly, Lucy, or Nancy. Abraham Lincoln's mother was one of at least eight Nancy Hankses born during the 1780s. Abraham Lincoln believed that his mother was illegitimate. It was a subject that he rarely discussed, but in the early 1850s, while driving his one-horse buggy from Springfield over to Petersburg, Illinois, he found 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 question of hereditary traits, and Lincoln observed that illegitimate children were "oftentimes sturdier and brighter than those born in lawful wedlock" To prove his point he mentioned his mother, who he was "the illegitimate daughter of Lucy Hanks and a well-bred Virginia farmer or planter." From "this broad-minded, unknown Virginia" Lincoln believed he inherited the traits 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 born out of wedlock. A grand jury in Mercer County, Kentucky, presented a charge of fornication against his grandmother Lucy (or "Lucey," as it is spelled in the old records), and there were several recorded instances of bastardy among Hanks women of her generation. Since no wedding certificate was ever found for Lucy. there was room for endless speculation about Lincoln's maternal grandsire.

But Lincoln's remark - if Herndon accurately reported them after a lapse of 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 he grew up. Like other gifted young men, he wondered how he could be the offspring of his ordinary and limited parents. Some in Lincoln's generation fancied themselves the sons of the dauphin, who allegedly fled to America during the French Revolution. Lincoln imagined a noble Virginia ancestor.

Of his Lincoln ancestor he knew only a little more that he did about the Hankses. From his father he learned than his grandfather Abraham, for whom he was named, had move from Virginia was on the early 1780s There was a vague family tradition that earlier Lincolns had lived in Pennsylvania, where they had been Quakers, but as he recorded, the family had long since "fallen away from the popular habits." Apart from that, William Dean Howells reported in his 1860 campaign biography, there was only "incertitude, and absolute darkness" about Abraham Lincoln's force bears.

Further research would have showed that the Lincolns did come from Virginia and that an earlier generation had indeed belonged to the Society of Friends in Pennsylvania. In turns, these could be traced to the original Samuel Lincoln, who emigrated from the County of Norfolk, England, and settled in Hingham, Massachusetts. In 1937. A weaver in England, Samuel became a prosperous trader and businessman in America, where he have a pillar of the church and begat eleven children who bore names like Daniel, Thomas, Mordecai, and Sarah, which became tradition in the family. Samuel's grandson, Mordecai (1686-1736), was perhaps the most successful member of the family. An ironmaster and wealthy land owner 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 the granddaughter of members of the New Jersey assembly and the niece of the acting royal governor of that colony. It was their son, John Lincoln (1710- 1788), who moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where he established himself on a large farm in fertile Rockingham County. Mordecai was so 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, instead of being the unique blossom on an otherwise barren family tree, belonged to the seventh American generation of a family with competent means, a reputation for integrity, and a modest record of public service.


A closer study of the historical records would also have given Abraham Lincoln a different, and probably a kindlier, view of his father, Thomas. It was Thoma's father, the senior Abraham Lincoln, who sold his farm in Virginia and led his wife and five children over the mountains to seek their fortune. They had heard much of the rich lands in Kentucky from their distant relative, Daniel Boone, and they found in that vast, largely unsealed territory, which was still part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, all the opportunities Boone had promised. Within a few years the Lincolns owned at least 5,544 acres of land in the richest sections of Kentucky.

But the wilderness was dangerous. In 1786, while Abraham Lincoln and his three boys, Mordecai, Josiah, and Thomas, were planting a cornfield on their new property, Indians attacked them. Abraham was killed instantly. Mordecai, at fifteen the oldest son, sent Josiah running to the settlement half a mile away for help while he raced to a nearby cabin. Peering out of a crack between logs, he saw an Indian sneaking out of the forest toward his eight year-old brother, Thomas, who was still sitting in the field beside their father's body. Mordecai picked up a rifle, aimed at a silver pendant on the Indian's chest, and killed him before he could reach the boy. This story in later years Thomas Lincoln repeated over and over again, so that it became, as Abraham said, "the legend more strongly than all others imprinted upon my mind and memory."

Both Thomas Lincoln and his son seem to have overlooked the economic consequences of the tragedy. According to Virginia law, which prevailed in the Kentucky region, the ancient rule of primogeniture was still in effect, and Mordecai Lincoln, the oldest son, inherited his father's entire estate when he came of age. In due course he became one of the leading citizens of Washington County, Kentucky, a man of considerable property, who was interested in breeding fine racehorses. The only Lincoln relative whom Abraham Lincoln ever knew, Mordecai was a man of considerable wit and great natural gifts, and his nephew once remarked that "Uncle Mord had run off with all the talents of the family." He had also, in effect, run off with all the money. Left without a patrimony, the other two Lincoln boys had to fend for themselves.

Thomas, the youngest, had a difficult time. The tragedy abruptly ended his prospects of being an heir of a well-to-do Kentucky planter, he had to earn his board and keep. Abraham Lincoln never fully understood how hard his father had to struggle during his early years. It required an immense effort for Thomas, who earned three shillings a day for manual labor or made a little more when he did carpentry or cabinetmaking, to accumulate enough money to buy his first, a 23H-acre tract on Mill Creek in Hardin County, Kentucky. He became a familiar in Elizabethtown and Hogdenville, a stocky, well-built man of no more than average height, with a shock of straight black hair and an unusually large nose. "He was an uneducated man, a plain unpretending plodding man," a neighbor remembered; one who "attended to his work, peaccable - quiet and good natured." "Honest" was the adjective most frequently used to describe Thomas Lincoln, and he was respected in his community, where he served in the militia and was called for jury duty. Never wealthy, Thomas owned a respectable amount of property, by 1814 ranking fifteenth (out of ninety-eight listed) in the county.

In 1806 he married Nancy Hanks, and the couple built a little house in Elizabethtown, where eight months later Sarah, their first daughter, was born. By 1809, Thomas Lincoln had bough another farm, this time one of three hundred acres, on the south fork of North Creek (not far from Hogdenville). It was called the Sinking Spring Farm, because if had a magnificent spring that bubbled from the bottom of a deep cave. Here, on a little knoll near the spring, he built a one-room log cabin, measuring sixteen by eighteen feet. The sturdy building, which had only a dirt floor and no glass window, was as large as about 90 percent of the pioneer cabins of the region.

Here Abraham Lincoln was born on February 2, 1809. He had no recollection of the power of his birth, because his parents moved before he was two years old. The land on the Sinking Spring Farm proved very poor, "a barren waste, so to speak," as one contemporary described it, "save some little patches on the creek bottoms," and Thomas quickly learned that it would 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 a one-room log cabin, but the setting was beautiful. The creek, which ran through the property, was so clear that you could see a pebble in ten feet of water; the bottomland, where Thomas planted corn, was rich and easy to cultivate; and on both sides rose small, sleep hills, so clearly defined and separate as to be called "knobs" - after which the creek was named.

It was of this Knob Creek farm that Abraham Lincoln had his earliest memories, but few of them concerned his mother, who remains a shadowy image. It is not even clear what she looked like. No one ever bothered to draw a likeness of Nancy Hanks Lincoln and the age of photography was far in the future. Many years later those who had known her described her variously 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 know how to write and had to sign legal documents with an X. Abraham must have remembered how his mother set up housekeeping, cooked the family meals, washed and mended the scanty clothing that her husband and children wore, and perhaps helped in the farming. But of her life on Knob Creek 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 mentioned her, he referred to his "angle mother," partly recognition of her loving affection, but partly to distinguish her from his stepmother, who was very much alive. If he ever said, as Herndon, reported, "God bless my mother, all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her," it was a tribute not so much to her maternal care as to the genes that she allegedly transmitted from his unnamed 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 son followed, dropping two pumpkin seeds in every hill on every other row. Once, as he remembered, there was a big rain in the hills, though not a drop fell in the valley, and "the water coming down through the gorges washed ground, corn, pumpkin seed and all clear off the field." He also remembered going for two brief periods to an "A.B.C. school," some two miles from the Lincolns' cabin, where he was sent, according to a relative, "more as company for his sister that with the expectation that he would learn much." It was first taught by one Zachariah Riney, about whom little is know except that he was a Catholic, and then by Caleb Hazel, who according to a contemporary, "could perhaps teach spelling, reading and indifferent writing and perhaps could cipher to the rule of three, but had no other qualifications of a teacher, except large size and bodily strength to thrash any boy or youth that came to his school." Abraham probably mastered the alphabet, but he did not yet know how to write when the family left Kentucky.

In general, young Lincoln seems to have been an entirely average little boy, who enjoyed playing, hunting, and fishing. Perhaps he was quarter than his playmates and kept his clothes clean longer, but there was not much to distinguish him. As a relative declared, "Abc exhibited no special train in Kentucky except a good kind - somewhat wild nature."


In 1816, when Abraham was only seven years old, the Lincolns moved across the Ohio River to Indiana. Many years later he stated, quite accurately, that his father left Kentucky "partly on account of slavery; but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Ky." In Thomas Lincoln's mind the two causes were interrelated. He had religious grounds for disliking slavery. He and his wife joined the Separate Baptist Church, whose members accepted traditional Baptist beliefs, like infant baptism and predestination, but refused to 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 his parents' 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 as well as religious grounds. He did not want to compete with slave labor. Kentucky had 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 of the best lands, tilled by gangs of black slaves. Hardin County, just to the west of this region, was not so well suited to large scale agriculture, but its inhabitants felt threatened. By 1811 the county had 1,007 slaves and only 1,627 wile males river the age of sixteen.

Small farmers like Thomas Lincoln also worried about the rules to their land. Kentucky never had a United States land survey, it was settled in a random, chaotic fashion, with settlers fixing own bounds to the property they claimed: a particular tree here, a rock there, and so on. Soon the map of the state presented a bewildering overlay of conflicting land claims, and anybody could be sure who owned what. So uncertain were land titles that Kentucky became one of the first states to do away with the freehold property qualification for voting - not so much out of devotion to democratic principles as because even the wealthy often had trouble proving they owned clear title their acres. Naturally the courts were filled with litigation, and the lawyers in Kentucky were busy all the time. To a small farmer like Thomas Lincoln, who was unable to pay the attorneys' fees, it seemed that they were all working for the rich, slaveholding planters.

He had trouble gaining a clear title to any of the three farms that he purchased in Kentucky. The details were exceedingly complicated, and not particularly important: one had been improperly surveyed, so that it proved to 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 the case of the Knob Creek farm, non-Kentucky residents brought suit against Thomas and other occupants of the rich valley, claiming prior title. Having neither the money nor the inclination to fight for his claims in court, he heard with great interest of the opening of Indiana, territory from which slavery had been excluded by the Northwest Ordinance. Here the United States government had surveyed the land and offered purchases guaranteed titles to their farm.

In the fall of 1816 he made a trip across the Ohio to explore the region and 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 constructed what was called a "half-faced camp," a rough shelter, with no floor, about fourteen feet square, enclosed on three sides but open on the fourth. Then, blazing trees to mark boundaries and heaping piles of brush on the corners of the tract he expected to occupy; he returned to Kentucky, gathered his 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 the union as a state.

The land Thomas claimed was in unbroken forest, so remote that for part of the distance from the Ohio there no trail and he had to Hack out a path so that his family could follow. It was wild region, Abraham remembered, and the forests were filled bears and other threatening animals. Many years later, when he revisited the region, his childhood fears surfaced 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 Lincoln stayed in the half-faced camp for a few days after they arrived, until Thomas, probably with the assistance of members of the other families, but because of the freezing weather the men could nor work up the usual mixture of clay and grass for chinking between the logs and the winds still swept through.

The family was able to get through the winner because they are deer and bear meat. "We all hunted pretty much all the time," one of the party remembered. Young Abraham did his part, too. In February 1817, just before his eight birthday, he spied a flock of wild turkeys outside the new log cabin. He seized a rifle and, taking advantage of one the chinks, "shot through a crack, and killed one of them." But killing was not for him, and he did not try to repeat his exploit. Recalling the incident years later, he said that he had "never since pulled a trigger on any larger game."

The immediate task before the Lincolns was to clear away enough trees and undergrowth so that they could plant corn Thomas could only do so much, and he had to enlist the services of his own. Though Abraham was only eight years old, he was, he recalled, "large of his age, and had an ax put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year, he was 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 desperate loneliness for all the family, but by fall they fairly settled Thomas was so satisfied with the site that he had chosen that he undertook the sixty-mile trip to Vincennes in order to make initial payments on two adjoining eight-acre tracts he had claimed. Nancy also began to feel more at home, because Elizabeth (Hanks) and Thomas Sparrow, her aunt and uncle, who had lost their home in Kentucky through an ejectment suit, came to the Pigeon Creek neighborhood. They stayed for a while in the Lincolns' half faced camp until the could build their own cabin a nearby lot. Sarah and Abraham rejoiced because the Sparrows brought with them the eighteen-year-old Dennis Hanks, illegitimate nephew of Elizabeth Sparrow. They had known Dennis on Kentucky - indeed, he claimed to be the second person to touch Abraham after his birth - and they welcomed this young man of endless loquacity and irrepressible good spirits.

But shortly afterward everything began to go wrong. First, Abraham had a dangerous accident. One of his chores was to take corn to Gordon's mill, some two miles distant, to be ground into meal. When he got there, he hitched his old mare to the arm of the gristmill. Because it was getting late and he was in a hurry to get home before dusk, he tried to speed up the mare by giving her a stroke of the whip with each revolution. She lashed out at him with a kick that landed on his forehead, and he fell bleeding and unconscious. At first it was though that he was dead and his father was summoned. He could not speak for several hours, but he revived suffered no permanent damage.

Then the Pigeon Creek community was devastated buy an attack of what was called milk sickness (more properly, brucellosis). It was a mysterious ailment, which settlers realized was somehow connected with the milk of their cows, but it was not until many years later scientists discovered that the cows, which ran wild in the forest, had been eating the luxuriant but poisonous white snakeroot plant. Dizziness, nausea, and stomach pains were the initial symptoms, followed by irregular respiration and pulse, prostration, and coma. Death usually occurred within seven days. Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrow were first afflicted, and Thomas Lincoln saved rough boards to make coffins to bury them in. Then Nancy fell ill. She struggled on, day after day, for a week, but she knew she was falling. Calling her children 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 Thomas Lincoln buried another coffin on a wooded knoll a quarter of a mile from the cabin.

The next year may have been the hardest in Abraham Lincoln's life. With the help of Dennis Hanks, who moved in with the Lincolns after the Sparrows died, Thomas was able to put food on the table. "We still kept up hunting and farming." Dennis remembered. "We always hunted[;] it made no 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 to cook and keep house, but at times she felt so lonesome that she would sit by the fire and cry. To cheer her up, Dennis recalled, "me `n' Abe got `er a baby 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, even though he always disliked the nickname - left no words describing his sense of loss. His wound was too sensitive to touch. But many years later he wrote a letter of condolence to a bereaved child: "In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony; because it takes them unawares ... I have had experience enough to know what I say."

Deeper consequences of the loss of his mother before he was eleven years old can only be a matter of speculation it is tempting to connect his subsequent moodiness, his melancholy, and his occasional boots of depression to his cause, but the connections are not clear and these patterns of behavior appear in persons who have never experienced such loss. Perhaps his mother's death had something to do with his growing aversion to cruelty and bloodshed. Now, he began to reprove other children in the neighborhood for senseless cruelty to animals. He scolded them when they caught terrapins and heaped hot coals on their shells, to force the defense less animals out of their shells, reminding them "that an ant's life was to it as sweet as ours to us. "Certainly the death to his mother, coming so soon after the deaths of other friends and neighbors, gave a gloomy cast to his memories 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 his family could not go on alone, and he went back to Kentucky to seek a bride in Elizabethtown he found Sarah Bush Johnston, whom he had perhaps unsuccessfully courted before he wed Nancy. She was the widow of the Hardin County jailer and mother of three small children. There was no time for a romantic engagement; he needed a wife and she needed a husband. They made a quick, businesslike arrangement for him to pay her debts and for her to pack up her belongings and move with him to Indiana.

The arrival of Sarah Lincoln marked a turning point in Abraham Lincoln's life. she brought with her, first, her collection of domestic possessions comfortable bedding, a walnut bureau that bad cost her forty-five dollars, table and chairs, a spinning wheel, knives, forks, and spoons, so that the Lincoln children a felt they were joining a world of unbelievable luxury. Her children - Elizabeth John D., and Matilda, who ranged from nine to five years 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 Lincoln must 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 Lincoln and Dennis Hanks had to give up hunting for a while to split logs and make a 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. The cabin was high enough to install a loft, reached by climbing pegs driven into the wall, and here she installed beds for the three boys - Dennis Hanks, Abraham, and John D. Downstairs she had the whole cabin cleaned, a decent bedstead was built, and Thomas used his skill as a carpenter to make another table and stools. Remarkably, these reforms were brought about with a minimum of friction.

What was even more extraordinary, Sarah Bush Lincoln was able to blend the two families harmoniously and without jealousy. She treated her own children and the Lincoln children with absolute impartiality. She grew especially fond of Abraham. "Abe never gave me a cross word or look and never refused in fact, or even in appearance, to do anything, I requested him," she remembered. "I never gave him a cross word in all my life.... His mind and mine - what little I had [-] seemed to move together - move in the same channel." Many years later, attempting to compare her son and her stepson, she told an interviewer: "Both were good boys, but I must say - both now being 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 he had been elected President, he recalled the sorry condition of Thomas Lincoln's household before Sarah Bush Johnston arrived and told of the encouragement she had given him as a boy. "She had been his best friend in this world," a relative reported him as saying, "and ... no man could love a mother more than he loved her."


The years after Sarah Bush Lincoln came to Indiana were happy ones for young Abraham. Afterward, when he spoke of this time, it was as "a joyous, happy boyhood," which he described "with mirth and glee," and in his recollections "there was nothing sad nor pinched, and nothing of want." His parents enrolled him, along with the other four children in household, in the school that Andrew Crawford had opened in a cabin about a mile from the Lincoln house. Though Sarah Bush Lincoln was illiterate, she had a sense that education was important, and Thomas wanted his son to learn how to read and cipher.

Possibly young Lincoln knew how to read a little before he entered Crawford's school, but Dennis Hanks, who was only marginally literate himself, claimed credit for giving Abraham "his first lesson in spelling - reading and writing." "I thought Abe to write with a buzzards quill which I killed with a rifle and having made a pen - put Abe's hand in mind [sic] and moving his fingers by my hand to give him the idea of how to write." Abraham learned these basic skills slowly. John Hanks, another cousin who lived with the Lincolns for a time, thought he was "somewhat dull ... not a brilliant boy-but worked his way by toil: to learn was hard for him, but he worked slowly, but surely." But Abraham's stepmother understood him better, recognized his 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 in one form and then in an other and when it was fixed in his mind to sun him be ... never lost that fact or his understanding of it."

Abraham attended Crawford's school for one term, of perhaps three months. Crawford, a justice of the peace and man of some importance in the area, ran a subscription school, where parents paid their children's tuition in cash or in commodities. Ungraded, it was a "blab" school, where students recited their lessons aloud, and the schoolmaster listened through the din for errors. He was long remembered because, according to one student, "he tried to learn us manners" by having the pupils practice introducing each other, as though they were strangers. After one term Crawford gave up teaching, and the Lincoln children had no school for a year, until James Swaney opened one about four miles from the Lincoln house. The distance was so great that Abraham, who had farm chores to perform, could attend only sporadically. The next year, for about six months, he went to a school 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, he summarized, "the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year."

In later years Lincoln was scornful of these "schools, so called, "which he amended: "No qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond 'readin, writin, and cipherin,' to the Rule of Three [i.e., ratio and proportions]. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard."

Though his censure was largely deserved, a school system that produced Abraham Lincoln could not have been wholly without merit. Indeed, his teachers, transient and untrained as they were, helped him master the basic tools so that in the future he could educate himself. Dilworth's Spelling Book, which he and Sarah had begun to use in Kentucky, provided has introduction to grammar and spelling. Beginning with the alphabet and Arabic and Roman numerals, it proceeded to words of two letters, then three letters, and finally four letters. From these the student began to construct sentences, like: "No man may put off the laws of God." Dilworth's then went on to more advanced subjects, and the final sections included prose and verse selections, some accompanied by crude woodcuts - which may have been the first pictures that Abraham had ever seen. Other readers, like The Columbian Class Book and The Kentucky Preceptor, expanded and reinforced what he learned from Dilworth's.

Through constant repetition and drill the boy learned how to spell. In deed, he because so proficient that it was hard to stump him in the school spelling bees. He was generous with his knowledge. Many years later a girl in his class told how he helped her when the teacher gave her a difficult word. "defied." which she was about to misspell "defyed." When she came to the fourth letter, she happened to look at Abraham, who pointed to his eye, and, taking the hint, she spelled the word correctly.

He also learned to write, in a clear, round hand. The handwriting of a bit of doggerel 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 Creek community 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]," Dennis Hanks recalled, "reading every thing he could lay his hands on." He would carry a book with him when he went out to work, and read when he rested John Hanks remembered that when Abraham returned to the house from work, "he would go to the cupboard, snatch a piece of corn bread, take down a book, sit down in a chair, cock his legs up as high as his head, and read."

His contemporaries attributed prodigies of reading to him, but books were 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 a passage that struck him." his stepmother remembered. "he would write it down on boards if he had no paper and keep it there till he did get paper - then he would re-write it - look at it [and] repeat it."

Other than classroom texts, has first books were the few that Sarah Bush Lincoln had brought with her from Kentucky. One was her family Bible. Abraham read it at times, she remembered. "though not as much as said, he sought more congenial books - suitable for his age." The Pilgrim's Progress was one of them, and the biblical cadences of Lincoln's later speeches owed much to John Bunyan. Another of Sarah Bush Lincoln's books was Aesop's Fables, which it was said Abraham read so many times that he could write it out from memory. The morals of some of the stories became deeply ingrained in his mind, like the lesson drawn from the fable of the lion and the four bulls: "A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand." In his stepmother's copy of Lessons in Elocution, by William Scott, he studied basic lessons on elocution, and the selections in this book were probably his introduction to Shakespeare. Among the set pieces it included was King Claudius's soliloquy on his murder of Hamlet's father. "O, my offence is rank. it smells to heaven." It remained one of Lincoln's favorite passages.

History also fascinated him. He probably read William Grimshaw's History of the United States, which began with the discovery of America and ended with the annexation of Florida. With a sharp denunciation of slavery as "a climax of human cupidity and turpitude," Grimshaw stressed the importance of the American Revolution and exhorted students: "Let us not only declare by words, but demonstrate by our actions, that 'all men are created equal.'" Even more than history, biography interested young Lincoln. He enjoyed the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, but it was Parson Mason Weems's Life of George Washington that stirred his imagination. Many years later, when he was on his way to Washington and his first inaugural, he told the New Jersey Senate that Weems's account of Washington's heroic struggles at Trenton - "the crossing of the river, the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships 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 must have been something more than common that those men struggled for."

The pioneer schools of Indiana also gave Lincoln a good grounding in elementary mathematics. His teachers probably never used an arithmetic textbook but drew their problems from two handbooks, Thomas Dilworth's Schoolmaster's Assistant and Zachariah Jess's American Tutor's Assistant. Because paper was scarce, he often had to cipher on boards, and his stepmother recalled, "when the board would get too black he would shave it off with a drawing knife and go on again." Then from somewhere he found a few sheets of paper, which he sewed together to form a little notebook in which to write down the problems and his answers. In if he recorded complicated calculations involving multiplication (like 34,567,834 x 23,423) and division (such as 4375,703 divided by 2,432), which he completed with exceptional accuracy, and he also solved problems concerning weights and measures, and figured discounts and simple interest. Apparently ratio and proportion taxed his instructors to their limits, but he was able to work out simple problems such as: "If 3 oz of silver cost 17s[billings] what will 48 oz Cost." Neither the student nor the teachers seemed quite to get the idea of "casting out nines," a cumbersome and inaccurate method of verifying long division. Nevertheless, he liked the logic and the precision of mathematics, and years later after serving a term in Congress, he went back to the subject and worked his way through most of a geometry textbook.

What Lincoln learned from school was not all in books. Here for the first time he had a chance to see children from other families and to pit his wits against theirs. Taller than most of the other students, he wore a coonskin cap and buckskin pants that were always too short, so that, a classmate remembered, "there was bare and naked six or more inches of Abe Lincoln's shin bone." Unconscious of his peculiar appearance, he would rapidly gather the other students around him, cracking jokes, telling stories, making plans. Almost from the beginning he took his place as a leader. His class mates admired his ability to tell stories and make rhymes, and they enjoyed his 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 man who has never met his intellectual equal


These happy years of Lincoln's boyhood were short, for his relationship with his father began to deteriorate. Thomas was perceptibly aging. After an exceptional burst of energy at the time of his second marriage, he began to slow down. He was probably not in good health, for one neighbor remembered that he became blind in one eve and lost sight in another. He was not a lazy man, another settler reported, but "a tinker - a piddler - always doing but doing nothing great."

He was under considerable financial pressure after his marriage because he had to support a household of eight people. For a time he could rely on Dennis Hanks to help provide for his large family, but in 1826 Dennis married Elizabeth Johnston, Sarah Bush Lincoln's daughter, and moved to his own homestead a half mile or so away. As Abraham became an adolescent his father grew more and more to depend on him for the "farming, grubbing hoeing making fences" necessary to keep the family afloat. He also 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 of age.

Generally an easygoing man, who, according to Dennis Hanks, "could beat his son telling a story - cracking a joke," Thomas Lincoln was not a harsh father or a brutal disciplinarian. He encouraged Abraham to go to school, though he had a somewhat limited idea of what an educational consisted, and he rarely interrupted his son's studies. "As a usual thing," Sarah Bush Lincoln remembered, "Mr. Lincoln never made Abe quit reading to do any thing if he could avoid it. He would do it himself first." But Dennis Hanks said that Thomas thought his son spent too much time on his books, "having sometimes to slash him for neglecting his work by reading." The father would not tolerate impudence. When Abraham as a little boy thrust himself into adult conversations, Thomas sometimes struck him. Then, as Hanks recalled, young Abraham " never balked, but dropt a kind of silent unwelcome tear, as evidence of his sensations."

As Abraham became a teenager, he began to distance himself from his father. His sense of alienation may have originated at the time of his mother's death, when he needed more support and compassion than his stolid father was able to give. It increased as the boy got older. Perhaps he felt that his place in the household had been usurped by the second family Thomas Lincoln acquired when he remarried; contemporaries noted that Thomas seemed to favor the stepson, John D. Johnston, more than he did his own son. He disagreed with his father over religion. In 1823, Thomas Lincoln and his wife joined the Pigcon Baptist Church, as did his daughter Sarah soon afterward; but Abraham made no move toward membership. Indeed, as his stepmother said, "Abe had no particular religion - didn't think of these question[s] at that time, if he ever did." That difference appears to have led to the sharpest words he ever received from his father. Though Abraham did not belong to the church, he attended the sermons, and afterward climbing on a tree stump, he would rally other children around him and repeat - or sometimes parody - the minister's words. Offended Thomas, 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 began growing 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 sixty pounds. One contemporary remembered he was so skinny that he had a spidery look. He grew so fast that he was tired all the time, and he showed a notable lack of enthusiasm for physical labor. "Lincoln was lazy - a very lazy man," Dennis Hanks concluded. "He was always reading - scribbling - writing - ciphering Poetry." The neighbors for whom he worked agreed that he was "awful lazy," and, as one remarked, "he was no land to pitch in at work like killing snakes." Their dissatisfaction doubtless contributed to the friction between father and son.

But Abraham's pulling away from his father something more significant than a teenage rebellion. Abraham had made a quiet reassessment of the life that Thomas lived. He kept his judgment to himself, but years later it crept into his scornful statements that his father "grew up, literally without education," that be "never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name," and that he chose settle in a region where "there was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education." To Abraham Lincoln that was a claiming verdict. In all of his published writings, and, indeed, even in reports of hundreds of stories and conversations, he had one favorable word to say about his father.


By the time Abraham Lincoln was in his late teens, he was itching to get away from Pigeon Creek. One after another, his ties to home and to the community were snapped. When he was seventeen, his sister, Sarah, married neighbor, Aaron Grigsby, and the couple set up housekeeping several miles from the Lincoln cabin Then Matilda. Sarah Bush Lincoln's youngest daughter, who had been very fond of Abraham, married Squire Hall and also moved away. A year and a half later Sarah Lincoln Grigsby died in childbirth. Abraham blamed the death of his sister on the negligence of the Grigsbys in sending for a doctor, and the ensuing quarrel further alienated him from his Pigeon Creek neighbors.

Increasingly he began to go further afield from his father's cabin. A contemporary remembered that he went all over the county attending "house raisings, log rolling corn shucking and workings of all kinds." To be sure, he got bored easily and on many of these occasions, as Dennis Hanks remembered, "would Commence his pranks tricks - jokes stories, and all 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 money by selling firewood to the steamers plying the Ohio River, and they set to work sawing logs at Posey's Landing, only to find that demand was slack and money was scarce. They were finally able to swap nine cords of firewood for nine yards of white domestic cloth, out of which, Hanks reported, "Abe had a shirt made, and it was positively the first which shirt which ... he had ever owned or worn." Next he hired out to James Taylor, who ran a ferry across the Ohio River in the same vicinity; when he was not helping on the river, he plowed, killed hogs, and made fences, doing what he remembered as "the roughest work a young man could be made to do." He earned $6 a month, with 314 extra on days when he slaughtered hogs. In what spare time he had, he built a little flatboat, or rowboat. When two men asked him to row them out into the river so that they could take passage on a steamer that was coming downstream, he sculled them out, helped them aboard, and lifted their heavy trunks onto the deck. As they left, each of them tossed a silver half-dollar on the floor of his boat in payment. "I could scarcely believe my eyes as I picked up the money." Lincoln recalled nearly forty year later. "I could scarcely credit that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day.... They world seemed wider and fairer before me."

The lure of the river was irresistible, promising escape from the constricted world of Pigeon Creek. The next spring, when James Gentry, who owned the local store, decided to send a cargo of meat, corn, and flour down the rivers for sale in New Orleans, Lincoln accepted the offer to accompany his son, Allen, on the flatboat, at a wage of $8 a month. They made a leisurely trip, stopping frequently to trade at the sugar plantations along the river in Louisiana, until the dreamlike quality of their journey was rudely interrupted. "One night," as Lincoln remembered, "they were attacked by seven Negroes with intent to kill and rob them. They were hurt some in the melee, but succeeded in driving the Negroes from the boat, and then `cut cable' `weighed anchor' and left." New Orleans was by far the largest city the two country boys had ever seen, with imposing buildings, busy shops, and incessant traffic. Here they heard French spoken as readily as English. In New Orleans, Lincoln for the first time encountered large number of slaves. But neither boy made any record of their visit to the Crescent City; perhaps it was too overwhelming.

Returning to Indiana, Lincoln dutifully handed over his earnings to his father, but he began to spend more and more time away from home. He liked 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 worked sometimes with John Baldwin, the local blacksmith. As always, he was full of talk and plans and jokes and tricks, and he gathered about him all the young men who were about to come of age and were restless in the narrow society of southern Indiana.

In the spring of 1829, Lincoln and his little gang pulled off the most imaginative, and longest remembered, of their pranks when two sons of Reuben Grigsby - Reuben, Jr., and Charles - were married. The Lincolns had been carrying on something of a feud with Grigsby family since Sarah's death, and when Abraham was not invited to the wedding celebration, he "felt nulled - insulted." Through a confederate he arranged that when the party was over and the bridegrooms were brought upstairs to their 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 gossip and much laughter in the Genryville community. Its fame grew because Lincoln wrote out a scurrilous description of the affair, which he entitled "The Chronicles of Reuben" in language supposed to be reminiscent of the Scriptures, he recounted the story and then went on in verse to tell of another 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 than the Bible - better than Watts hymns."

If the whole episode had any significance, it indicated than Lincoln needed to break away from home. He realized this as well as anyone. He longed to become a steamboat man and asked a neighbor, William Wood, to go with him 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 know that, the young man replied, "but I want a start," Unwilling to break the law or to offend his neighbor, Thomas Lincoln, Wood did make some discreet, though unsuccessful, inquiries in Abraham's behalf in Rodsport.

But Abraham still legally owed Thomas Lincoln another year of labor, and he remained with his father out of obligation and with his stepmother out of affection. Early in 1830 he helped them move from Spencer County. Indiana, into Maron County, Illinois, John Hanks had already settled there and seem back glowing reports of the fertility of the Lincoln lands, and Dennis Hanks was eager to move with his family. A rumor of a new outbreak of the milk sickness in southern Indiana triggered the Lincoln's decision to go with them. Selling his lands, his logs, and his corn, Thomas Lincoln gathered up his household and in March started off in a wagon drawn by two yoke of oxen.

Abraham did his best to keep the company cheerful, making jokes as the goaded on the oxen. Such roads as there were proved almost impassable; the ground was still frozen winter, and it melted a little each day only to freeze back at night. 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 stretch. Everywhere the streams were swollen, and usually there were no bridges. At one crossing Lincoln's favorite little dog jumped from the wagon, broke through the ice, and began struggling for his life. "I could not bear to lose my dog, "Lincoln recalled many years later, "and I jumped out of the wagon and waded waist deep in the ice and water[.] got hold of him and helped out and saved him."

After passing through the village of Decatur, which consisted of fewer than a dozen log cabins, the Lincolns went on about ten miles to a tract of land on the north bank of the Sangamon River, which John Hanks had staked out for them. That summer they broke up fifteen acres of land, and Abraham and John Hanks split the rails to fence them in Abraham already felt so much at home in Illinois that he signed a petition, along with forty-four other "qualified voters," asking for a change of polling place for elections - even though he had not lived in the state the six months required to qualify as an elector.

That summer, too, he made his first political speech, addressing a campaign meeting in front of Renshaw's store in Decatur. Two established politicians, candidates for the state legislature, made addresses, and when they failed to follow custom and offer the crowd something to drink, the boys about 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 continuing effort to distance himself from his father. To put himself forward and make a public speech was something that Thomas Lincoln would never have dreamed of doing. But Abraham had for several years been reading anti-Jackson National Republican newspapers, like the Louisville Journal, and he ardently favored Henry Clay's "American system," which called for internal improvements, a protective tariff, and a national bank. He surprised his audience at Decatur, which had been expecting some rude political humor, with a plea for improving the Sangamon River for transportation. Showing no evidence of stage fright except for frequently shifting his position to ease his feet, he ended with an eloquent picture of the future of Illinois.

Abraham Lincoln was now a man, both physiologically and legally, and ready to leave the family nest forever. How he would support himself was not clear. He was willing to try anything - so long it was not his father's occupations of farming and carpentry. So when Denton Offutt, a busting, none too scrupulous businessman, asked him and John Hanks to take another flatboat loaded with provisions down to New Orleans, Lincoln, having nothing better to do, promptly accepted. When he went over to the river landing at Sangamo Town to help build the boat for Offutt, he left his father's house 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.

© By David Herbert Donald

Simon & Schuster.

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