The Life of Abraham Lincoln
By Henry Ketcham
Public Domain Books
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
16th President of the United States
Chapter III. Early Years
The year 1809 was fruitful in the birth of great men in the Anglo-Saxon race. In that year were born Charles Darwin, scientist, Alfred Tennyson, poet, William E. Gladstone, statesman, and, not least, Abraham Lincoln, liberator.
Thomas Lincoln was left fatherless in early boyhood, and grew up without any schooling or any definite work. For the most part he did odd jobs as they were offered. He called himself a carpenter. But in a day when the outfit of tools numbered only about a half dozen, and when every man was mainly his own carpenter, this trade could not amount to much. Employment was unsteady and pay was small.
Thomas Lincoln, after his marriage to Nancy Hanks, lived in Elizabethtown, Ky., where the first child, Sarah, was born. Shortly after this event he decided to combine farming with his trade of carpentering, and so removed to a farm fourteen miles out, situated in what is now La Rue County, where his wife, on the twelfth day of February, 1809, gave birth to the son who was named Abraham after his grandfather. The child was born in a log cabin of a kind very common in that day and for many years later. It was built four-square and comprised only one room, one window, and a door.
Here they lived for a little more than four years, when the father removed to another farm about fifteen miles further to the northeast.
The occasion of this removal and of the subsequent one, two or three years later, was undoubtedly the uncertainty of land titles in Kentucky in that day. This “roving disposition” cannot fairly be charged to shiftlessness. In spite of the extraordinary disadvantages of Thomas Lincoln’s early life, he lived as well as his neighbors, though that was humble enough, and accumulated a small amount of property in spite of the low rate of compensation.
In the year 1816 Thomas determined to migrate to Indiana. He sold out his farm, receiving for it the equivalent of $300. Of this sum, $20 was in cash and the rest was in whisky–ten barrels–which passed as a kind of currency in that day. He then loaded the bulk of his goods upon a flat boat, floating down the stream called Rolling Fork into Salt Creek, thence into the Ohio River, in fact, to the bottom of that river. The watercourse was obstructed with stumps and snags of divers sorts, and especially with “sawyers,” or trees in the river which, forced by the current, make an up-and-down motion like that of a man sawing wood.
The flat boat became entangled in these obstructions and was upset, and the cargo went to the bottom. By dint of great labor much of this was rescued and the travelers pushed on as far as Thompson’s Ferry in Perry County, Indiana. There the cargo was left in the charge of friends, and Lincoln returned for his family and the rest of his goods.
During his father’s absence, the boy Abe had his first observation of sorrow. A brother had been born in the cabin and had died in infancy. The little grave was in the wilderness, and before leaving that country forever, the mother, leading her six-year-old boy by the hand, paid a farewell visit to the grave. The child beheld with awe the silent grief of the mother and carried in his memory that scene to his dying day.
The father returned with glowing accounts of the new home. The family and the furniture,–to use so dignified a name for such meager possessions,–were loaded into a wagon or a cart, and they were soon on the way to their new home.
The traveling was slow, but the weather was fine, the journey prosperous, and they arrived duly at their destination. They pushed northward, or back from the river, about eighteen miles into the woods and settled in Spencer County near to a hamlet named Gentryville. Here they established their home.
The first thing, of course, was to stake off the land, enter the claim, and pay the government fee at the United States Land Office at Vincennes. The amount of land was one quarter section, or one hundred and sixty acres.
The next thing was to erect a cabin. In this case the cabin consisted of what was called a half-faced camp. That is, the structure was entirely open on one of its four sides. This was at the lower side of the roof, and the opening was partly concealed by the hanging of the skins of deer and other wild animals. This open face fully supplied all need of door and window.
The structure was built four square, fourteen feet each way. Posts were set up at the corners, then the sides were made of poles placed as near together as possible. The interstices were filled in with chips and clay, which was called “chinking.” The fireplace and chimney were built at the back and outside. The chief advantage of this style of domicile is that it provides plenty of fresh air. With one side of the room entirely open, and with a huge fireplace at the other side, the sanitary problem of ventilation was solved.
There were no Brussels carpets, no Persian rugs, no hardwood floors. The bare soil was pounded hard, and that was the floor. There were two beds inn the two rear corners of the rooms. The corner position saved both space and labor. Two sides of the bed were composed of parts of the two walls. At the opposite angle a stake, with a forked top, was driven into the ground, and from this to the walls were laid two poles at right angles. This made the frame of the bed. Then “shakes,” or large hand-made shingles, were placed crosswise. Upon these were laid the ticks filled with feathers or corn husks, and the couch was complete. Not stylish, but healthful and comfortable.
The produce of his farm was chiefly corn, though a little wheat was raised for a change of diet. Doubtless there were enough of the staple vegetables which grow easily in that country. Butcher shops were not needed, owing to the abundance of wild game.
The principal portion of the life of the average boy concerns his schooling. As nearly as can be determined the aggregate of young Lincoln’s schooling was about one year, and this was divided between five teachers–an average of less than three months to each–and spread out over as many years. The branches taught were “readin’, writin’, and cipherin’ to the rule of three.” Any young man who happened along with a fair knowledge of the three great R’s–"Readin’, ’Ritin’, and’ Rithmetic"–was thought fit to set up a school, taking his small pay in cash and boarding around–that is, spending one day or more at a time as the guest of each of his patrons.
There was nothing of special interest in any of these teachers, but their names are preserved simply because the fact that they did teach him is a matter of great interest. The first teacher was Zachariah Riney, a Roman Catholic, from whose schoolroom the Protestants were excluded, or excused, during the opening exercises. Then came Caleb Hazel. These were in Kentucky, and therefore their instruction of Lincoln must have come to an end by the time he was seven years old. When ten years old he studied under one Dorsey, when about fourteen under Crawford, and when sixteen under Swaney.
It can hardly be doubted that his mother’s instruction was of more worth than all these put together. A woman who, under such limitations, had energy enough to teach her husband to read and write, was a rare character, and her influence could not be other than invaluable to the bright boy. Charles Lamb classified all literature in two divisions: “Books that are not books, and books that are books.” It is important that every boy learn to read. But a far more important question is, What use does he make of his ability to read? Does he read “books that are books?” Let us now see what use Lincoln made of his knowledge of reading.
In those days books were rare and his library was small and select. It consisted at first of three volumes: The Bible, Aesop’s Fables and Pilgrim’s Progress. Some-time in the eighties a prominent magazine published a series of articles written by men of eminence in the various walks of life, under the title of “Books that have helped me." The most noticeable fact was that each of these eminent men–men who had read hundreds of books–specified not more than three or four books. Lincoln’s first list was of three. They were emphatically books. Day after day he read, pondered and inwardly digested them until they were his own. Better books he could not have found in all the universities of Europe, and we begin to understand where he got his moral vision, his precision of English style, and his shrewd humor.
Later he borrowed from a neighbor, Josiah Crawford, a copy of Weems’ Life of Washington. In lieu of a bookcase he tucked this, one night, into the chinking of the cabin. A rain-storm came up and soaked the book through and through. By morning it presented a sorry appearance. The damage was done and could not be repaired. Crestfallen the lad carried it back to the owner and, having no money, offered to pay for the mischief in work. Crawford agreed and named seventy-five cents (in labor) as a fair sum.
“Does this pay for the book,” the borrower asked, “or only for the damage to the book?” Crawford reckoned that the book “wa’n’t of much account to him nor to any one else.” So Lincoln cheerfully did the work–it was for three days–and owned the book.
Later he had a life of Henry Clay, whom he nearly idolized. His one poet was Burns, whom he knew by heart “from a to izzard.” Throughout his life he ranked Burns next to Shakespeare.
The hymns which he most loved must have had influence not only on his religious spirit, but also on his literary taste. Those which are mentioned are, “Am I a soldier of the cross?” “How tedious and tasteless the hours,” “There is a fountain filled with blood,” and “Alas, and did my Saviour bleed?” Good hymns every one of them, in that day, or in any day.
Having no slate he did his “sums” in the sand on the ground, or on a wooden shovel which, after it was covered on both sides, he scraped down so as to erase the work. A note-book is preserved, containing, along with examples in arithmetic, this boyish doggerel:
Abraham Lincoln his hand and pen he will be good but god knows When.
The penmanship bears a striking resemblance to that in later life.
About a year after Thomas Lincoln’s family settled in Indiana, they were followed by some neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow and Dennis Hanks, a child. To these the Lincolns surrendered their camp and built for themselves a cabin, which was slightly more pretentious than the first. It had an attic, and for a stairway there were pegs in the wall up which an active boy could readily climb. There was a stationary table, the legs being driven into the ground, some three-legged stools, and a Dutch oven.
In the year 1818 a mysterious epidemic passed over the region, working havoc with men and cattle. It was called the “milk-sick.” Just what it was physicians are unable to determine, but it was very destructive. Both Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow were attacked. They were removed, for better care, to the home of the Lincolns, where they shortly died. By this time Mrs. Lincoln was down with the same scourge. There was no doctor to be had, the nearest one being thirty-five miles away. Probably it made no difference. At all events she soon died and the future president passed into his first sorrow.
The widowed husband was undertaker. With his own hands he “rived” the planks, made the coffin, and buried Nancy Hanks, that remarkable woman. There was no pastor, no funeral service. The grave was marked by a wooden slab, which, long years after, in 1879, was replaced by a stone suitably inscribed.
A traveling preacher known as Parson Elkin had occasionally preached in the neighborhood of the Lincolns in Kentucky. The young boy now put to use his knowledge of writing. He wrote a letter to the parson inviting him to come over and preach the funeral sermon. How he contrived to get the letter to its destination we do not know, but it was done. The kind-hearted preacher cheerfully consented, though it involved a long and hard journey. He came at his earliest convenience, which was some time the next year.
There was no church in which to hold the service. Lincoln never saw a church building of any description until he was grown. But the neighbors to the number of about two hundred assembled under the trees, where the parson delivered the memorial sermon.
Lincoln was nine years old when his mother died, October 5th, 1818. Her lot was hard, her horizon was narrow, her opportunities were restricted, her life was one of toil and poverty. All through her life and after her untimely death, many people would have said that she had had at best but a poor chance in the world. Surely no one would have predicted that her name would come to be known and reverenced from ocean to ocean. But she was faithful, brave, cheerful. She did her duty lovingly. In later years the nation joined with her son in paying honor to the memory of this noble, overworked, uncomplaining woman.