Chapter Two: The Early Years

Posted by on February 10, 2010 in Life of Lincoln | Comments Off

The year 1809 was a great year for the birth of great men – Charles Darwin, scientist; Alfred Tennyson, poet; William E. Gladstone, statesman; and, not least, Abraham Lincoln, president.

After his marriage to Nancy Hanks, Thomas Lincoln lived in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where the first child, Sarah, was born. On the twelfth day of February 1809, Nancy 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. It was built in a square and had only one room, one window, and a door.

In 1816, Thomas decided to move to Indiana. The family and their modest furniture were loaded into a wagon or a cart, and they were soon on the way.

The next thing was to build a cabin. In this case, the cabin was what was called a half-faced camp. That is, the building was entirely open on one of its four sides. This was at the lower side of the roof, and the opening was partly hidden by the hanging of the skins of deer and other wild animals. This open face acted as both door and window.

Today, much of a child’s life happens in school. As nearly as can be determined, all of young Lincoln’s schooling added up to about one year. This was divided among five teachers – an average of less than three months to each – and spread out over about five years. The branches taught were “readin’, writin’, and cipherin’ to the rule of three.”

His mother’s instruction was of more value than all these put together. A woman who had energy enough to teach her husband and her children to read and write was a rare character. Her influence on young Lincoln was enormous.

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? Let us now see what use Lincoln made of his knowledge of reading.

In those days, books were rare and his library was small. It included at least these three volumes: the Bible, Aesop’s Fables, and Pilgrim’s Progress. Day after day Lincoln read, thought about the books, and digested them until they were his own. We begin to understand where he got his values, his writing style, and his sharp humor.

Once, he borrowed from a neighbor, Josiah Crawford, a copy of the book Life of Washington. He didn’t own a bookcase, so one night Lincoln tucked the book into the wall of his cabin. A rainstorm came up and soaked the book through and through. The damage was done and could not be repaired. The lad, sadly, carried the book back to the owner and, having no money, offered to pay for the damage in work. Crawford agreed and named seventy-five cents (in labor) as a fair sum.

“Does this pay for the book,” Lincoln asked, “or only for the damage?” Crawford determined that the book “wasn’t of much account to him nor to anyone else.” So Lincoln cheerfully did the work – for three days – and owned the book.

Later he had the book A Life of Henry Clay, and he idolized Henry Clay. His favorite poet was Burns, whom he knew by heart. Throughout his life, he ranked Burns next to Shakespeare as his favorite writers.

Having no slate or anything to write on, 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. One of Lincoln’s notebooks has been preserved, containing, along with examples in arithmetic, this boyish poem:

Abraham Lincoln
His hand and pen
He will be good but
God knows When.

In 1818, a mysterious illness passed over the region. It was called the “milk-sick.” Mrs. Lincoln, Abe’s mother, came down with it. There was no doctor to be had, the nearest one being thirty-five miles away. She soon died.

Lincoln was nine years old when his mother died, October 5, 1818. Her lot was hard, her horizon was narrow, her opportunities were limited, and her life was one of hard work and poverty. All through her life and after her 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 respected from ocean to ocean. But she was faithful, brave, and 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.

The death of his wife left Thomas Lincoln with the care of three young children: Sarah, eleven years old; Abe, ten years old; and the foster brother, Dennis Hanks. One of them would grow up to be president.

Based on the book by Henry Ketcham
Edited by Deborah Carroll

The opening line of today’s chapter mentions the great people born the same year as Abraham Lincoln. While it’s probably not clear what great people were born in your birth year, you can do some research to find out what great people were born on your birthday. After you find a list (try a site such as this one) and read about those included on your birthday, who do you think is the greatest person born on your birthday?

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