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so, since the case seems to be a bad one beyond reasonable hope. Her
name was Nancy Hanks. She was born in Virginia, and was the illegitimate
child of one Lucy Hanks.[11] Nor was she the only instance of
illegitimacy[12] in a family which, by all accounts, seems to have been
very low in the social scale. Mr. Herndon calls them by the dread name
of "poor whites," and gives an unappetizing sketch of them.[13]
Throughout his pages and those of Lamon there is abundant and
disagreeable evidence to show the correctness of his estimate. Nancy
Hanks herself, who certainly was not to blame for her parentage, and
perhaps may have improved matters by an infusion of better blood from
her unknown father, is described by some as a very rare flower to have
bloomed amid the bed of ugly weeds which surrounded her. These friendly
writers make her a gentle, lovely, Christian creature, too delicate long
to survive the roughness of frontier life and the fellowship of the
shiftless rover to whom she was unfittingly wedded.[14] Whatever she may
have been, her picture is exceeding dim, and has been made upon scant
and not unquestionable evidence. Mr. Lincoln seems not often to have
referred to her; but when he did so it was with expressions of affection
for her character and respect for her mental qualities, provided at
least that it was really of her, and not of his stepmother, that he was
speaking, - a matter not clear from doubt.[15]

On June 10, 1806, Thomas Lincoln gave bond in the "just and full sum of
fifty pounds" to marry Nancy Hanks, and two days later, June 12, he did
so, in Washington County, Kentucky.[16] She was then twenty-three years
old. February 12, 1807, their daughter Sarah was born, who was married
and died leaving no issue. February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born;
no other children came save a boy who lived only a few days.

The domestic surroundings amid which the babe came into life were
wretched in the extreme. All the trustworthy evidence depicts a
condition of what civilized people call misery. It is just as well to
acknowledge a fact which cannot now be obscured by any amount of
euphemism. Yet very many of Lincoln's biographers have been greatly
concerned to color this truth, which he himself, with his honest nature,
was never willing to misrepresent, however much he resisted efforts to
give it a general publicity. He met curious inquiry with reticence, but
with no attempt to mislead. Some of his biographers, however, while
shunning direct false statements, have used alleviating adjectives with
literary skill, and have drawn fanciful pictures of a pious frugal
household, of a gallant frontiersman endowed with a long catalogue of
noble qualities, and of a mother like a Madonna in the wilderness.[17]
Yet all the evidence that there is goes to show that this romantic
coloring is purely illusive. Rough, coarse, low, ignorant, and
poverty-stricken surroundings were about the child; and though we may
gladly avail ourselves of the possibility of believing his mother to
have been superior to all the rest of it, yet she could by no means
leaven the mass. The father[18] was by calling a carpenter, but not good
at his trade, a shiftless migratory squatter by invincible tendency,
and a very ignorant man, for a long while able only to form the letters
which made his signature, though later he extended his accomplishments a
little. He rested not much above the very bottom of existence in the
pioneer settlements, apparently without capacity or desire to do better.
The family was imbued with the peculiar, intense, but unenlightened form
of Christianity, mingled with curious superstition, prevalent in the
backwoods, and begotten by the influence of the vast wilderness upon
illiterate men of a rude native force. It interests scholars to trace
the evolutions of religious faiths, but it might be not less suggestive
to study the retrogression of religion into superstition. Thomas was as
restless in matters of creed as of residence, and made various changes
in both during his life. These were, however, changes without
improvement, and, so far as he was concerned, his son Abraham might have
grown up to be what he himself was contented to remain.

It was in the second year after his marriage that Thomas Lincoln made
his first removal. Four years later he made another. Two or three years
afterwards, in the autumn of 1816, he abandoned Kentucky and went into
Indiana. Some writers have given to this migration the interesting
character of a flight from a slave-cursed society to a land of freedom,
but whatever poetic fitness there might be in such a motive, the
suggestion is entirely gratuitous and without the slightest
foundation.[19] In making this move, Thomas's outfit consisted of a
trifling parcel of tools and cooking utensils, with ever so little
bedding, and four hundred gallons of whiskey. At his new quarters he
built a "half-faced camp" fourteen feet square, that is to say, a
covered shed of three sides, the fourth side being left open to the
weather. In this, less snug than the winter's cave of a bear, the family
dwelt for a year, and then were translated to the luxury of a "cabin,"
four-walled indeed, but which for a long while had neither floor, door,
nor window. Amid this hardship and wretchedness Nancy Lincoln passed
away, October 5, 1818, of that dread and mysterious disease, the scourge
of those pioneer communities, known as the "milk-sickness."[20] In a
rough coffin, fashioned by her husband "out of green lumber cut with a
whip-saw," she was laid away in the forest clearing, and a few months
afterward an itinerant preacher performed some funeral rites over the
poor woman's humble grave.

For a year Thomas Lincoln was a widower. Then he went back to Kentucky,
and found there Mrs. Sally Johnston, a widow, whom, when she was the
maiden Sarah Bush, he had loved and courted, and by whom he had been
refused. He now asked again, and with better success. The marriage was a
little inroad of good luck into his career; for the new wife was thrifty
and industrious, with the ambition and the capacity to improve the
squalid condition of her husband's household. She had, too, worldly
possessions of bedding and furniture, enough to fill a four-horse wagon.
She made her husband put a floor, a door, and windows to his cabin. From
the day of her advent a new spirit made itself felt amid the belongings
of the inefficient Thomas. Her immediate effort was to make her new
husband's children "look a little more human," and the youthful Abraham
began to get crude notions of the simpler comforts and decencies of
life. All agree that she was a stepmother to whose credit it is to be
said that she manifested an intelligent kindness towards Abraham.

The opportunities for education were scant enough in that day and place.
In his childhood in Kentucky Abraham got a few weeks with one teacher,
and then a few weeks with another. Later, in Indiana, he studied a few
months, in a scattered way. Probably he had instruction at home, for the
sum of all the schooling which he had in his whole life was hardly one
year;[21] a singular start upon the road to the presidency of the United
States! The books which he saw were few, but a little later he laid
hands upon them all and read and re-read them till he must have absorbed
all their strong juice into his own nature. Nicolay and Hay give the
list: The Bible; "Aesop's Fables;" "Robinson Crusoe;" "The Pilgrim's
Progress;" a history of the United States; Weems's "Washington." He was
doubtless much older when he devoured the Revised Statutes of Indiana in
the office of the town constable. Dr. Holland adds Lives of Henry Clay
and of Franklin (probably the famous autobiography), and Ramsay's
"Washington;" and Arnold names Shakespeare and Burns. It was a small
library, but nourishing. He used to write and to do sums in arithmetic
on the wooden shovel by the fireside, and to shave off the surface in
order to renew the labor.

As he passed from boyhood to youth his mental development took its
characteristics from the popular demand of the neighborhood. He
scribbled verses and satirical prose, wherein the coarse wit was adapted
to the taste of the comrades whom it was designed to please; and it must
be admitted that, after giving due weight to all ameliorating
considerations, it is impossible to avoid disappointment at the
grossness of the jesting. No thought, no word raised it above the low
level of the audience made up of the laborers on the farms and the
loungers in the groceries. The biographer who has made public "The First
Chronicles of Reuben" deserves to be held in detestation.[22]

A more satisfactory form of intellectual effervescence consisted in
writing articles on the American Government, Temperance, etc., and in
speech-making to any who were near at the moment of inspiration. There
is abundant evidence, also, that already Lincoln was regarded as a witty
fellow, a rare mimic, and teller of jokes and stories; and therefore was
the champion of the fields and the favorite of all the primitive social
gatherings. This sort of life and popularity had its perils, for in that
day and region men seldom met without drinking together; but all
authorities are agreed that Lincoln, while the greatest talker, was the
smallest drinker.

The stories told of his physical strength rival those which decorate the
memory of Hercules. Others, which show his kindly and humane nature, are
more valuable. Any or all of these may or may not be true, and, though
they are not so poetical or marvelous as the myths which lend an antique
charm to the heroes of classic and romantic lore, yet they compare
fairly well with those which Weems has twined about the figure of the
youthful Washington. There is a tale of the rescue of a pig from a
quagmire, and another of the saving of a drunken man from freezing.
There are many stories of fights; others of the lifting of enormous
weights; and even some of the doing of great feats of labor in a day,
though for such tasks Lincoln had no love. These are not worth
recounting; there is store of such in every village about the popular
local hero; and though historians by such folk-lore may throw a glamour
about Lincoln's daily life, he himself, at the time, could hardly have
seen much that was romantic or poetical in the routine of ill-paid labor
and hard living. Until he came of age his "time" belonged to his father,
who let him out to the neighbors for any job that offered, making him a
man-of-all-work, without-doors and within. In 1825 he was thus earning
six dollars a month, presumably besides board and lodging. Sometimes he
slaughtered hogs, at thirty-one cents a day; and in this "rough work" he
was esteemed especially efficient. Such was the making of a President in
the United States in this nineteenth century!

Thomas Lincoln, like most men of his stamp, had the cheerful habit of
laying the results of his own worthlessness to the charge of the
conditions about him, which, naturally, he constantly sought to change,
since it seemed that no change could bring him to a lower level than he
had already found. As Abraham approached his "freedom-day," his luckless
parent conceived the notion that he might do better in Illinois than he
had done in Indiana. So he shuffled off the farm, for which he had never
paid, and about the middle of February the family caravan, with their
scanty household wares packed in an ox team, began a march which lasted
fourteen days and entailed no small measure of hardship. They finally
stopped at a bluff on the north bank of the north fork of the Sangamon,
a stream which empties into the Ohio. Here Thomas Lincoln renewed the
familiar process of "starting in life," and with an axe, a saw, and a
knife built a rough cabin of hewed logs, with a smoke-house and
"stable." Abraham, aided by John Hanks, cleared ten or fifteen acres of
land, split the rails and fenced it, planted it with corn, and made it
over to Thomas as a sort of bequest at the close of his term of legal
infancy. His subsequent relationship with his parents, especially with
his father, seems to have been slight, involving an occasional gift of
money, a very rare visit, and finally a commonplace letter of Christian
comfort when the old man was on his deathbed.[23]

At first Abraham's coming of age made no especial change in his
condition; he continued to find such jobs as he could, as an example of
which Is mentioned his bargain with Mrs. Nancy Miller "to split four
hundred rails for every yard of brown jeans dyed with white walnut bark
that would be necessary to make him a pair of trousers." After many
months there arrived in the neighborhood one Denton Offut, one of those
scheming, talkative, evanescent busybodies who skim vaguely over new
territories. This adventurer had a cargo of hogs, pork, and corn, which
he wanted to send to New Orleans, and the engagement fell to Lincoln and
two comrades at the wage of fifty cents per day and a bonus of $60 for
the three. It has been said that this and a preceding trip down the
Mississippi first gave Lincoln a glimpse of slavery in concrete form,
and that the spectacle of negroes "in chains, whipped and scourged,"
and of a slave auction, implanted in his mind an "unconquerable hate"
towards the institution, so that he exclaimed: "If ever I get a chance
to hit that thing, I'll hit it hard." So the loquacious myth-maker John
Hanks asserts;[24] but Lincoln himself refers his first vivid impression
to a later trip, made in 1841, when there were "on board ten or a dozen
slaves shackled together with irons." Of this subsequent incident he
wrote, fourteen years later, to his friend, Joshua Speed: "That sight
was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I
touch the Ohio or any other slave border. It is not fair for you to
assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually
exercises, the power of making me miserable."[25]

Of more immediate consequence was the notion which the rattle-brained
Offut conceived of Lincoln's general ability. This lively patron now
proposed to build a river steamboat, with "runners for ice and rollers
for shoals and dams," of which his redoubtable young employee was to be
captain. But this strange scheme gave way to another for opening in New
Salem a "general store" of all goods. This small town had been born only
a few months before this summer of 1831, and was destined to a brief but
riotous life of some seven years' duration. Now it had a dozen or
fifteen "houses," of which some had cost only ten dollars for the
building; yet to the sanguine Offut it presented a fair field for retail
commerce. He accordingly equipped his "store," and being himself engaged
in other enterprises, he installed Lincoln as manager. Soon he also gave
Lincoln a mill to run.

Besides all this patronage, Offut went about the region bragging in his
extravagant way that his clerk "knew more than any man in the United
States," would some day be President, and could now throw or thrash any
man in those parts. Now it so happened that some three miles out from
New Salem lay Clary's Grove, the haunt of a gang of frontier ruffians of
the familiar type, among whom one Jack Armstrong was champion bully.
Offut's boasting soon rendered an encounter between Lincoln and
Armstrong inevitable, though Lincoln did his best to avoid it, and
declared his aversion to "this woolling and pulling." The wrestling
match was arranged, and the settlers flocked to it like Spaniards to a
bull-fight. Battle was joined and Lincoln was getting the better of
Armstrong, whereupon the "Clary's Grove boys," with fine chivalry, were
about to rush in upon Lincoln and maim him, or worse, when the timely
intervention of a prominent citizen possibly saved even the life of the
future President.[26] Some of the biographers, borrowing the license of
poets, have chosen to tell about the "boys" and the wrestling match
with such picturesque epithets that the combat bids fair to appear to
posterity as romantic as that of Friar Tuck and Robin Hood. Its
consequence was that Armstrong and Lincoln were fast friends ever after.
Wherever Lincoln was at work, Armstrong used to "do his loafing," and
Lincoln made visits to Clary's Grove, and long afterward did a friendly
service to "old Hannah," Armstrong's wife, by saving one of her vicious
race from the gallows, which upon that especial occasion he did not
happen to deserve. Also Armstrong and his gang gave Lincoln hearty
political support, and an assistance at the polls which was very
effective, for success generally smiled on that candidate who had as his
constituency[27] the "butcher-knife boys," the "barefooted boys," the
"half-horse, half-alligator men," and the "huge-pawed boys."

An item less susceptible of a poetic coloring is that about this time
Lincoln ransacked the neighborhood in search of an English grammar, and
getting trace of one six miles out from the settlement, he walked over
to borrow or to buy it. He brought it back in triumph, and studied it

There are also some tales of his honesty which may stand without
disgrace beside that of Washington and the cherry-tree, and may be
better entitled to credit. It is said that, while he was "keeping shop"
for Offut, a woman one day accidentally overpaid him by the sum of
fourpence, and that he walked several miles that night to restore the
sum to her before he slept. On another occasion, discovering that in
selling half a pound of tea he had used too small a weight, he started
instantly forth to make good the deficiency. Perhaps this integrity does
not so much differentiate Lincoln from his fellows as it may seem to do,
for it is said that honesty was the one distinguishing virtue of that
queer society. None the less these legends are exponents, which the
numerous fighting stories are not, of the genuine nature of the man. His
chief trait all his life long was honesty of all kinds and in all
things; not only commonplace, material honesty in dealings, but honesty
in language, in purpose, in thought; _honesty of mind_, so that he could
never even practice the most tempting of all deceits, a deceit against
himself. This pervasive honesty was the trait of his identity, which
stayed with him from beginning to end, when other traits seemed to be
changing, appearing or disappearing, and bewildering the observer of his
career. All the while the universal honesty was there.

It took less than a year for Offut's shop to come to ruin, for the
proprietor to wander off into the unknown void from which he had come,
and for Lincoln to find himself again without occupation. He won some
local reputation by navigating the steamboat Talisman up the Sangamon
River to Springfield; but nothing came of it.

The foregoing narrative ought to have given some idea of the moral and
physical surroundings of Lincoln's early days. Americans need to carry
their memories hardly fifty years back, in order to have a lively
conception of that peculiar body of men which for many years was pushed
out in front of civilization in the West. Waifs and strays from highly
civilized communities, these wanderers had not civilization to learn,
but rather they had shuffled off much that belonged to civilization, and
afterwards they had to acquire it afresh. Among them crudity in thought
and uncouthness in habits were intertwined in odd, incongruous crossings
with the remnants of the more respectable customs with which they had
once been familiar. Much they forgot and much they put away as being no
longer useful; many of them - not all - became very ignorant without being
stupid, very brutal without being barbarous. Finding life hard, they
helped each other with a general kindliness which is impracticable among
the complexities of elaborate social organizations. Those who were born
on the land, among whom Lincoln belonged, were peculiar in having no
reminiscences, no antecedent ideas derived from their own past, whereby
to modify the influences of the immediate present. What they should
think about men and things they gathered from what they saw and heard
around them. Even the modification to be got from reading was of the
slightest, for very little reading was possible, even if desired. An
important trait of these Western communities was the closeness of
personal intercourse in them, and the utter lack of any kind of barriers
establishing strata of society. Individuals might differ ever so widely;
but the wisest and the dullest, the most worthless and the most
enterprising, had to rub shoulder to shoulder in daily life. Yet the
variety was considerable: hardy and danger-loving pioneers fulfilling
the requirements of romance; shiftless vagrants curiously combining
utter inefficiency with a sort of bastard contempt for hardship;
ruffians who could only offset against every brutal vice an ignoble
physical courage; intelligent men whose observant eyes ranged over the
whole region in a shrewd search after enterprise and profit; a few
educated men, decent in apparel and bearing, useful in legislation and
in preventing the ideal from becoming altogether vulgarized and debased;
and others whose energy was chiefly of the tongue, the class imbued with
a taste for small politics and the public business. All these and many
other varieties were like ingredients cast together into a caldron; they
could not keep apart, each with his own kind, to the degree which is
customary in old established communities; but they all ceaselessly
crossed and mingled and met, and talked, and dealt, and helped and
hustled each other, and exerted upon each other that subtle inevitable
influence resulting from such constant intercourse; and so they
inoculated each other with certain characteristics which became common
to all and formed the type of the early settler. Thus was made "the new
West," "the great West," which was pushed ever onward, and endured along
each successive frontier for about a generation. An eternal movement, a
tireless coming and going, pervaded these men; they passed hither and
thither without pause, phantasmagorically; they seemed to be forever
"moving on," some because they were real pioneers and natural rovers,
others because they were mere vagrants generally drifting away from
creditors, others because the better chance seemed ever in the newer
place, and all because they had struck no roots, gathered no
associations, no home ties, no local belongings. The shopkeeper "moved
on" when his notes became too pressing; the schoolmaster, after a short
stay, left his school to some successor whose accomplishments could
hardly be less than his own; clergymen ranged vaguely through the
country, to preach, to pray, to bury, to marry, as the case might be;
farmers heard of a more fruitful soil, and went to seek it. Men
certainly had at times to work hard in order to live at all, yet it was
perfectly possible for the natural idler to rove, to loaf, and to be
shiftless at intervals, and to become as demoralized as the tramp for
whom a shirt and trousers are the sum of worldly possessions. Books were
scarce; many teachers hardly had as much book-learning as lads of
thirteen years now have among ourselves. Men who could neither read nor
write abounded, and a deficiency so common could hardly imply much
disgrace or a marked inferiority; many learned these difficult arts only
in mature years. Fighting was a common pastime, and when these rough
fellows fought, they fought like savages; Lincoln's father bit off his
adversary's nose in a fight, and a cousin lost the same feature in the
same way; the "gouging" of eyes was a legitimate resource. The necessity
of fighting might at any moment come to any one; even the combination of
a peaceable disposition with formidable strength did not save Lincoln
from numerous personal affrays, of which many are remembered, and not
improbably many more have been forgotten. In spite of the picturesque
adjectives which have been so decoratively used in describing the
ruffian of the frontier, he seems to have been about what his class
always is; and when these fellows had forced a fight, or "set up" a
match, their chivalry never prevented any unfairness or brutality. A
tale illustrative of the times is told of a closely contested election
in the legislature for the office of state treasurer. The worsted
candidate strode into the hall of the Assembly, and gallantly selecting
four of the largest and strongest of those who had voted against him,
thrashed them soundly. The other legislators ran away. But before the
close of the session this pugilist, who so well understood practical

Online LibraryJohn T. MorseAbraham Lincoln, Volume I → online text (page 2 of 24)