New Light on Lincoln's Boyhood

"Abe Lincoln's few schooldays were spent at a 'blab school': that is, one in which the children 'read out,' Chinese fashion, at the tops of their voices."

It is only by comparison with its surrounding that we can get a true idea of the character and the significance of the Lincoln home. The present-day sod-house of the far western Canadian home-steader is a self-respecting structure, housing the family and reasonably serving its purpose under primitive conditions. But if we compare it to even a poorly equipped tenement house in New York City, the sod-house, in its dirt and its lack of light, air, and sanitation, seems intolerable. The general conditions in and about the home of Thomas Lincoln have been described with reasonable accuracy, but through implied comparison with different conditions of living, they have been made to appear exceptionally poor and mean. The fact seems to be that Thomas Lincoln in his home life arrived at about the same stage of development as his neighbors. If the boy Abraham had grown up in any neighboring home, his habits of life and his physical surroundings would have been about the same. Modern life has swept away most of this primitive culture, but to-day, in out-of-the-way regions of the Ozarks, are still to be found homes where Thomas Lincoln might drop in and feel at ease.

Commerce, other than neighborhood barter, hardly existed in Thomas Lincoln's environment. The neighborhood was very nearly complete in itself, furnishing its own food, cloth, shoes, and farm-equipment. There being no market for corn, there was little incentive to raise more than could be used at home. This spirit still lingers in out-of-the-way places, where, in response to the question, 'How much corn did you raise this year?' I frequently have received the answer, 'We raised plenty of corn,' or 'All the corn that we need.' The doctor spoke of the gratification in the early days over an extra large crop, its significance being that it would not be necessary to raise so much the following year. With little to buy, and with still less to sell, the environment seemed to furnish small stimulus to commercial ambition.

Many people have asked how it could come to pass that Lincoln, growing up in a mean environment, and lacking culture and education, could become 'the first American,' and interpreter of democracy to all the world. As a primary essential, he was of sound stock, and had great personal capacity. But that was not all. Very generally, American public men before Lincoln had grown up in the environment of slave and free, master and servant, employer and employee, rich and poor, aristocrat and plebeian. How many of them were born and bred aristocrats, trying to interpret democracy to America? But Lincoln grew up in a democracy. The economic equality of his boyhood neighbors would satisfy an advanced social revolutionist to-day. None were rich, and none without food and shelter. If one man worked for another, it was to accumulate a stake, that he might soon become independent. It was not necessary for Abraham Lincoln out of his mind to create a new conception of democracy. He grew up in a democracy, observed it, and appreciated it, and then lived and spoke what was in his heart. As a man, he did his best to do away with the physical limitations of this boyhood environment by the building of roads and by encouraging industry, while at the same time endeavoring to retain equality of opportunity. He did not confuse primitive living with democracy. The primitive environment of Lincoln's boyhood strongly favored this economic equality. The country was newly settled by vigorous, adventurous men, who had brought little or no property with them. There had not been time for separation of those of greater and less natural ability. There were no immediate traditions of aristocracy or of servitude. The lack of transportation, of markets, and of cities prevented the accumulation of wealth, while free land, free fuel and building material, and abundance of wild game, prevented poverty from being acute. Everyone had to work for a living, and everyone could get a living by working.

Venison was abundant, but was considered too 'dry' to be palatable, unless cooked with plenty of pork. Potatoes were not a common food, though they were occasionally raised. As Lincoln's neighbors were not aware that they could be gathered and stored for winter use, they were dug from time to time as they were used, until they froze or rotted in the ground. Very few vegetables were known. Wild berries and, after some years, apples and peaches were available during their seasons, but there was no knowledge of canning or preserving by modern methods. Black-berries and peaches were preserved in the alcohol caused by their own fermentation, and sometimes apples were sliced and strung on strings to dry in the sun. Very little wheat was raised, as it had to be cut with a scythe, threshed with a flail, and carried to some small water-power for grinding. Corn-meal was made by grinding on hand burrs at home, and later at the water-mills that were built on small streams all through the country. A few of the most prosperous people kept milk-cows. During the fall, when hogs were fattening on nuts and acorns, pork was abundant. At other seasons there were wild turkey, bear, venison, coon, squirrels, and ground-hogs. Coffee was rare. The doctor's mother used to tell him of 'the first coffee she ever saw. Her and Abe was at Uncle Jimmie Gentry's, and they didn't know what it was.'

Clothes were as simple as the food. As the doctor related, 'Abe, after he was fourteen years old, had a pair of leather pants made from deer-hides. All the shoes they had were made at home from home-dried hides, one pair a year, and they came along about Christmas. Abe, after he was grown up, had a shirt of home-made linen, dyed with walnut bark.'

In reply to my direct question whether the recorded statements of 'Uncle Tom's' shiftlessness were true, the doctor replied, 'Well, you see, he was like the other people in that country. None of them worked to get ahead. They wasn't no market for nothing unless you took it across two or three states. The people raised just what they needed.'

John Hanks in Oregon expressed himself very strongly as to the comparative status of Thomas Lincoln. He held that 'Uncle Tom' was not poor as compared with his neighbors, but that along with them he lived under primitive conditions.

Not only did Thomas Lincoln meet the usual social and commercial standard of success, but in two instances he gave evidence of aspiring to a larger life than his neighborhood afforded. The first case was his effort to bring with him a boat-load of whiskey from Kentucky to Indiana. The doctor related this story substantially as it is given in other sources. 'Uncle Tom went ahead of the family with a boat-load of whiskey. He had several barrels. On the way down Rolling Fork, I believe it was' (on other occasions the doctor called this Roaring Fork and Little Fork), 'his boat upset and he came nigh losing all of his whiskey. He did not lose it all.'

On a later date, after the death of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and before Thomas Lincoln married a second time, he tried again to break into a larger field of activity. To use the doctor's words, 'Uncle Tom left his trade and thought he would go into the speculatin' business. He made him a flat boat, and bought a load of pork--mostly on time. Pork was cheap them days. The hogs fattened on mast' (nuts and acorns), 'and didn't cost them nothing. He started down the Patocah, and then down the Ohio. He got way down there somewhere by Devil's Island, and his flat boat upset and he lost everything, and pretty nigh got drowned himself. He didn't have no boat to come back with, and so he came back up the river on foot, all the way. Then he went to work at his trade again, and paid up all his debt.'

The fact that Thomas Lincoln paid his debts after this experience, a labor which required several years, was repeatedly impressed upon me during my various visits with the doctor. The family traditions are colored throughout with a high regard for Thomas Lincoln's character, for his patience, kindness of heart, and honesty, and his finer sensibilities. Frequent reference was made to his consideration in disciplining his children. 'Uncle Tom would not whip Abe or scold him before folk, but he would take him by himself and tend to him after they was gone. People in them days believed that whipping was good for children. Ma said she must have been pretty good, because she never got reproved or scolded very much.'

The doctor outlined Thomas Lincoln's calling in this manner. 'Uncle Tom was a wheelwright. In them days it was a pretty good trade. You see, in them days every family had to have a big spinning-wheel and a little wheel. Uncle Tom made the little wheels. In a family where there were several girls they had sometimes three or four wheels.' The doctor's sister gave a similar account, drawing particular attention to the fact that Uncle Tom was a maker of 'little wheels.'

Perhaps a year after the death of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Thomas Lincoln made a short trip to Kentucky, and while there married a widow, a Mrs. Johnson. 'Mother said she was his old sweetheart, before he ever saw Nancy Hanks,' related the doctor. 'When he went back, I guess he had her in view. When he got there she was washing in the yard. He went along just like he was walking by, and leant up against the fence and talked to her. He proposed marriage, and she said, "I owe too much." "How much?" Uncle Tom asked her, and she replied, "Two dollars and a half." Uncle Tom volunteered, "If that's all, I'll pay that"; and the match was made up right there. I've heard mother laughing about that many a time.'

While Mrs. Johnson was lacking in ready money, yet according to the doctor, 'She was right good for property. She had right smart.' And Uncle Tom brought back, not only a wife, but a wagonload of her furniture. 'She inquired and found out all about Uncle Tom, and how he stood in business.' In describing his possessions, 'Uncle Tom told her all about the bed he had, how it stood so high from the floor on four corner posts, and had a top bent over so; an' he told her all about it, like it was a wonderful bed. And I have heerd mother tell about when his new wife saw that bed. She stood there in the doorway and looked and looked at it, and then she laughed. She said everything Uncle Tom had told her was true, but she thought it was some fine bed, and it was only a hickory one he had made himself. An' the fine top was a hickory pole that come up from behind the bed, an' he had bent it over and bored a hole in the wall and put it through the hole. You see, he was a wheelwright, and could do good work at such things.'

'Mother told me many times,' said the doctor, 'about the first house Uncle Tom built when he came to Indiana. It was a three-cornered house, made out of three rows of logs, with a fireplace in one corner.' He lived just through the winter in this shanty. In talking about it, he called it his 'winter castle.' 'How I come to know what kind of a house Abe Linkhorn lived in,' said the doctor, 'mother an I was coming from Jasper to limestone Valley one night when we come to a little house this side of Limestone Valley, and she made me drive around it. She said it was just like the house Abe Linkhorn lived in. Uncle Tom built another house afterwards.'

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