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."

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. During his boyhood nearly all schools in his neighborhood were of that type. Later the silent school competed for public approval. The supporters of the 'blab-school' idea held that it prepared for actual life; that a child who could master his lessons in such a din could think and read without distraction in any other environment. Perhaps the fact that most of these people had no place to read except in a one-room or two-room log cabin, surrounded by large family, may have added zest to their partisanship.

The doctor's mother, Sophie Hanks, attended school with Lincoln. She remembered that it was a long walk, about three and a half miles, and that going and coming Abe frequently could be heard 'reading out' in the approved manner, so that he was audible at a considerable distance from the path. Dennis Hanks went to school at the same time, though for a shorter period than Abe or Sophie. Sophie Hanks's knowledge of Abe's schooldays was limited to the period in Indiana, under the teachers Swaney and Crawford, During this period his attendance never was regular, and he sometimes would be absent for several days at a time. According to the doctor's sister, when Abe was small, 'just a slip of a feller,' he was 'to'lable lazy,' and did not like school. The doctor insisted that Abe was not lazy; 'but he was easy-going.' He was a good hand at anything he undertook, 'but he didn't hunt work.'

The doctor had a version of Lincoln's discovery of a grammar. 'A school-master told Linkhorn one day that if he wanted to talk and write correctly he ought to learn grammar; that that was a standard to show him what speech was right and correct. Linkhorn didn't know they was such a thing as a standard of speech for language; and when the schoolmaster told him this, he walked twelve miles to get a Kirkem's grammar, and he kept it right with him till he knew it by heart. They wasn't anything in it he didn't know. Kirkem's grammar was putty near a leading grammar in them days. It was a good grammar because it explained the reason for everything.'

The tradition is that Abe got so he could 'beat the teacher' at his lessons; but the doctor remarked, 'I don't reckon he was much of a teacher.' It is also a part of the account that he 'tried to teacher every day.' But if he did not like to go to school, he did like to read. He borrowed every book in the vicinity. Robinson Crusoe he knew by heart. 'You know that was an old fable years ago,' added the doctor. Among other books Abe read were one or more ancient histories, a history of the United States, and the Arabian Nights.

The usual opinions to the effect that Abraham Lincoln was a sickly child do not find support in the stories handed down by the doctor's mother, who grew up with him. 'He was very firm and straight,' both physically and morally. He 'grew up very early,' and was large for his years. Sophie Hanks evidently was much impressed with Abe's physical ability. 'If they was anyone that was an expert at any kind of athletics,' related the doctor, 'Abe could do it better. I've heerd mother say many time that Abe would stand flat on his feet and lean back till his head would touch the floor. I got so I could stand on a trundle bed and lean back till my head touched the bed, but I was always afraid to try it on the floor for fear I would fall and hurt myself. It was mother telling me about Abe Linkhorn that started me at it. One of my playmates got so he could stand on the flat of his feet and reach backwards and touch the ground.'

So much for the noble example. 'He would stand on a corn-cob and turn enunder it.' I thought to take the opportunity to correct statements which have been written to the effect that Abe Lincoln was fond of cock-fighting; but the reply I got to my inquiry was, 'Cock-fighting was very prevalent in those days, and Abe took considerable interest in it.'

He hunted a great deal. 'I remember mother telling about the first time he killed a turkey,' related the doctor. 'He brought it home and told the people all evening about killing that turkey, and when he went to sleep, he talked in his sleep most of the night about that turkey. The folks deviled him in the morning for talking about the turkey in his sleep.'

He did not use tobacco as a boy, was not profane, and did not drink whiskey' except as Uncle Tom would have all the children to drink a dram before breakfast for health.' John Hanks, of Douglas County, Oregon, remembered the only time he saw Lincoln touch whiskey. It was at a bee-hunt. Lincoln mixed some honey with whiskey, tasted it, and said, 'Den, that tastes pretty good.' His only recorded illness was an occasional attack of malaria. The nickname, 'honest Abe,' attached to him while he was a boy.

Another commonly accepted belief which the doctor vigorously resented is that which holds Lincoln to have been sober and gloomy. According to the traditions of this family, he was just the reverse--bright, full of life and of fun, and very talkative. 'He was quick to learn, forgot nothing, and always wanted to tell what he knew.' The doctor repeated many times accounts of Abe's weakness for 'putting in' or interrupting a conversation when, in the relation of some incident, the truth would be departed from, or some item of the account which he considered important would be left out. 'And when the company would leave, Uncle Tom would take Abe and talk to him about "putting in" when older people were talking.' This tendency to break into a conversation was mentioned as Abe's outstanding weakness.

He did not like girls' company, but was 'a great fellow to be with the boys.' He was known for good-nature, even temper, and for seldom becoming angry. He would go to all the dances in the country, but would not dance. Off at one side, with the boys gathered around him, he would tell jokes and funny stories, and would relate what he had read. For their further edification he would turn handsprings, stand flat-footed, and lean back until his head would touch the ground (this last item was many times related, and evidently formed a substantial part of the basis of the doctor's admiration for Lincoln), and would perform many other athletic stunts. Sometimes at such dances, 'it would be hard to get enough boys to stand for a set,' because Abe's company was more interesting. At wrestling, 'nobody ever throwed Abe unless he was a heap bigger than him.'

The commonly repeated stories about Lincoln's reading by a fireplace at night are supported by these family accounts. The doctor's sister said, 'I've heerd mamma tell about how Abe would gather brush of an evening to make a light with of a night to read by. He would lay down with his feet THERE away from the fire and his head THERE by the fire, and he would read a long time.' He was an eager listener. 'Whenever anyone was talking, Abe was right there.' He observed keenly, and never forgot.

The self-reliance so evident in later life was not absent during Lincoln's boyhood, as the following story indicates. It was at the time of Thomas Lincoln's trip down the river after the death of Lincoln's mother, and before Thomas was married the second time.

'When Uncle Tom went away, he left Abe and his sister and my mother there, and left one fat hog in the pen. It was a big, fat hog. The way she said, I guess it would weigh nigh two hundred pounds. He said if they got out of feed, they could go over and get Mr. Greathouse to kill the hog for them. Mr. Greathouse was a neighbor and a little o'kin. When the hog was needed, Abe said they wouldn't go get Greathouse to kill the hog. He said they would kill it themselves. So Abe went over to Greathouse's when Mr. Greathouse wasn't to home, and Mrs. Greathouse let him take the gun. He must have been a little feller, 'cause ma said, when she see him coming the shot-pouch hung almost to his knee.

'Abe took the gun out to the pen, and pointed it through the rails,--so,--and took aim and shot the hog dead all right. And then he and my mother went into the pen and tried to take the hog out. But they couldn't budge it. So they went and got some boards and put them down in the pen, and they had the water already hot, and they took the entrails out, an' cut it up right there in the pen, and carried it out in pieces. And they did a pretty good job.'

John Hanks, the Oregon relative, gave the very confidential information that 'Lincoln was as much of a infidel as anyone could be. I wouldn't like to say how much; but he was good and moral.' When I quoted this to the doctor on a later visit, he replied, 'There was a sense in him that he could not narrow himself to the religion of that time. In them days, if a man doubted the Bible being exactly true in everything, and if he did not believe in fire and brimstone, he was called an infidel. Lincoln said he could take some things from all the churches and make a better church than any of them. If Lincoln was an infidel, a good part of the people is coming to believe like he did.'

This family's knowledge of Abraham Lincoln fades away where our more complete knowledge of his life begins. Telling his story of how Lincoln grew up in Indiana, the doctor concluded,--

And then by and by Uncle Tom's other wife died, and he and Abe went away. They went to Sangamon County, Illinois, and Abe drove a pair of steers all the way. We don't know much about Abe's life after he left Indiana, but some of the men Linkhorn knew in Illinois has written things about his early life. And they has made mistakes. Some of the things they say is true and some ain't true.' The doctor recounted sketchily a few items of Lincoln's early days in Illinois. 'And then Abe, he got the post-office over there, an' he got work in the store, and then bymeby they got him into the legislature. One of the first things he done while he was a statesman was when they was a bill up to move the capital from Vandalia to Springfield. The legislatures used to meet then at Vandalia. One day all the friends of Springfield was away, and they was a quorum and the sargent was there and wouldn't let anybody out. And they was goin' to pass their bill while the friends of Springfield wasn't there. And Abe, he went to the window and hung out and dropped about fourteen feet. And four or five other fellows followed him, and he busted the quorum that way. But the time the people begun to find out what Abe was good for, was when he began to have them talks with Mr. Douglas.'

Several of the places and persons associated with Lincoln's boyhood were more or less familiar to the doctor. Concerning Thomas Lincoln's neighbor, Mr. Gentry, he said, 'My mother lived for a short time with him. He thought a sight of her and Abe. She never had a better friend. She always spoke of him as Uncle Jimmy Gentry. I think he was a distant relative, and was a good liver for that time. It seems to me he kept a little store, but I am not sure. Gentry-ville took its name from him.'

The Johnson boys, sons of Thomas Lincoln's second wife, did not stand high in the family estimation. Abe found it necessary to restrain his step-brothers from vulgarity and common coarseness of behavior. In case of dispute, Abe's word was always taken over theirs. When these stepbrothers tried to explain themselves out of a scrape, they frequently were confronted with the remark, 'Wait till Abe comes, and then we will know the truth about it.'

When I asked the doctor about the various reports that Abraham Lincoln was an illegitimate child, he replied, 'Those stories about Abraham Linkhorn being an illegitimate child are untrue. Aunt Nancy and Uncle Tom were married regular. But his mother was an illegitimate child. I have always understood that from what my mother said about it. But my cousin said that his mother told him that our grandmother Hanks and Linkhorn's mother were half-sisters and also cousins. My mother never told me that, but I have often heard her say that we were badly mixed.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In