THE YOUTH OF LINCOLN
E WAS long; he was strong; he was wiry. He was never sick, was
always good-natured, never a bully, always a friend of the weak, the
small and the unprotected. He must have been a funny-looking boy.
His skin was sallow, and his hair was black, He wore a
linsey-woolsey shirt, buckskin breeches, a coonskin cap, and heavy
"clumps" of shoes. He grew so fast that his breeches never came down
to the tops of his shoes, and, instead of stockings, you could
always see "twelve inches of shinbones," sharp, blue, and narrow. He
laughed much, was always ready to give and take jokes and hard
knocks, had a squeaky, changing voice, a small head, big ears—and
was always what Thackeray called "a gentle-man." Such was Abraham
Lincoln at fifteen.
He was never cruel, mean, or unkind. His first composition was on
cruelty to animals, written because he had tried to make the other
boys stop "teasin' tarrypins"—that is, catching turtles and putting
hot coals on their backs just to make them move along lively. He had
to work hard at home; for his father would not, and things needed to
be attended to if "the place" was to be kept from dropping to
He became a great reader. He read every book and newspaper he could
get hold of, and if he came across anything in his reading that he
wished to remember he would copy it on a shingle, because writing
 scarce, and either learn it by heart or hide the shingle
away until he could get some paper to copy it on. His father thought
he read too much. "It will spile him for work," he said. "He don't
do half enough about the place, as it is, now, and books and papers
ain't no good." But Abraham, with all his reading, did more work
than his father any day; his stepmother, too, took his side and at
last got her husband to let the boy read and study at home. "Abe was
a good son to me," she said, many many years after, "and we took
particular care when he was reading not to disturb him. We would
just let him read on and on till he quit of his own accord."
The boy kept a sort of shingle scrap-book; he kept a paper
scrap-book, too. Into these he would put whatever he cared
to keep—poetry, history, funny sayings, fine passages.
He had a scrap-book
for his arithmetic "sums," too, and one of these is still in
existence with this boyish rhyme in a boyish scrawl, underneath one
of his tables of weights and measures:
his hand and pen
he will be good but
god knows when.
God did know when; and that boy, all unconsciously, was working
toward the day when his hand and pen were to do more for humanity
than any other hand or pen of modern times.
Lamps and candles were almost unknown in his home, and Abraham, flat
on his stomach, would often do his reading, writing, and ciphering
in the firelight, as it flashed and flickered on the big hearth of
his log-cabin home. An older cousin, John Hanks, who lived for a
while with the
 Lincolns, says that when "Abe," as he always called
the great President, would come home, as a boy, from his work, he
would go to the cupboard, take a piece of corn bread for his supper,
sit down on a chair, stretch out his long legs until they were
higher than his head—and read, and read, and read. "Abe and I,"
said John Hanks, "worked barefoot; grubbed it, ploughed it, mowed
and cradled it; ploughed corn, gathered corn, and shucked corn, and
Abe read constantly whenever he could get a chance."
One day Abraham found that a man for whom he sometimes worked owned
a copy of Weems's "Life of Washington." This was a famous book in
its day. Abraham borrowed it at once. When he was not reading it, he
put it away on a shelf—a clapboard resting on wooden pins. There
was a big crack between the logs, behind the shelf, and one rainy
day the "Life of Washington" fell into the crack and was soaked
almost into pulp. Old Mr. Crawford, from whom Abraham borrowed the
book, was a cross, cranky, and sour old fellow, and when the boy
told him of the accident he said Abraham must "work the book out."
The boy agreed, and the old farmer kept him so strictly to his
promise that he made him "pull fodder" for the cattle three days, as
payment for the book! And that is the way that Abraham Lincoln
bought his first book. For he dried the copy of Weems's "Life of
Washington" and put it in his "library." But what boy or girl of
today would like to buy books at such a price?
This was the boy-life of Abraham Lincoln. It was a life of poverty,
privation, hard work, little play, and less money. The boy did not
love work. But he worked. His father was rough and often harsh and
hard to him,
 and what Abraham learned was by making the most of his
spare time. He was inquisitive, active, and hardy, and, in his
comfortless boyhood, he was learning lessons of self-denial,
independence, pluck, shrewdness, kindness, and persistence.
In the spring of 1830, there was another "moving time" for the
Lincolns. The corn and the cattle, the farm and its hogs were all
sold at public "vandoo," or auction, at low figures; and with all
their household goods on a big "ironed" wagon drawn by four oxen,
the three related families of Hanks, Hall and Lincoln, thirteen in
all, pushed on through the mud and across rivers, high from the
spring freshets, out of Indiana, into Illinois.
Abraham held the "gad" and guided the oxen. He carried with him,
also, a little stock of pins, needles, thread, and buttons. These he
peddled along the way; and, at last, after fifteen days of slow
travel, the emigrants came to the spot picked out for a home. This
time it was on a small bluff on the north fork of the Sangamon
River, ten miles west of the town of Decatur. The usual log house
was built; the boys, with the oxen, "broke up," or cleared, fifteen
acres of land, and split enough rails to fence it in. Abraham could
swing his broad-axe better than any man or boy in the West; at one
stroke he could bury the axe-blade to the haft, in a log, and he was
already famous as an expert rail-splitter.
By this time his people were settled in their new home, Abraham
Lincoln was twenty-one. He was "of age"—he was a man! By the law of
the land he was freed from his father's control; he could shift for
himself, and he determined to do so. This did not mean that he
disliked his father. It simply meant that he had no intention of
following his father's example. Thomas Lincoln had
 demanded all the
work and all the wages his son could earn or do, and Abraham felt
that he could not have a fair chance to accomplish anything or get
ahead in the world if he continued living with this shiftless,
never-satisfied, do-nothing man.
So he struck out for himself. In the summer of 1830, Abraham left
home and hired out on his own account, wherever he could get a job
in the new country into which he had come. In that region of big
farms and no fences, these latter were needed, and Abraham Lincoln's
stalwart arm and well-swung axe came well into play, cutting up logs
for fences. He was what was called in that western country a
"rail-splitter." Indeed, one of the first things he did when he struck out
for himself was to split four hundred rails for every yard of "blue
jeans" necessary to make him a pair of trousers. From which it will
be seen that work was easier to get than clothes.
He soon became as much of a favourite in Illinois as he had been in
Indiana. Other work came to him, and, in 1831, he "hired out" with a
man named Offutt to help sail a flat-boat down the Mississippi to
New Orleans. Mr. Offutt had heard that "Abe Lincoln" was a good
river-hand, strong, steady, honest, reliable, accustomed to boating,
and that he had already made one trip down the river. So he engaged
young Lincoln at what seemed to the young rail-splitter princely
wages—fifty cents a day, and a third share in the sixty dollars
which was to be divided among the three boatmen at the end of the
They built the flat-boat at a saw mill near a place called Sangamon
town, "Abe" serving as cook of the camp while the boat was being
built. Then, loading the craft with barrel-pork, hogs, and corn,
 on their voyage south. At a place called New Salem the
flat-boat ran aground; but Lincoln's ingenuity got it off. He rigged
up a queer contrivance of his own invention and lifted the boat off
and over the obstruction, while all New Salem stood on the bank,
first to criticise and then to applaud.
Just what this invention was I cannot explain. But if you ever go
into the patent office at Washington, ask to see Abraham Lincoln's
patent for transporting river boats over snags and shoals. The
wooden model is there; for, so pleased was Lincoln with the success
that he thought seriously of becoming an inventor, and his first
design was the patent granted to him in 1849, the idea for which
grew out of this successful floating of Offutt's flat-boat over the
river snags at New Salem nineteen years before.
Once again he visited New Orleans, returning home, as before, by
steamboat. That voyage is remarkable, because it first opened young
Lincoln's eyes to the enormity of African slavery. Of course, he had
seen slaves before; but the sight of a slave sale in the old market
place of New Orleans seems to have aroused his anger and given him
an intense hatred of slave-holding. He, himself, declared, years
after, that it was that visit to New Orleans, that had set him so
strongly against slavery.
There is a story told by one of his companions that Lincoln looked
for a while upon the dreadful scenes of the slave market and then,
turning away, said excitedly, "Come away, boys! If I ever get a
chance, some day, to hit that thing"—and he flung his long arm
toward the dreadful auction block—"I'll hit it hard."
Soon after he returned from his flat-boat trip to New
 Orleans he had
an opportunity to show that he could not and would not stand what is
termed "foul play." The same Mr. Offutt who had hired Lincoln to be
one of his flat-boat "boys," gave him another opportunity for work.
Offutt was what is called in the West a "hustler"; he had lots of
"great ideas" and plans for making money; and, among his numerous
enterprises, was one to open a country store and mill at
New Salem—the very same village on the Sangamon where, by his "patent
invention," Lincoln had lifted the flat-boat off the snags.
Mr. Offutt had taken a great fancy to Lincoln, and offered him a
place as clerk in the New Salem store. The young fellow jumped at
the chance. It seemed to him quite an improvement on being a
farm-hand, a flat-boatman, or a rail-splitter. It was, indeed, a step
upward; for it gave him better opportunities for self-instruction
and more chances for getting ahead.
Offutt's store was a favourite "loafing place" for the New Salem
boys and young men. Among these, were some of the roughest fellows
in the settlement. They were known as the "Clary Grove Boys," and
they were always ready for a fight, in which they would, sometimes,
prove themselves to be bullies and tormentors. When, therefore,
Offutt began to brag about his new clerk the Clary Grove Boys made
fun at him; whereupon the storekeeper cried: "What's that? You can
throw him? Well, I reckon not; Abe Lincoln can out-run, out-walk,
out-rassle, knock out, and throw down any man in Sangamon County."
This was too much for the Clary Grove Boys. They took up Offutt's
challenge, and, against "Abe," set up, as their champion and "best
man," one Jack Armstrong.
 All this was done without Lincoln's knowledge. He had no desire to
get into a row with anyone—least of all with the bullies who made
up the Clary Grove Boys.
"I won't do it," he said, when Offutt told him of the proposed
wrestling match. "I never tussle and scuffle, and I will not. I
don't like this wooling and pulling."
"Don't let them call you a coward, Abe," said Offutt.
Of course, you know what the end would be to such an affair. Nobody
likes to be called a coward—especially when he knows he is not one.
So, at last, Lincoln consented to "rassle" with Jack Armstrong. They
met, with all the boys as spectators. They wrestled, and tugged, and
clenched, but without result. Both young fellows were equally
matched in strength. "It's no use, Jack," Lincoln at last declared.
"Let's quit. You can't throw me, and I can't throw you. That's
With that, all Jack's backers began to cry "coward!" and urged on
the champion to another tussle. Jack Armstrong was now determined to
win, by fair means or foul. He tried the latter, and, contrary to
all rules of wrestling began to kick and trip, while his supporters
stood ready to help, if need be, by breaking in with a regular free
fight. This "foul play" roused the lion in Lincoln. He hated
unfairness, and at once resented it. He suddenly put forth his
Samson-like strength, grabbed the champion of the Clary Grove Boys
by the throat, and, lifting him from the ground, held him at arm's
length and shook him as a dog shakes a rat. Then he flung him to the
ground, and, facing the amazed and yelling crowd, he cried: "You
cowards! You know I don't want to fight; but if you try any such
games, I'll tackle the whole lot of you. I've won the fight."
He had. From that day, no man in all that region
 dared to "tackle"
young Lincoln, or to taunt him with cowardice. And Jack Armstrong
was his devoted friend and admirer.
I have told you more, perhaps, of the famous fight than I ought—not
because it was a fight, but because it gives you a glimpse of
Abraham Lincoln's character. He disliked rows; he was too
kind-hearted and good-natured to wish to quarrel with any one; but he
hated unfairness, and was enraged at anything like persecution or
bullying. If you will look up Shakespeare's play of "Hamlet" you
will see that Lincoln was ready to act upon the advice that old
Polonius gave to his son Laertes:
Of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in,
Bear it that the opposer may beware of thee."
He became quite a man in that little community. As a clerk he was
obliging and strictly honest. He was the judge and the settler of
all disputes, and none thought of combating his decisions. He was
the village peacemaker. He hated profanity, drunkenness, and
unkindness to women. He was feared and respected by all, and even
the Clary Grove Boys declared, at last, that he was "the cleverest
feller that ever broke into the settlement."
All the time, too, he was trying to improve himself. He liked to sit
around and talk and tell stories, just the same as ever; but he saw
this was not the way to get on in the world. He worked, whenever he
had the chance, outside of his store duties; and once, when trade
was dull and hands were short in the clearing, he "turned to" and
split enough logs into rails to make a pen for a thousand hogs.
 When he was not at work he devoted himself to his books. He could
"read, write, and cipher"—this was more education than most men
about him possessed; but he hoped, some day, to go before the
public; to do this, he knew he must speak and write correctly. He
talked to the village schoolmaster, who advised him to study English
"Well, if I had a grammar," said Lincoln, "I'd begin now. Have you
The schoolmaster had no grammar; but he told "Abe" of a man, six
miles off, who owned one. Thereupon, Lincoln started upon the run to
borrow that grammar. He brought it back so quickly that the
schoolmaster was astonished. Then he set to work to learn the "rules
and exceptions." He studied that grammar, stretched full length on
the store-counter, or under a tree outside the store, or at night
before a blazing fire of shavings in the cooper's shop. And soon, he
had mastered it. He borrowed every book in New Salem; he made the
schoolmaster give him lessons in the store; he button-holed every
stranger that came into the place "who looked as though he knew
anything"; until, at last, every one in New Salem was ready to echo
Offutt's boast that "Abe Lincoln" knew more than any man "in these
United States." One day, in the bottom of an old barrel of trash, he
made a splendid "find." It was two old law books. He read and
re-read them, got all the sense and argument out of their dry pages,
blossomed into a debater, began to dream of being a lawyer, and
became so skilled in seeing through and settling knotty questions
that, once again, New Salem wondered at this clerk of Offutt's, who
was as long of head as of arms and legs, and declared
 that "Abe
Lincoln could out-argue any ten men in the settlement."
In all the history of America there has been no man who started
lower and climbed higher than Abraham Lincoln, the backwoods boy. He
never "slipped back." He always kept going ahead. He broadened his
mind, enlarged his outlook, and led his companions rather than let
them lead him. He was jolly company, good-natured, kind-hearted,
fond of jokes and stories and a good time generally; but he was the
champion of the weak, the friend of the friendless, as true a knight
and as full of chivalry as any one of the heroes in armour of whom
you read in "Ivanhoe" or "The Talisman." He never cheated, never
lied, never took an unfair advantage of anyone; but he was
ambitious, strong-willed, a bold fighter and a tough adversary—a
fellow who would never "say die"; and who, therefore, succeeded.