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Abraham Lincoln's Childhood: An American Dream Realized

Uncle Reed displays his favorite bust of Lincoln
People, I realize, are crazy about Lincoln! Over the last few days, while visiting his birthplace and boyhood home, I've heard all sorts of comments: "He was the greatest president this country's ever had!" "He was honest and compassionate." "He worked for the good of the people." Even Stephanie's uncle loves the guy! He started his own Lincoln museum in tiny Jewell, Kansas to spread the word and currently displays more than 300 pieces of memorabilia. He's even memorized parts of his speeches!

The adoration is understandable. President Lincoln guided this country through its bloodiest war and delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all the enslaved people. His assassination in 1865 made his legacy all the more poignant, his accomplishments all the more revered.


We love Super 8 Motels!!

What's amazing is that he did all that despite his humble beginnings, his lack of formal education and his poor childhood. All the presidents before Lincoln had been very wealthy - George Washington, for instance, was considered by some to be the wealthiest man in America. Indeed, some would argue that a certain amount of wealth was needed to enter politics; that only the rich belonged in Congress and the White House. Lincoln's ascension to the White House certainly shot that argument down.

He was born on February 12, 1809 at the Sinking Spring Farm near present day Hodgenville, Kentucky, in a little log frontier cabin that was only 18 by 16 feet. The cabin had a dirt floor, one window, one door, a small fireplace, a shingled roof and a low chimney made of clay, straw and hardwood. They lived deep in the forest, away from the big cities of the East and almost completely isolated from the world.

Daphne poses by the log cabin
Lincoln's parents settled in Kentucky because his father was trying to make a living out of the land. At that time, many people with no real prospects emigrated to the West in search of better opportunities. His grandfather, originally from Virginia, struck out for the Kentucky wilderness, following trails blazed by Daniel Boone only years before. He was killed in an Indian raid when Thomas, his son (and Abe's father) was only ten.

Neither Thomas nor Nancy (Abe's mother) had any formal education. Thomas was illiterate and could only write his own name. He was a carpenter by trade and also a farmer. Nancy had many duties - she had to take care of the children, Abe and his sister, Sarah, and keep house. Everything was a chore: fetching water, hunting, cooking meals, cleaning the house and making clothes.

Lincoln supposedly used this very saw to perform his chores
The Lincoln family moved to southern Indiana when Abraham was seven years old. They had to walk many miles to the land Thomas had claimed, hacking out a path by hand for many miles. Thomas and Nancy were very brave! They were moving to an unexplored land with two young children and not much else. When they arrived in Pigeon Creek, Indiana, they had to start building a cabin for themselves, because a harsh winter was setting in. Lincoln remembers this trip as one of the hardest experiences in his life.

Steph hangs out in the woods of Indiana
Two years later, his mother died. She fell ill with "milksick," a poisoning caused when a person eats butter or drinks milk from a cow that has eaten a plant called white snakeroot. Lincoln, who was very close to his mother, said later in life, "All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe it to her." Sarah, then 11, had to take over all the household chores. She and Abe were forced to grow up very fast.

His father remarried a year later to a woman named Sarah who was not your typical evil stepmom. In fact, she loved Abraham very much and once remarked, "Abe was a good boy. He didn't like physical labor - was diligent for knowledge…he was the best boy I ever saw. "

Despite his lack of formal education, he was very eager to learn. Throughout his childhood, his entire schooldays probably amounted to less than 12 months. He learned little more than "readin', 'riting, and 'rithmetic" at "blab" schools, so called because the children would first memorize the lesson, then say them aloud and in unison for the teacher. Years later, Lincoln wrote: "Of course when I came of age I did not know much; still, somehow, I could read, write and cipher to the rule of three. That was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity."

Oh, he's too humble! Abe didn't merely "pick up" advances in education. He devoured books, sought out information, and spent hours teaching himself. The thing that set Abe apart from the other kids is this (get ready guys…I'm about to reveal a secret): he LOVED to READ!

Daphne sits at the very same spot where Abe used to read
As you can imagine, books were hard to come by in the woods of Indiana. But still he found a way. His first book (and the only book his parents owned) was the Bible. He memorized whole stretches, to the point that he could recite them aloud. He then borrowed one called "Life of Washington" from a neighbor, but before he could give it back, rain fell on it and ruined it. He worked very hard to pay his neighbor back.

Later, he started carrying books to work and to the forest. He read by candlelight and used all of his extra money to buy more books. He learned the power of words and became inspired. Books taught him that the world was bigger than his backyard.

At a time when most people's foremost concern was sheer survival, Lincoln sought out something more. Perhaps he was destined for greatness from the beginning; maybe fate had him pegged as the man who would change a country. I'd like to think otherwise - I prefer to envision him as a person who didn't let his circumstances dictate his life. Yes he was poor. Yes he didn't have much in the way of education. But he had his dreams; he knew that life would bring on bigger and better things - all he had to do was go for it.

Steph, her uncle, and their favorite guy!
His determination inspires people even today. People like Reed Griest, a farmer in rural northwest Kansas who recognized the power of his speeches back in elementary school and who has spent half his life combing through antique stores for artifacts of the 16th President. He admires him for his courage, honesty and determination. I admire him for achieving the American Dream. He taught us that we really can do anything. Next time you think you can't, say to yourself, "If Lincoln could do it, so can I!"


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Dred Scott: "a simple man who wanted to be free"
Rebecca - Friendly letters, wine and more at the start of a civil war?
Daphne - Bloodshed in Kansas: we're part of the war now, Toto
Neda - Mozart vs. Jay-Z and other reasons people go to war
MAD - Police brutality: when the law is NOT on your side