| The Youth Of Abraham 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 coon-skin 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 pieces.
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 paper was 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 candle 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 trip.
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, they started 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.