| The Youth Of Abraham Lincoln |
NCE 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 enough."
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:
"Beware 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 grammar.
"Well, if I had a grammar," said Lincoln, "I'd begin now. Have you got one?"
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.
(Adapted from "The True Story of Abraham Lincoln," by Elbridge S. Brooks)