Heroes Every Child Should Know - H. W. Mabie

The Youth of Lincoln

He 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 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:

Abraham Lincoln

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 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.

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 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:


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.