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Abraham Lincoln (Penguin Lives Biographies)by Thomas Keneally
ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS BORN on a mattress of corn husks in a nest of bear rugs on the morning of February 12, a Sabbath, 1809. The United States was then an infant nation with another risky war against Great Britain ahead of it. The birthplace for this new child of the republic was a one-room, windowless, dirt-floored log cabin in Hardin County, near Hodgenville in Kentucky. The cabin stood on land to which his father's title was uncertain.
Abraham's mother was a tall, bony, sinewy, undemanding woman of about twenty-five, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, a bastard child, a good wrestler on a frontier where wrestling was an important sport engaged in by both men and women. As one witness said, she was "a bold, reckless, daredevil kind of a woman, stepping to the very verge of propriety." Two years before, she had given birth to a daughter, Sarah.
For the greater part of his life, and in three states, the boy would be said to come from unrespectable stock. According to Abraham Lincoln's later law partner, William H. Herndon, there was a report that Thomas Lincoln, for a consideration from one Abraham Inlow, a miller of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, assumed the paternity of the infant child of Nancy Hanks, and though the tale does not fit with the 1806 marriage date of Tom and Nancy, the story was just one that would later haunt and help form Abraham.
Thomas was a stocky, thirty-year-old hardscrabble farmer and carpenter who had a reputation among his neighbors as a raconteur, a fact that gives some support to the idea that he was the boy's biological father, for Abraham would all his life sprout with rustic tales and parables to an extent that sometimes bemused even his friends. Thomas meant to call the child Abraham after his father, a pioneer from Virginia, whom in 1786- when Thomas was a little boy-he had seen killed before his eyes by British-allied Indians.
Plagued by Kentucky's uncertain land titles, Tom Lincoln moved his family, when Abraham was still an infant, ten miles to a 230-acre farm on Knob Creek. Of sturdy Tom Lincoln many contradictory things are said-that he was industrious, that he was lazy; that he was shiftless, that he had the pioneer spirit; that he was proud of the intellectual leanings of his frontier son, and that he punished Abraham for them. One thing is certain-that Tom was in his way an archetype of the Protestant subsistence farmer, who, according to Thomas Jefferson's dream, was the stuff of American virtue and the fit occupier of the frontier. Tom and his type would inherit the American earth without recourse to the corrupting influence of banks, and though they might not be able to read and write with any fluency, their native wisdom and their democratic impulse would derive directly from the ennobling soil. Tom Lincoln was probably unaware in any explicit way that he embodied that ideal, but the boy early on refused to buy the concept. Where Jefferson believed he saw forthright independence, Lincoln saw ignorance and brutalizing labor. He would not grow up admiring his hardhanded father.
And though, in growing, Abraham developed a body and a physical endurance appropriate to a frontier boy, his spirit was always uneasy in the backwoods. When he was nominated a candidate for his presidency and was being harried by a Chicago newspaperman, John L. Scripps, for information on his childhood for a campaign biography, Abraham quoted Gray's Elegy: "'The short and simple annals of the poor.' That's my life, and that's all you or anyone else can make of it."
In Knob Creek, at six years of age, Abraham began to learn his letters from a slave-owning Catholic teacher in a log schoolhouse on the Cumberland Road. This institution was what they called on the frontier a "blab school," where students learned by rote. There, with his older sister, Sarah, during one brief session in 1815 and another the following year, Abraham learned to write his name and to count.
His parents worshiped at an antislavery Baptist church. That controversial allegiance in a slave state and constant title fights over the Knob Creek farm made Thomas decide that they would be better off in the newly proclaimed, more exactly surveyed Indiana Territory. Thus the family became early Hoosiers, a name originally applied to Indiana settlers arriving from the South. Tom Lincoln went off first, with his possessions on a flatboat, down Salt Creek and into the Ohio, then ashore to reconnoiter for a farm. He found a location sixteen miles in from the river, near the small town of Gentryville. The family, when they moved, did so on foot, accompanying the bullock wagon carrying their goods. Rather late in the year, they came to Tom's claim of 160 acres of dense thickets, in the Little Pigeon Creek community. Here Tom and Nancy again sought membership in an antislavery Baptist church. For their first three months there, eight-year-old Abraham and his family lived in the three-sided "pole-shed" that Tom had constructed hurriedly to deal with the imperatives of the season. The open side of the shed faced south, away from the prevailing wind and snow, and a large fire was kept going there day and night. Here, with either snow or the smoke of that fire billowing in the hut, Abraham and Sarah ingested Bible tales as narrated by Nancy, and the founding principles of their Calvinist view of the world, together with sundry peasant superstitions about phases of the moon, ghosts, and other matters. The young Lincoln, socially precocious enough to call out to passersby and thus to earn his father's anger, was already a farm laborer and experienced the demanding but bodybuilding life of a farm boy-helping his father clear fields, split rails, plow, and thresh wheat. But as for the complete stereotype of the backwoods boy: Once, seeing a wild turkey approach the farm, Abraham fetched a gun and shot it from within his own doorway. The experience of destroying animal life, of seeing the gush of blood, repelled him, and he would never become the deadeye frontier marksman of American myth.
Nancy Lincoln's aunt and uncle, the Sparrows, arrived in Indiana on the Lincolns' heels, carrying in tow the semiliterate bastard child of one of Nancy's sisters, one Dennis Hanks. Between the boy Lincoln and the adolescent Dennis, a lout in the eyes of some, an intense friendship developed. Those who disapproved of Abraham Lincoln's later tendency to tell off-color stories often attributed the habit to Dennis's influence. But Dennis did not like the way Tom Lincoln treated the boy, and would influence Lincoln's earliest biographers to judge Tom rather severely.
The boy Lincoln had had many mysterious experiences of the will of that Calvinist God to whom most of America was in thrall. He had already lost a baby brother, Tom. And now, in the summer of 1818, a visitation of the disease the settlers called "the milk sick" struck the Little Pigeon Creek area. Manifesting itself in the white-coated tongues of the sufferers, it was believed to be passed through the milk of cows that had eaten of the poisonous white snakeroot, and were themselves doomed. The Sparrows caught the disease first and died while being nursed by Nancy, whom Dennis Hanks would later honor as the most affectionate woman he had ever met. Falling ill herself, Nancy died with seven days, unattended by a doctor-since there was none-and calling Sarah and Abraham to her bedside. Tom Lincoln fashioned her coffin from black cherrywood, and she lay in state in the one-room cabin before making her final mile-long journey to a grave on a knoll in the woods. She was thirty-four years old, but already withered and toothless, like many a frontier woman.
Tom Lincoln took Dennis Hanks in, and he slept with Abraham in the loft. For the entirety of the bitter winter, twelve-year-old Sarah became the woman of the household, with all the chores involved in that description. Then, in the spring, after planting, Tom Lincoln left the farm in the care of Dennis, Abraham, and Sarah and headed down to Kentucky to propose marriage to a woman he had admired from boyhood, the recently widowed Sarah "Sally" Johnston. Sally was healthy and of a positive mentality and a more elevated class than Nancy. She had some furniture, including a fine bureau; and after the marriage Tom loaded it all up on his wagon and took it over the Ohio, along with his new bride and her three children, who would become Abraham and Sarah's stepbrother and -sisters. Not only did Abe now make a close acquaintance with his first feather mattress, pillows ditto, with a bureau and proper kitchen chairs instead of stools, but the tall Sally proved another kindly mother. Lincoln would later say that she was his best friend in the world. She saw that Abraham and Dennis Hanks were dressed mainly in buckskins, and introduced them to a better kind of denim clothing. She also insisted that Tom Lincoln lay down a floor in the cabin, and put in some windows.
Dennis Hanks liked Sally too, but again said of Thomas that he treated his precocious boy "rather unkindly than otherwise, always appeared to think much more of his stepson John D. Johnston than he did of his own son Abraham."
Despite the rawness of the Lincolns, their lives now did take on some signs of the Arcadian settler life envisioned by Jefferson. The government was selling land at $1.25 an acre, and Thomas bought one hundred acres. His carpentry was so much in demand that he was given the largely volunteer job of building the Little Pigeon Creek Baptist Church. The young Abraham, pressed into work as sexton, probably heard many of the minister's antislavery sermons, and they may have reinforced his inchoate sense that slavery was the founding serpent in the American garden.
Tom Lincoln hired his son out to other farmers at twenty-five cents a day, especially after the age of eleven, when he began to shoot up in height and demonstrated a particular gift with the ax. Occasionally he attended the school of one Hazel Dorsey, a mile and a half from the Lincoln farm. He brought to that log school a chaotic hunger for literacy, fostered by his stepmother, Sally, who nearly fifty years later would say, in remembrance that had a ring of authenticity to it, "I induced my husband to permit Abe to read and study at home as well as at school. At first he was not easily reconciled to it."
Physically Abraham resembled his late mother. As he reached puberty, he developed a capacity for the spellbinding telling of proper and-in notable number-improper stories. Somewhere he acquired a collection of indecent jokes named Quin's Jests, which he read at night to a delighted, barely literate Dennis. Abraham remembered its contents as he did everything he read.
His occasional schooling was fitted in between winter harvest and spring planting. Apart from Webster's and Dillworth's Spelling Books, both of which had improving tales in them, one cornerstone of Abraham's adolescent reading would be Parson Weems's Life of Washington; and another, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Aesop's Fables, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the Bible-all these had a formative influence on the strange mixture of the sonorous and the rustic that would characterize his discourse. A family copy of Barclay's Dictionary enlarged his armory of words.
The marks of the adolescent Lincoln were his buckskin clothing (and the fact that he was always growing comically too tall for his pants) and the ridicule this attracted from girls, so that he would never be fully comfortable with women; his capacity for reading, and the fact that by frontier standards he was precociously literate; and-once again-his strength. "[Y]ou would say there was three men at work by the way the trees fell," said one acquaintance of Abraham's axmanship.
Contradictorily, though, Dennis Hanks argued that, "Lincoln was lazy....He was always reading-scribbling-writing-ciphering-even Sally Lincoln would admit that he wouldn't like physical labor, though he had the strength for it, but was 'diligent for Knowledge.'" He was also making things difficult for his future promoters by developing skepticism about predestination, about the God of Calvinism, who had from eternity damned many and saved a few. What sort of God was it who would create human beings, having known from eternity that he would damn some of them and save others? In the words of Abraham's favorite poet, Burns, a God who:
Sends ane to heaven and ten to hell
A' for thy glory,
And no one for ony guid or ill
They've done afore thee!
It was a conundrum that concerned many sensitive souls in nineteenth-century America, and despite his rugged body, Abraham was such a soul. His sister, Sarah, had married one Aaron Grigsby, whom Abraham Lincoln did not like. When Abraham was seventeen years of age, she and the child to whom she was trying to give birth both perished. Here was God's inscrutable will at work once more, its irrationality a further test to young Lincoln's soul, which both despised yet yearned for the comforts of ordinary belief.
Abraham had taken to hiring himself out for books now, rather than store goods. Thus he acquired Caleb Bingham's The American Preceptor and Columbian Orator, both designed to equip youth for the arts of eloquence. Similarly he showed an enthusiasm for rivers, as a way out of puzzles. Little Pigeon Creek might have been "the most unpoetical place on earth," and forest-locked, but the currents of the western river system promised arrival at places designed for reinvention of the self. At the confluence of the Anderson and Ohio Rivers he worked at ferrying travelers to meet steamers or to go south into Kentucky. One day he rowed two businessmen out into midstream in his cockboat to catch an oncoming steamer. As they climbed aboard, both men threw a silver half-dollar into the bottom of Lincoln's boat.
It is hard for us to imagine how momentous an event this was for an Indiana farm boy. Despite the modest accumulation of specie Tom had put together for buying acreage, the Lincolns had never lived on a regular basis in the cash economy. Tom Lincoln did not pay for things: He grew his own wheat, corn, and vegetables; tanned his own leather; made clothing out of buckskin, cotton, and flax of his own raising; and when he bought sugar and coffee from the store in nearby Gentryville, paid for them with hogs, venison hams, and coonskins. Abraham's labor was generally paid for in store goods. But now he saw, glinting on the boards of his boat, his liberation from the cashless world in which brain-numbing labor and raw muscle were respected over scholarship. Here too was the true fuel of those improvements in roads, canals, and river navigation that would be the chief element of his burgeoning political ideas.
Later, in the White House, he would say of this incident, "Gentlemen, you may think it a very little thing...but it was the most important incident of my life...the world seemed wider and fairer before me."
--from Abraham Lincoln: A Penguin Lives Biography by Thomas Keneally, Copyright © January 2003, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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