Abraham Lincoln: Childhood

Figure 1.--

Abraham was the son of a not very sucessful Kentucky frontiersman and carpenter, He had to struggle for a living and for learning. Lincoln himself never said much about his childhood. Five months before receiving his party's nomination for President, he sketched his life briefly at the urging of a campaign manager. "I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families--second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks.... My father ... removed from Kentucky to ... Indiana, in my eighth year.... It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up.... Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher ... but that was all." Actually Lincoln was wrong. He had rather miraculously for someone of his circumstances acquired the habit of reading. And by the time he had emerged from boyhood he had read many great works, in fact substantially more than most students graduating from modern high schools. Accounts of Lincoln's hardscrable experiences dominate accounts of his boyhood. More important, and often missed, was that as a boy, Lincoln developed an affinity for books. Abraham thus with virtually no schooling was on his way to becoming an educated person. And key to that achievement were two remarkable women, Nancy Hanks and Sarah Bush Johnston.

Physical Description

Lincoln from childhood was very tall. He towered over his play mates and friends. His clothes never seemed to fit him. As a man he was about a foot taller than the average man.

Limited Information

Little is know of Lincoln's hardscrabble childhood and very little written has been written on his childhood. He came from such a poor family and they moved so often that there was no one to write about his childhood. His parents couldn't write. No one took much interest in the family at the time. Lincoln himself was a modest man. There are no dairies. No autobiography. One of the few sources of information is the work of William Herdon, Lincoln's law partner. He compiled an account based on oral history. He traveled to Indiana and Kentucky and interviewed anyone he could find who knew the Lincolns. These interviews were conducted 40-50 years after the events and there are huge difficulties in using the often contradictory information.

Hardscrabble Existence

Young Abe certainly had a hard childhood. His father put an ax in his hand at age 7. There was work to be done on the farm. The land had to be cleared, a major, back breaking chore. His mother, although illiterate, unlike his father encouraged education. Abraham could read at 7, not an unimpressive accomplishment for a boy at the time with uneducated parents. Despite the limited opportunity for education, his mother encouraged the boy to take what ever opportunites existed. His father's role is less clear.


Nancy Hanks Lincoln (1784- ) was by all accounts a wonderfull mother and kind-hearted person. She was especially noted for her sewing ability and work ethic. She married Thomas Lincoln (1806). He made his living as a carpenter. The couple joined a Baptist Church. Sarah was born (1807). Abraham arrived (1809). He was born in a crude log cabin on a bed of poles covered with corn cobs. Abraham was named after his paternal grandfather who was killed by Indians. A third child, Thomas, died in infancy. Nancy was not only a good and loving mother to Sarah and Abraham, she was also very ambitious for them. She wanted to give them opportunities that she and her husband never had. She read every night to the children from the Lincoln family Bible. She seems to have instilled in her son an interest in books and reading. This was the felicitous interesection of a loving and ambitious mother and a bright, receotive boy. Few boys on the frotier in Lincoln's circumstances would develop an interest in books. Nancy's willingness to help a sick neighbor led to her untimely death. She drank the same tainted milk that had caused her neighbor's sickness. It was especially hard for Abraham after Nancy died. He, his sister, and his father lived alone for a year.


Historians disagree somewhat on the Lincolns in Indiana. Most stress the poverty of the family causing them to eventually move to Illinois. Others claim that the Lincolns were relatively prosperous in Indiana, at least in backwoods terms. Some claim that the family moved to Illinois so she could be with her son by a previous marriage. He was writing home about good the soil was which attracted Thomas' interest. What is clear is that the family's fortunes progressively declined after each of Thomas' many moves.


Lincoln's childhood was fraught with great difficulty. His mother died when Abe was only 8. His father remarried to Sarah Bush Johnston, who by all accounts proved to be a wonderful mother. Thomas left the children alone and went home to Kentucky to find another wife. Incredibly he left them alone for 6 months to fend for themselves. They almost died of starvation. Neighbors report they were almost skeletal. Thomas may have courted Sarah before. He brought her back with a chest of drawers. It was the first piece of furniture that Abe ever saw. Sarah was appalled at the condition of the children when she first saw them. Abe who did not know his new stepmother, ran to her and buried himself in her skirt. It is notable that he ran to the woman he did not even know rather than to his father. There was no hesitation on Sarah's part. She took to the children immediately. One historian reports, that if she had hesitated or not proved to have been a wonderful mother, Lincoln would have never been president. [Wead, Raising] I think he is entirely correct. Given the importance of Lincoln in American history, this is a fascinating statement. It also is a remarkable illustration of how history can turn on such seeming unimportant events. Sarah went to work cleaning them up, later recalling that it took almost the entire day to get the caked on mud off Abe. She sewed clothes for them. They moved to Kentucky. Sarah played a key role in his life and picked up where his mother left off. She had three children of her own, but never showed any favoritism. She also encouraged his education. When she married Thomas, she knew of Abe's love of reading and brought books with her for him. This helped form a bond between the two. Unlike the relationship with his father, Abraham became very close to his step-mother. Books were rare on the frontier and they must have been a rare treat for the boy. Lincoln not only showed an interest in reading, but also the law. As a boy he watched trials at the country court house.


Abraham's mother Nancy had played a key role in stimulating a interest in books and reading. There were, however, few books in the Lincoln home for Abe to read. Abraham did not gain very much formal education, but he benefitted from a gifted frontier teacher (1816). Lincoln later recalled one of the books introduced, Thomas Dilworth's New Guide to the English Tounge (Dilworth's Speller. The book combined spelling and grammar along with Protestant theology and morallity. The lack of books in the Lincoln home changed with the arrival Sarah, his stepmother. She was unlike Nancy, a passionate reader and she brought books with her from Kentucky. To be sure it was a small collection, but consisting of literary jewels that oopen a wider world to Abe. The books included Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, Webster's SpellerMurray's The English Reader, and Scott's Lessons in Elocution. It is through his voracious reading that Lincoln became a writer, pinning the two great masterpieces of the English language--the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inagural. (Both inshrined in the Lincoln Memorial.) He consumed Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Edward Gibbons, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, and many oters. The imprint of these writers can be seen in the cadences and values of Lincoln's soaring oratory. [Kaplan] But it was not just rhetotic and morality that Lincoln absorbed from books. He came to see books as a source of learning. The great challenge of his presidency was the Civil War and the ineptitude of his military commanders. Lincoln's sollution was to study war and military strategy. He headed for the Library of Congress and through raw inteligence and study he became one of the two greatest presidential war leaders. (The other being Franklin Roosevelt.) Lincoln would say in frustration that if McCllelan was not going to use the army that he shold loan it to him. In fact Lincoln did take control of the army, fashion a winning strategy, and found the commanders capable of executing it.

Relationship with father

Lincoln does not seem to have gotten on well with his father, at least as a young man. The family moved to Illinois when Lincoln was 21. He helped his father build a cabin, but then moved away. Some authors believe that his experiences had sapped Thomas' ambitions. Lincoln himself was very ambitious and this difference must have affected the relations between the two men. There was certainly a profound estraingement between the two men. Very little is known how and when this developed. Lincoln went on the live at New Salem. Lincoln as an adult was constantly sending money home to his father. He help prevent foreclosure on the farm. Much has been made that he did not come to his father's deathbed. The two were not close, but there was no bitterness in the relationship. Lincoln did not like his father's friends and may have been exaggerating his father's illness. Also Mary had just given birth.

Story teller

One often under-stressed characteristic of Abraham was his ability to tell stories. This made him popular with his friends and even adults. It greatly added to his appeal later as a politician and helped form friendships. It was a strong factor in his key political skill, the ability of getting others to see his point of view. He did not hold grudges and got along easily with others. In this he stood in stark contrast to his southern counterpart, Jefferson Davis who was no consensus builder. These differences were to make a critical difference when these two men were to lead their nations in the Civil War.


Kaplan, Fred. Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (Haroer, 2008), 406p.

Wead, Doug. The Raising of a President.


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Created: 3:14 AM 11/3/2008
Last changed: 3:14 AM 11/3/2008