Abraham Lincoln, about whom some 200 shorts, silents, television episodes, documentaries and motion pictures have been made, is the subject this week of yet one more. Remarkably, it assays new ground, in focusing not on the boy born along the Kentucky frontier, nor the rising man so closely associated with Illinois, that his face now adorns its license plates. Instead, The Better Angels is about the Lincoln who spent his formative years, 7 to 21, elsewhere. It was, in fact, his harsh life in the wilderness of Spencer County, Indiana, that shaped Lincoln’s character and beliefs. Yet he almost never spoke of his time there, and visited but three times – on political business. Writing here, however, to an old Indiana neighbor, he makes an excessively rare, and surprisingly warm, reference to his childhood home…
Abraham Lincoln was born into rural poverty along the western frontier in 1809, the son of a poor farmer inclined to motility: a farm in Kentucky was followed by a farm in Indiana by a farm in Illinois. Lincoln lore, which has made much of the first and everything of the last, has tended to bypass Lincoln’s time in Indiana – where, in fact, he spent a quarter of his life. It was in that “unbroken wilderness” he recalled, “where he was raised, in Spencer county, on the Ohio river… and an axe was put in his hand.” In that crude frontier state, Lincoln experienced the tragic deaths of his mother and sister; the redemptive love of his step-mother; the brutality of his father. There, from boyhood on, he was a manual laborer, his daily life, he said, a fight “with the trees and logs and grubs.” There, that his bedrock feeling that slavery was wrong, took root; that he developed a hatred of cruelty to animals; that, as a skilled ax man, grown 6 feet tall by 15 – he was rented out, a chattel, by his father. It was there, too, that he struggled to learn…
His education, he said, was deficient: it lasted, formally, but a year. Which, for someone living in Spencer County when Lincoln arrived in 1816, was thought quite enough. Then, and there, literacy meant reading the bible; writing, signing a document; arithmetic, tallying tasks and simple business. Anything more in the way of intellectual attainment was laziness. “Lincoln was lazy – a very lazy man,” a cousin, Dennis Hanks, remembered. “He was always reading – scribbling – writing – ciphering – writing poetry &c &c.” To Lincoln’s hardscrabble kith and kin, his will to educate himself, was foolishness – and important to rebuke. “I tried to stop it,” his father said, “but he got that fool idea into his head, and it can’t be got out. Now I hain’t got no eddication, but I get along far better than ef I had.” So his father did what he could: if he found his son reading, he’d beat him, and throw his books away. But if the boy was to the father, obdurate, he was to himself, hopeful. He persisted to learn, and by the time he was seventeen, he began to spend more and more time away from home.
Gentryville, about a mile and half away from the Lincoln homestead, was a choice destination. There he found work with merchants James Gentry and William Jones – making for the first, journeys by flatboat to New Orleans, and for the second, doing odd jobs at his general store. Both experiences – one macro, one micro – deeply marked the teenage Lincoln. Traveling south to New Orleans, he visited his first big city – and inasmuch as half of its population of 50,000 was comprised of slaves and free Blacks, had his first real encounter with slavery. A crewmate later claimed that they “saw negroes chained, maltreated, whipped and scourged. Lincoln saw it. His heart bled. … I can say knowingly that it was on this trip that he formed his opinions of slavery.” Perhaps too, those trips down river, so vivid and broadening, helped make Lincoln, when working in Jones’ Gentryville store, a local draw: for not only was he hardworking and studious – he read all the books Jones owned – but an engaging talker. Neighbors recalled “how he would walk miles to hear a speech or sermon, and, returning, would repeat the whole in ‘putty good imitation.'” But it was more than repeating the words of others that drew people to him: he was, even then, becoming an uncommonly gifted wordsmith. “When he appeared in company,” a friend related, “the boys would gather and cluster around him to hear him talk… He argued much from analogy, and explained things hard for us to understand by stories, maxims, tales, and figures. He would almost always point his lesson or idea by some story that was plain and near us, that we might instantly see the force and bearing of what he said.” Indeed, his employer William Jones, legend has it, declared “Lincoln would make a great man one of these days.” And when, some 30 years later, gratified no doubt with his prediction, Jones wrote to the newly-nominated Republican candidate for President – he elicited this reply:
“Your very kind letter of the 8th was received several days ago. I have not yet determined definitely, but my impression is that I will not leave home during the canvass. It would, indeed, be very pleasant to meet my old Spencer County friends, and should I conclude to do so, (which I think improbable) I will write you. I am very glad indeed to have received your letter, and will be glad of more whenever you can find time to write them.”
Lincoln did not make it to Indiana until, as President-Elect, he traveled there en route to Washington. “Indiana” Jones, however, came to him instead. The Chicago Tribune for January 14, 1861, reported that “Mr. Lincoln was called upon to-day by an old man from Indiana named Jones for whom thirty years ago he worked as a common farm-hand at a dollar a day.” Left out of that account, not surprisingly, was that the dollar – as was every penny Lincoln earned in Indiana – was turned over to his father. When Lincoln spoke, as he did in 1858, that every human being had the right “to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned,” he was speaking from bitter experience. Indeed, when Lincoln left home, having turned the legal age of emancipation, he left with a vengeance. Except for scant campaign-generated autobiographical references; an elegiac poem prompted by his first visit back in 1844 (to campaign for Henry Clay), beginning “My childhood’s home I see again / And sadden with the view”; and this letter – Lincoln had little to say about his formative years in Indiana. This reticence, in a man who so loved to reminisce and story-tell, suggests that no amount of talking, or laughing, or even eloquence, was adequate to describe what he felt as a boy, growing up in Indiana.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809-1865. The 16th President of the United States
Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), 1 page, octavo, Springfield, June 18, 1860. To William Jones.