A Leaf from Abraham Lincoln's Earliest Handwritten Manuscript, His Homemade Student "Sum-Book"

c. 1865

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A Leaf from Abraham Lincoln's Earliest Handwritten Manuscript, His Homemade Student "Sum-Book"
Autograph Manuscript Signed
1 page | SMC 2233

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      Background

      His education, Lincoln said, was deficient: it lasted, formally, but a year. Which, really, was quite enough, for someone born into rural poverty along the western frontier in 1809. Then, and there, literacy meant reading the bible; writing, signing a document; arithmetic, a way to tally field clearing, crop raising, livestock, logs, and rudimentary 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, as this page attests: here, amid mathematics, he writes a piece of doggerel - "Abraham Lincoln his hand and pen he will be good but god knows When" - and copies a few lines of a melancholy hymn by British theologian Isaac Watts. These scribbles are among the earliest known, and would be of intense interest, then, if they told mere nothings. But they tell, instead, three significant things about Lincoln, and as such, are wonderfully prescient.

      That young Lincoln was diligent, may be surmised from the exactness of his calculations; that he was irreverent, from the playfulness of his doggerel; and from the quoted hymn, that he was, even in youth, inclined to mourn the irrecoverable past. The verse, recorded later by future law partner William Herndon in his Life of Lincoln, reads:

      Time, what an empty vapor 'tis,

      And days how swift they are:

      Swift as an Indian arrow -

      Fly on like a shooting star.

      The present moment just is here,

      Then slides away in haste,

      That we can never say they're ours,

      But only say they're past

      This leaf is one of just eleven from Lincoln's adolescent "Sum Book" - a frontier equivalent of a spiral notebook. Blank paper was a rare and precious commodity in frontier Indiana, and that Lincoln choose to use it to understand mathematics, joke around, and express an elegiac sensibility, is telling. But that he wrote these things at all, is no small sign of heroism, considering. And that, as much as anything, is a mark of the man he would become.



      Autograph Manuscript, Signed in full within the text, being a leaf from Lincoln's homemade schoolboy "Sum Book" - the earliest surviving example of his handwriting; one page, irregular oblong octavo, no place [Pigeon Creek, Spencer County, Indiana], no date [ circa 1824-1826]. Various numerical calculations on verso. Of extreme rarity. One of 11 known examples, the last having been discovered in June 2013. Used with the permission of Shapell legacy partnership.
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