Thompson on Lincoln
A great man's boyhood and youth

From the history book "Stories of Indiana" by James Maurice Thompson, published in 1898. The Fairfield-born author describes in a textbook aimed at Hoosier history students his impressions of President Abraham Lincoln. Thompson himself, though born in Indiana in 1844, served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. I've trimmed this narrative quite a lot but it goes far in showing that Thompson's ability to mold a character study was far from mediocre. He seems to have a personal feeling for Lincoln:

In the year (1816) that brought statehood to Indiana, Abraham Lincoln's parents came from Kentucky to Spencer County. The southern part of the State was then but thinly settled, and its inhabitants were mostly simple, ignorant, honest people, who gained a livelihood as best they might by farming. Spencer County was no better, no worse, than the average of "river counties" in those days. It had its rough element, its flatboatmen, its rude knights of fortune, and, possibly, its outlaws; but the sturdy American citizen of upright conduct and honest aspiration was strongly in the majority.

At that time Abraham Lincoln was a boy seven years old a tall, lank, bony lad, whose features wore a look of premature wisdom. His parents were very poor people, belonging to the class called by the negroes of Kentucky "po' white trash"; but they were honest, and Abraham himself showed from earliest childhood that strain of unchangeable probity, and that fixed purpose to make the most of his life, which in later years bore him to the highest seat of honor and greatness.

He might easily have chosen the career of John A. Murrell, the outlaw, who went from Kentucky to become the terror and the scourge of Mississippi and Louisiana. In that case he would have died in disgrace, cast out of respectable history, a miserable wreck of what had once been a strong and capable man. But Lincoln, though distressed with poverty, and cut off from almost every opportunity to get an education and to cultivate his manners with a view to an influential life, yet held himself firmly to duty and to honor.

The best part of the training that Lincoln had received before coming to Indiana was what had resulted from being subjected during infancy and early childhood to hardships, frugal diet, humble surroundings, and direct contact with the elemental forces of nature.

From his eighth year onward until he was 21 when he left Indiana to live in Illinois, Lincoln steadily struggled to get the rudiments of a useful education. He was sent to school a little, and he managed to study a great deal at home. But he felt the necessity of knowing how to work as well as how to read and cipher. He did not, as so many students have done, make a mere bookworm of himself. There was no kind of work much in demand in his neighborhood that he did not quickly learn how to do, and to do better than other boys of his age could; and by this versatility he was nearly always able to find employment. Nature had given him a powerful frame; he grew to be six feet four inches tall, with great muscles and strong bones and sinews.

Many persons have eagerly borne testimony to Lincoln's industrious habits and trustworthy character during his stay in Indiana. He was also a leader in boyish plays and sports, and liked to wrestle and to show his superior strength in various athletic tests. It is said that he never found his match at lifting, wood chopping, rail splitting, or wrestling. He worked as a carpenter and cabinetmaker, and some of his handiwork in this line is still preserved. In those days sawmills were scarce, and planks were cut from the log with what were called whipsaws. Lincoln was for a time a whipsawyer. Indeed, he was everything and anything where an honest job of work could be had by a strong, faithful, courageous young fellow. Yet all the while he had an eye upon books. How he learned so much as he did is hard to make out; but the genius in him found its way.

Schools and churches were far apart in the new country where so lately scalping parties of Indians had roamed; still, Lincoln fell into the way of going to hear a sermon whenever he could. A walk of several miles, no matter what sort of weather it chanced to be, was nothing to him. His long legs never seemed to tire. No doubt even then he was learning from the shrewd and often witty and eloquent backwoods preachers that command of simple, homely turns of speech which in his later years made him an almost irresistible advocate and political orator.

He was always delighted with a good story, joke, or anecdote. When he heard one, he never forgot it, and he became an inimitable story-teller himself, which made him the life of every company he joined. Everybody called him "Abe," and treated him with familiar friendliness; but not a few thoughtful persons saw his superior mental qualities while he was yet but a boy. They often saw him sitting alone deeply absorbed in studying a book that he had borrowed, or poring over some mathematical problem. He studied land surveying, so that he was able to trace the lines of real estate and calculate areas.

Moreover, his imagination led him to try poetry, and some of his rhymes have been preserved; but he was so full of humor and the jocular spirit that most of his verses were good-natured satire upon persons who chanced to provoke his efforts in that way. He was never bitter or ill-tempered or selfish in the least; but he would fight at need, and when roused was not to be easily handled.

At one time young Lincoln was a clerk in the store of a merchant, where he made himself both popular and useful. His jokes and stories drew people to him whether they wished to trade or not. His employer's goods boxes were duly whittled while the fun went on, and the future statesman found it easy to make and hold friends, as, in fact, he did throughout his life. Yet with all his jollity and hearty friendliness toward everybody, Abraham Lincoln was diffident and shy in society, and at times he appeared to be absent-minded, even despondent. Doubtless life, when he faced it seriously, looked hopeless enough; for what could he expect? What promise was held out to a youth so awkward, so ungainly, so ignorant, so poor? It seems that he did not dream that he might some day be a great man. Long after he had succeeded as a lawyer in Illinois, he said, in conversing with a friend, that even when he was a grown-up man it never came into his mind that he "had sense enough" to practice the profession of law.

He intuitively felt, however, that the way to a higher career lay through study. He knew that education gave advantages not to be commanded by the ignorant, and his hard experience early taught him that there was no royal road to useful knowledge. Moreover, a taste of books had inspired him with a sense of what riches might be stored up in his brain by reading and thinking. The lives of great men fascinated him, as did also the history of governments and peoples.

But the boy Lincoln was a genuine boy, and had his faults, like other boys. A wedding party to which he had received no invitation called forth from him, as a salve for his wounded feelings, a rhymed lampoon leveled at the Grigsbys, in whose house the wedding was celebrated. This was not a dignified thing on his part, but it pleased a good many people and did no harm. It shows, however, that he could resent a slight, and that he possessed in those boyish days the rudiments of a satirical gift which long afterwards served him so well in public debate with the brilliant and engaging orator, Stephen A. Douglas.

He was as generous as he was resentful, even more so; for he was often known to forgive an enemy, and to do good to those who had injured him. To girls and women he offered those gentle considerations and compliments by which you may safely measure the heart of a man or a boy. He had a stepmother, to whom he was as faithful, kind, and loving as if she had been his own mother. She herself testified to this by saying: "Abe was a good boy. . . . Abe never gave me a cross word or look, and never refused in fact or appearance to do anything I requested him. . . . He was a dutiful son to me always. . . . Abe was the best boy I ever saw, or expect to see."

Some of Lincoln's friends predicted his future success; but none of them was daring enough to think how great he was to be. One day a Mr. Lamar and his son John were going to mill.

This habit of thoughtful reading grew upon Lincoln as his life strengthened. He borrowed books of his friends, for he was too poor to buy them; nor did he make choice of frivolous literature. From the first he went seriously at the business of informing his mind. What he hungered for was wisdom, not mere idle entertainment. The plebeian lad possessed the rare, pure taste of a nature molded for large and valuable works. One of the first books that he borrowed and read was Weems's "Life of Washington." To him this was more interesting and satisfying than any novel or romance. The calm, steadfast courage and perseverance of Washington doubtless deeply impressed the boy's mind, and helped to shape his destiny.

Think of a young man, who was to be his country's greatest chief magistrate, making a petty peddler of himself! Yet this Lincoln did on his journey from Indiana to Illinois. At the time of his departure from Spencer County, he had between thirty and forty dollars in money. This he spent for a stock of small articles, such as pins, needles, knives and forks, buttons, thread, and the like. These he peddled from cabin to cabin on the way to Sangamon County, Illinois. By this turn he doubled his money before his journey was ended. When he reached his destination he hired out to split rails, and it required the money earned by splitting ten hundred rails to buy one pair of coarse jean trousers the cloth of which had been dyed with white walnut bark.

Lincoln never really liked to do hard work. While he could lift as much as three ordinary men and could split more rails in a week than the average workman could split in a fortnight, he preferred the labor of the mind to that of the body. Throughout his most toilsome experience in field and wood he somehow found time to write essays and squibs in rhyme. He appears to have been half blindly working his way to the light of an intellectual life.

He was far from handsome; not merely homely or ungainly, he was very unattractive to the casual observer. Lean, bony, long-necked, lantern-jawed, hollow-eyed, swarthy, angular, with large feet and knobby fingers, flat wrists and slim shanks, he was hopelessly shut off from being considered at all from the point of view of masculine beauty.

Abraham Lincoln worked; that was his life's weapon and safeguard. It was by work, both physical and mental, honestly and steadily persisted in, that he rose slowly but surely, higher, higher, highest. His life was a serious and earnest one. His eyes were ever upon the place of honor and of duty. When he fell under the stroke of an assassin, he was but fifty-six years old, really at the high prime of manhood. It was but twenty years after he had fairly begun to practice law that he died, the greatest man of all our country's heroes. Surely his life is a source of encouragement and inspiration for every American boy.