Abraham Lincoln Biography
Lincoln was born, as the whole world now knows, in a crude log cabin on a farm in Kentucky. His family wasn't born in poverty, as many people believe. At the time, many people lived in log cabins, and the Lincolns were no better or worse off than their neighbors. The children were always well-fed and well-clothed.
There were three children - the oldest was Sarah and the youngest was Thomas, who died in childhood. In the middle was Abraham, born February 12, 1809. When Abraham wasn't needed for chores at home, he attended school in a log schoolhouse nearby, where he picked up a smattering of reading, writing and arithmetic. He attended school, he said, "by littles" - a little here and a little there. Mostly, he educated himself. He was famous among his neighbors for the way he would walk miles - sometimes as many as twenty - just to borrow and return a book. His favorite books were Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, and Aesop's Fables. He also borrowed a history of the United States and some school texts. Later he developed a passion for Shakespeare's plays, long passages of which he could recite from memory. He also studied the Bible and always kept a copy of it on his desk at the White House. At night, when the terrible stress of his responsibilities kept him from sleeping, he would flip through the Bible and read different passages to himself. One of the books he read as a youth, that left an enduring mark, was a biography of George Washington that detailed the country's struggle for liberty. Lincoln said later: "I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for."
When Lincoln was eight, his family moved to Indiana, where there were better land deals, and no slavery. Lincoln's parents belonged to a Baptist church that condemned slavery and from the beginning, said Lincoln, he was "naturally anti-slavery and could remember no time when I did not so think and feel."
Life in Indiana was harder than in Kentucky. Young Abe helped his father cut trees, clear fields, build a cabin, and plant the crops. Though he was only a child, he was tall and strong for his age and especially good with an axe. He would later refer to it affectionately as "that most useful instrument."
The first year in Indiana, Lincoln's mother died of what pioneers called "milk sickness" - probably from drinking contaminated cow's milk. Life on the farm became sad and dreary, with the two children working even harder, taking on the chores that had been their mother's. The following year Lincoln's father brought a new wife to the farm - a cheerful, compassionate woman named Sarah Johnston, who had three children of her own. Sarah adored Abe. She encouraged his interest in education, nurtured him, and gamefully filled the vacuum so tragically left by the death of his real mother. Even as an adult, Lincoln called her "my angel mother."
In Indiana, as in Kentucky, Lincoln scraped by with whatever education he could muster from borrowed books. He made his own arithmetic textbook and sometimes scratched out his problems on wooden boards, erasing them with a penknife. He described his early education this way:
"There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond `readin, writin, and cipherin,' to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition or education." Yet internally something clearly excited Abe Lincoln. He never had more than about one year of formal education, yet he was one of the most eloquent and literate writers and speakers to ever hold the Presidency.
Lincoln stayed on his father's farm until he was twenty. By then he reached his full height of 6 feet 4 inches. He was thin but he was big boned and strong. He had a friendly, gaunt face, often considered sad, and a shock of black hair. Lincoln always thought of himself as a homely man and early on he grew a beard in hopes of concealing his self-perceived ugliness. Once, in a debate, when his opponent accused him of being two-faced, he responded: "If I had two faces would I choose to wear this one?" But many people saw a certain beauty in the wisdom and sadness of the Lincoln face. It was Henry David Thoreau who said, upon meeting Lincoln, that his face looked as if it had been molded directly by the hands of God. Lincoln, who had vivid dreams, many of them prophetic, once had a dream in which someone commented on how common looking he was. His response in the dream was: "The Lord prefers common-looking people; that's why he makes so many of them."
Lincoln was an amiable, modest young man with a knack for story telling and a wry sense of humor. He made friends easily but even when he was young, people spoke of the melancholy that seemed to envelop him. As he grew older, and especially during his years in the White House, he was prone to deep, dark depressions, some of which lasted for days.
At the age of 21, Lincoln set out on his own and headed for the village of New Salem, Illinois where he landed a job as a store clerk. It was a period without direction, or any sense of his great destiny. He described himself in these years of his early twenties as a "piece of floating driftwood." When the store failed, he signed up to fight in the Black Hawk War. Black Hawk was a Native American who led several hundred others in a raid to reclaim the land they had lost. Lincoln saw no fighting in the war except what he called the "bloody struggle with the mosquitoes and charges upon the wild onions." But he considered it one of the greatest honors of his life that he was elected captain of his company.
After the war, Lincoln was still searching for a career and an identity. His friends encouraged him to run for the state legislature, which he did and lost. He bought his own store, with a partner, but it failed after only a few months. He was appointed postmaster of New Salem and tried that for a while; then he tried his hand at surveying. He was efficient at both, but passionate about neither. He proposed marriage to a Kentucky girl named Mary Owens, but that didn't work out either. In her rejection she said he was "deficient in those little links which make up the chain of woman's happiness."
When he was 25, Lincoln decided to run for the legislature one more time, as a member of the Whig party. This time he was better known in Illinois. He won and served eight years in the Illinois General Assembly. As a legislator, Lincoln finally seemed to have found himself. He was quick and witty in debate and skilled at party politics. It was in the Illinois legislature that Lincoln made his first public statement in protest of slavery, calling it both "unjust" and "bad policy."