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“there I Grew Up”
So Abraham Lincoln summed up his boyhood in Indiana. Posterity has made of it a romantic legend, spent in a dark, smoky, crowded, deep in the wilderness
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
Lincoln’s formal schooling in Indiana—a few months when he was ten and another month or two when he was twelve and again when he was fourteen—was no better and no worse than the schooling of most backwoods boys in the state in that period. The schools he attended—first Andrew Crawford’s and then Azel Dorsey’s and William Sweeney’s—were “blab schools,” where the children studied aloud. Abe learned simple arithmetic and how to read and write from Pike’s Arithmetic and Dilworth’s Spelling Book ; and by studying and memorizing the speeches of famous men he mastered a kind of oratory. In spite of his remarkable talent for mimicry, however, he never mastered his own tongue, retaining all his life some of the pronunciations of the southern Indiana pioneer; for example, witnesses noted in 1860 that he began his famous Cooper Union speech with “Mr. Cheerman …” In school he was especially proficient in spelling, and on one occasion, during a spelling bee, helped a schoolmate, Anna Roby, by placing a finger over his eye to signal that “defied” was spelled with an i, not a y.
Most of Abe’s learning, however, he got for himself from books and newspapers that he borrowed from neighbors, like Josiah Crawford, whose copy of Weems’s Life of Washington was soaked with rain when Abe left it in a chink in the cabin wall overnight and who required Abe to pay for the damage by pulling fodder on his farm. Lincoln walked frequently to Judge John Pitcher’s law office in Rockport, sixteen miles away, to read the Judge’s newspapers and law books, and he also walked to Boonville, an equal distance, to listen to the courtroom oratory of John A. Brackenridge, the Warrick County prosecutor. It was probably in the home of Alfred Grass in Rockport that the legendary image of Abe reading by firelight was originated. When he was nineteen, Abe stayed in the Grass home for a week or two while he was loading a fiatboat in preparation for his first trip to New Orleans. Many years later, Dr. John Grass of Denver, son of Alfred Grass, recalled that Lincoln often read till midnight in their home, lying on his back with his head toward the fireplace. Most of the other reminiscences of Abe’s reading have the out-of-doors as their setting. Those who hired him often chided him when they found him resting in a cornfield or leaning on his axehandle reading a book. One of his employers complained that the boy not only wasted his own time at work but inspired idleness in the other hired hands, for at the slightest urging Abe would spin a yarn or get up on a stump and read a speech from Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, Or A Selection Of Pieces In Prose and Verse For The Improvement of Youth In Reading And Speaking .
Because Abe’s father never cleared more than twenty acres round the cabin, putting half in corn and the rest in wheat, oats, and meadow, there was hardly enough work at home to keep Abe busy, and consequently he hired out to neighbors for plowing, splitting rails, daubing the chinks of log cabins with clay. Among his employers were Josiah Crawford, John Romine, David Turnham, and William Wood, all of whom contributed their reminiscences to the story of his youth long afterward. It was Romine who quoted Abe’s famous remark, “My father taught me to work but he never taught me to like it.” Mrs. Crawford said of him years later that “he was no hand to pitch in at work like killing snakes.” William Wood, known to Abe as “Uncle Billy,” seems to have recognized more than the others the potentialities of the young man and was responsible for dissuading him from making a career of steamboating on the Ohio River. For a time young Abe clerked in William Jones’s store in nearby Gentryville, where he read the newspapers that Jones subscribed to. In the spring and summer of his eighteenth year, 1826, he worked for thirty-seven cents a day on James Taylor’s farm near the mouth of Anderson’s Creek, sixteen miles from his home.
Although he was glad then to be out from under the surveillance of his father, with whom he was never congenial, Lincoln afterward remembered his labors for Taylor as the roughest a young man could be made to do. They included not only the heavy chores of the Taylor farm—plowing, planting, hoeing, reaping, and hog-butchering—but also assisting Taylor in the operation of a ferry near the mouth of Anderson’s Creek. Even so, Abe found time to build a scow for himself, and occasionally took passengers off passing steamboats that could not stop for a landing. On one occasion he was given a whole dollar for this service, the first dollar he ever earned in less than a day. His independent enterprise finally landed him in a Kentucky court, where he was charged with operating a ferry without a license. He argued his own case before Justice of the Peace Samuel Pate and won it on the grounds that he was not taking passengers “over” the river, as charged, but only meeting them in mid-stream and bringing them back to the Indiana shore.