It would be difficult to conjure a time and an environment less conducive to great accomplishment than a hard-scrabble farm cut from an encroaching forest, in Hardin County, Kentucky in the early years of the 1800s. It would later be said that if there was an underlying motivation in the life of Abraham Lincoln, it was a negative one: he did not want to be like his father. Thomas Lincoln, tall, sturdy of build and plodding through a difficult life, he was comfortably illiterate and seemingly content to cut trees, clear brush and eke out a bare subsistence for his wife and two children who shared a tiny one-room log dwelling in the best of times. Lincoln’s mother, who could read but not write introduced him to Bible lessons, and finally – and briefly - to a local school at the age of six, where he learned to “cypher”, and was taught from Thomas Dillworth’s “New Guide to the English Tongue”, commonly known as “Dillworth’s Speller”, a book which would change Lincoln’s life.
From the beginning, young Abe displayed an intuitive ability to master phonetics from written words on a page, and to thereafter be able to remember and recite aloud entire passages, whether from the ever-present family bible, or whatever written material came to hand.
Life in Kentucky, and later in Indiana, was a continuation of economic poverty and personal loss for the family, as Lincoln’s mother died and was buried in a coffin fashioned by Thomas. A year later, his father brought home a new wife, the widow Sally Bush Johnston, a formidable woman who unpacked from her meager luggage “Arabian Nights”, Daniel DeFoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, “Aesop’s Fables” and other volumes including John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”. Not only was Sally well-read, but she soon became the loving tutor young Abe would always credit for a positive turn in his life.
His sister Sarah would later tell how as a young teenager her brother would climb upon a handy tree stump and proceed to tell stories, recite poetry and deliver persuasive speeches to his neighborhood friends. The word “persuasive” in fact would increasingly define Lincoln both in the written and spoken words which flowed from his proactive mind. He liked speaking, he liked writing, and he was a passionate reader. He enjoyed Milton, Byron and Gibbon and had a passion for Shakespeare and all his varied works, many of which he could quote flawlessly at the drop of a hat; and many “hats” dropped since those around him were endlessly entertained. Of all his beloved authors, I think his affection for the Scot Bobby Burns, with whom he felt an almost-mystical brotherhood, was supreme.
Despite the ever-present need to earn money – splitting rails, building and floating barges down the rivers to New Orleans, tending a store, and failing as a retailer himself in the bargain – his thirst for knowledge and hunger for answers to life’s most pressing questions defined his days and nights. The practice of Law was thrust upon him, both by admiring friends and his own drive to move toward a sense of fulfillment. The Law did not come easily to him and his eventual success in that field was more a result of his common-sense approach to arguing his cases than a study of Blackstone and a “toolbox” of memorized precedents.
As a legislator and candidate for public office though, he found his greatest platform for the practice of the fine art of rhetoric. In an age where few people could read or write let alone speak in public, his ability to shape and fine-tune every sentence to reinforce a crafted outcome swayed those who flocked to hear him. Mastering the combination of vocabulary, rhythm, balance and alliteration, he managed to make his opponents appear banal and ill-prepared. He was ever the consummate story-teller, with an innate ability to sense the mood and tenor of his audience and to capitalize on it with an economy of words; the five-minute-long Gettysburg Address an astounding example of Lincoln at his best.
Besieged by a life-long tendency toward melancholy and sadness, bombarded by the ongoing loss of those he loved most in life, and then confronted with the most daunting challenge faced by any U.S. President, Lincoln remained committed to listening to “the better angels of our nature”, and staying true to core principles first absorbed from reading “Dillworth’s Speller” so many years before.
Worn down by two years of an ongoing war, Lincoln looks older than his 54 years in this daguerreotype made in 1863. Ineffably human, he hated to dress up and often displayed a certain pride in his sartorial indifference around the White House.