Table of Contents
The death of his wife had left Thomas Lincoln with the care of three young children: namely, Sarah, about eleven years old, Abe, ten years old, and the foster brother, Dennis (Friend) Hanks, a year or two younger. The father was not able to do woman’s work as well as his wife had been able to do man’s work, and the condition of the home was pitiable indeed. To the three motherless children and the bereaved father it was a long and dreary winter. When spring came they had the benefits of life in the woods and fields, and so lived through the season until the edge of the following winter. It is not to be wondered at that the father was unwilling to repeat the loneliness of the preceding year.
Early in December, 1819, he returned to Elizabethtown, Ky., and proposed marriage to a widow, Mrs. Sally Bush Johnston. The proposal must have been direct, with few preliminaries or none, for the couple were married next morning. The new wife brought him a fortune, in addition to three children of various ages, of sundry articles of household furniture. Parents, children, and goods were shortly after loaded into a wagon drawn by a four-horse team, and in all the style of this frontier four-in-hand, were driven over indescribable roads, through woods and fields, to their Indiana home.
The accession of Sally Bush’s furniture made an important improvement in the home. What was more important, she had her husband finish the log cabin by providing window, door, and floor. What was most important of all, she brought the sweet spirit of an almost ideal motherhood into the home, giving to all the children alike a generous portion of mother-love.
The children now numbered six, and not only were they company for one another, but the craving for womanly affection, which is the most persistent hunger of the heart of child or man, was beautifully met. She did not humor them to the point of idleness, but wisely ruled with strictness without imperiousness. She kept them from bad habits and retained their affection to the last. The influence upon the growing lad of two such women as Nancy Hanks and Sally Bush was worth more than that of the best appointed college in all the land.
The boy grew into youth, and he grew very fast. While still in his teens he reached the full stature of his manhood, six feet and four inches. His strength was astonishing, and many stories were told of this and subsequent periods to illustrate his physical prowess, such as: he once lifted up a hencoop weighing six hundred pounds and carried it off bodily; he could lift a full barrel of cider to his mouth and drink from the bung-hole; he could sink an ax-halve deeper into a log than any man in the country.
During the period of his growth into youth he spent much of his time in reading, talking, and, after a fashion, making speeches. He also wrote some. His political writings won great admiration from his neighbors. He occasionally wrote satires which, while not refined, were very stinging. This would not be worth mentioning were it not for the fact that it shows that from boyhood he knew the force of this formidable weapon which later he used with so much skill. The country store furnished the frontier substitute for the club, and there the men were wont to congregate. It is needless to say that young Lincoln was the life of the gatherings, being an expert in the telling of a humorous story and having always a plentiful supply. His speech-making proved so attractive that his father was forced to forbid him to practise it during working hours because the men would always leave their work to listen to him.
During these years he had no regular employment, but did odd jobs wherever he got a chance. At one time, for example, he worked on a ferryboat for the munificent wages of thirty-seven and one half cents a day.
When sixteen years old, Lincoln had his first lesson in oratory. He attended court at Boonville, county seat of Warwick County and heard a case in which one of the aristocratic Breckenridges of Kentucky was attorney for the defense. The power of his oratory was a revelation to the lad. At its conclusion the awkward, ill-dressed, bashful but enthusiastic young Lincoln pressed forward to offer his congratulations and thanks to the eloquent lawyer, who haughtily brushed by him without accepting the proffered hand. In later years the men met again, this time in Washington City, in the white house. The president reminded Breckenridge of the incident which the latter had no desire to recall.
When about nineteen years old, he made his first voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Two incidents are worth recording of this trip. The purpose was to find, in New Orleans, a market for produce, which was simply floated down stream on a flat-boat. There was, of course, a row-boat for tender. The crew consisted of himself and young Gentry, son of his employer.
Near Baton Rouge they had tied up for the night in accordance with the custom of flat-boat navigation. During the night they were awakened by a gang of seven ruffian negroes who had come aboard to loot the stuff. Lincoln shouted “Who’s there?” Receiving no reply he seized a handspike and knocked over the first, second, third, and fourth in turn, when the remaining three took to the woods. The two northerners pursued them a short distance, then returned, loosed their craft and floated safely to their destination.
It was on this trip that Lincoln earned his first dollar, as he in after years related to William H. Seward:
”... A steamer was going down the river. We have, you know, no wharves on the western streams, and the custom was, if passengers were at any of the landings, they were to go out in a boat, the steamer stopping and taking them on board.... Two men with trunks came down to the shore in carriages, and looking at the different boats, singled out mine, and asked, ’Who owns this?’ I modestly answered, ’I do.’ ’Will you take us and our trunks out to the steamer?’ ’Certainly.’... The trunks were put in my boat, the passengers seated themselves on them, and I sculled them out to the steamer. They got on board, and I lifted the trunks and put them on the deck. The steamer was about to put on steam again, when I called out: ’You have forgotten to pay me.’ Each of them took from his pocket a silver half dollar and threw it on the bottom of my boat. I could scarcely believe my eyes as I picked up the money. You may think it was a very little thing, and in these days it seems to me like a trifle, but it was a most important incident in my life. I could scarcely credit that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day; that by honest work I had earned a dollar. I was a more hopeful and thoughtful boy from that time.”
The goods were sold profitably at New Orleans and the return trip was made by steamboat. This was about twenty years after Fulton’s first voyage from New York to Albany, which required seven days. Steamboats had been put on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, but these crafts were of primitive construction–awkward as to shape and slow as to speed. The frequency of boiler explosions was proverbial for many years. The lads, Gentry and Lincoln, returned home duly and the employer was well satisfied with the results of the expedition.
In 1830 the epidemic “milk sick” reappeared in Indiana, and Thomas Lincoln had a pardonable desire to get out of the country. Illinois was at that time settling up rapidly and there were glowing accounts of its desirableness. Thomas Lincoln’s decision to move on to the new land of promise was reasonable. He sold out and started with his family and household goods to his new destination. The time of year was March, just when the frost is coming out of the ground so that the mud is apparently bottomless. The author will not attempt to describe it, for he has in boyhood seen it many times and knows it to be indescribable. It was Abe’s duty to drive the four yoke of oxen, a task which must have strained even his patience.
They settled in Macon County, near Decatur. There the son faithfully worked with his father until the family was fairly settled, then started out in life for himself. For he had now reached the age of twenty-one. As he had passed through the periods of childhood and youth, and was on the threshold of manhood, it is right and fitting to receive at this point the testimony of Sally Bush, his stepmother:
“Abe was a good boy, and I can say what scarcely one woman–a mother– can say in a thousand: Abe never gave me a cross word or look, and never refused, in fact or appearance, to do anything I requested him. I never gave him a cross word in all my life.... He was a dutiful son to me always. I think he loved me truly. I had a son John who was raised with Abe. Both were good boys; but I must say, both being now dead, that Abe was the best boy I ever saw, or expect to see.”
These words of praise redound to the honor of the speaker equally with that of her illustrious stepson.
Lincoln came into the estate of manhood morally clean. He had formed no habits that would cause years of struggle to overcome, he had committed no deed that would bring the blush of shame to his cheek, he was as free from vice as from crime. He was not profane, he had never tasted liquor, he was no brawler, he never gambled, he was honest and truthful. On the other hand, he had a genius for making friends, he was the center of every social circle, he was a good talker and a close reasoner. Without a thought of the great responsibilities awaiting him, he had thus far fitted himself well by his faithfulness in such duties as fell to him.