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Written by Gretchen Wollert, author of Born To Fight.
Abraham Lincoln never lived really well—until he made it to the White House. He never made it to Manhattan, at least not to live there or to build skyscrapers there; he had Kentucky and then Indiana and Illinois to deal with. His lot in life was much more spartan than anything in Queens, let alone Manhattan. Lincoln didn’t just rise above his circumstances; he rose from nothing—nothing but a small cabin with a dirt floor in the middle of backwoods Kentucky. There were no limos to help him make his rounds (whatever those might have been in his small parcel of the world).
What young Abe Lincoln did embrace at an early age was the belief that he was meant for something far better. It was an inner drive that he ambitiously nourished before anyone else arrived in his life to contribute to that effort. Other than a stepmom who fed into Abe’s growing fascination with books and reading, and the occasional kick in his butt from a dad more concerned with cutting down trees and clearing bush than feeding Abe’s intellect and daydreams, Lincoln the boy and then Lincoln the adolescent was mostly on his own with his own devices (curiosity, work ethic, and so on), and he wasted little time exploiting those. There was a tension, a strain, between youthful Abe Lincoln and his father, Thomas, but Abe chose to let that friction feed his yearning rather than stifle it. It was a sign of resiliency that would serve him well in overcoming obstacles and bouncing back from political defeats.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin observes:
Year after year, as he persevered in defiance of his father’s wishes, managing his negative emotions and exercising his will to slowly master one subject after another, he developed an increasing belief in his own strengths and powers, He came to trust “that he was going to be something,” his cousin Sophie Hanks related, slowly creating what one leadership scholar calls “a vision of an alternative future.” He told a neighbor he did not “intend to delve, grub, shuck corn, split rails, and the like. I’ll study and get ready, and then the chance will come.”
Goodwin adds, “From the beginning, young Lincoln aspired to nothing less than to inscribe his name into the book of community memory.”
At any given moment, the world in which Lincoln lived and the people and settings around him didn’t define who he was. From the time he was a young boy, Lincoln demonstrated a gifted mind that was exceptionally well-ordered and intelligent, with a knack for inquisitiveness that would be relentless in his pursuit of knowledge and retention of it. He learned how to read and write at the age of seven while attending ABC school in rural Kentucky. While he was there, others observed how Abe was able to learn more quickly and grasp the material more deeply than his peers. He was at or near the top of his class, despite being frequently pulled away from school by Thomas Lincoln, who needed his strong, reliable son to help work on the family’s scrimpy farm.
Lincoln’s lack of formal schooling didn’t prevent him from becoming an exceptionally learned man. But he was almost entirely a self-taught one. All he needed were books, including the Bible and Aesop’s Fables. He was a voracious reader, and his powers of retention were remarkable. To his friends, classmates, and others who knew him, Lincoln had a gift. This was a perception that he disputed, claiming that, in fact, he was slow to learn, yet slow to forget what he had learned once he had absorbed it.
It wasn’t just that Lincoln read relentlessly and sought out ways to expand his acquisition of knowledge, it was how he read books that caught the attention of others, a certain peculiarity in how he kept his nose in his books—often lying on his back, his feet sometimes propped up against a wall. Maybe it was a way to take the strain off his back, a distinct possibility considering how fast he grew and how lean he was.