Abraham Lincoln: His Story/Chapter 2




Lincoln's starved and straitened boyhood stretched out into a manhood that seemed to hold little but poverty and toil. As he grew large enough he began to work out as a farmhand and afterward as a flatboatsman. Every yard of the brown jeans dyed with walnut juice which he wore was earned by splitting rails. A day's work lasted from sunrise to sunset and brought him in twenty-five cents.

Listen to the story of Lincoln's first dollar:

I was about eighteen years of age and belonged, as you know, to what they call down South the "scrubs." I was very glad to have the chance of earning something, and supposed each of the men would give me a couple of bits. 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. 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.

It was on a trip to New Orleans on a flatboat with John Hanks that he saw, for the first time, men and women put up on a block and sold as slaves. Lincoln turned to Hanks and said, "John, if I ever get a chance to hit this thing, . . . I'll hit it hard."

In 1831 he went to New Salem, on the Sangamon River, twenty miles northwest of Springfield. The town consisted of only fifteen houses all built of logs. Lincoln reached there on election day and the clerk of election needed a helper. Seeing Lincoln hanging around the polls he asked him whether he could write. "Well," said Lincoln, "I can make a few rabbit tracks."

He got the job and afterward was hired as a clerk in the village store. It was there that he laid the foundation of his reputation for absolute honesty. Finding one evening that he had taken six cents too much from a customer, he walked three miles that night, after the store was closed, to return the money. Another time, in weighing out half a pound of tea, he made a mistake of four ounces. Discovering this mistake the first thing in the morning, he closed the store until he could deliver the rest of the tea.

While he was still a clerk in this store the Black Hawk Indian War broke out. There was a call for volunteers and Abraham Lincoln was elected captain. The other candidate was a man named Kirkpatrick, who had once hired Lincoln and cheated him out of two dollars in wages. Lincoln afterward wrote that no other success in life ever gave him so much satisfaction.

He did not make a great record as a military man. In after-life he used to tell how he got his men through a gateway into a field: "I could not for the life of me remember the right word of command for getting my company endwise, so that it could get through the gate; so when we came near I shouted, 'This company is dismissed for two minutes, when it will fall in again on the other side of the gate.'"

Lincoln did not win much glory in this campaign, but at some risk to himself he saved the life of a helpless old Indian whom his men wished to kill.

When he came back to New Salem, in partnership with a man named Berry he opened a store, giving his notes in payment for the stock. Berry ran the business heavily into debt and died. Instead of going through bankruptcy Lincoln sold out, shouldered the burden for fifteen years, and paid off every dollar of the debt with interest.

Later on he became the postmaster at New Salem. Most of the letters he carried around in his hat and delivered to his neighbors at their cabins on his way to work—one of the earliest systems on record of rural free-delivery.

At length came a chance to secure an appointment as deputy state surveyor. The only difficulty was that Lincoln knew absolutely nothing about surveying. He borrowed a textbook and, with the help of a schoolmaster friend, worked night and day for six weeks. At the end of that time, pale and haggard but a master of surveying, he got the job.

It was about this time that he fell in love with the beautiful Ann Rutledge, who died soon after they became engaged. "My heart is buried there," he said to a friend when they once passed her grave. There is no doubt that Lincoln was a changed man after her death and that her loss deepened his life. This thought has been nobly phased by Edgar Lee Masters in the epitaph which he has written for her almost unmarked grave:

Ann Rutledge

Out of me, unworthy and unknown.
The vibrations of deathless music:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all."
Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions,
And the beneficent face of a nation
Shining with justice and truth.
I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds.
Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,
Wedded to him, not through union.
But through separation.
Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom!

In 1834 Lincoln was elected to the state legislature and went to Springfield to live. He reached that town on a borrowed horse, with all of his possessions in a couple of saddle-bags, and accepted the offer of Joshua Speed, a storekeeper, to share his room and bed until he got a start. Going upstairs Lincoln set his saddlebags on the floor and coming down said beamingly, "Well, Speed, I'm moved."

In 1842 Lincoln married Mary Todd, a spirited, pretty Kentucky girl. They lived at the Globe Tavern at four dollars a week. He wrote to a friend who had invited him to visit in Kentucky: "I am so poor, and make so little headway, that I drop back in a month of idleness as much as I would gain in a year's sowing."

Here is Lincoln's own account of his appearance at this time: "I am in height six feet four inches nearly, lean in flesh, weighing on an average of a hundred and eighty pounds, dark complexion, with coarse, black hair and gray eyes. No other marks or brands recollected."

He always had unusual strength and endurance. Once he picked up and carried a weight of six hundred pounds. At another time he shouldered some posts which several men were vainly trying to lift with a hoisting machine. In harness he was able to lift a dead weight of half a ton off the ground. Moreover, he was able to use this strength in protecting himself when it became necessary. At New Salem, when forced into a fight, he whipped Jack Armstrong, the leader of the Clary's Grove gang, and then with his back to the wall held his own against the rest of the gang, all of whom afterward became his devoted friends and supporters

Throughout life Lincoln was a melancholy man. He thus wrote about himself in 1841 to his friend and partner Stuart: "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not."

He fought this natural despondency with his stories, when many another man would have given in to it. Of this use of stories Lincoln said:

I am not a story-teller. Often by the use of a story I can illustrate a point, or take the sting out of a refusal to grant a request. Sometimes, too, the telling of a good story or the listening to one lightens the load of sorrow and suffering that one in my position has to bear; but it is a mistake to think that I am a humorist or tell stories for the laugh that is in them.

Most of his stories come under this, his own description of them, as when, at one of the receptions given by him when President, a Virginia farmer pushed his way through the crowd and told him that some Union soldiers had carried off his hay. "I hope, Mr. President," he ended, "that you'll see that I'm paid."

Mr. Lincoln's only reply was to tell him the story of Jack Chase, the river captain. Once when he was piloting a steamer through the rapids and straining every nerve and muscle to follow the narrow channel, a boy pulled his coat-tail and shouted in his ear above the roar of the waters: "Say, Mr. Captain, I wish you'd stop the boat a minute. I've dropped my apple overboard."

At other times his whimsical drollery and quaint flashes of humor were efforts, perhaps unconscious, to relieve the rooted melancholy of his life. "Why, Mr. President, do you black your own boots?" exclaimed Charles Sumner when he found Mr. Lincoln so engaged at the White House. "Whose boots did you think I blacked?" responded the President.

Another time, when he was visiting the Union army, a young officer pushed his way through the crowd and complained to him bitterly that Colonel Sherman, as he was then, had threatened to shoot him.

"Did he threaten to shoot you?" exclaimed Lincoln.

"Yes, shoot me!" the officer assured him earnestly.

Leaning over to him Lincoln said in a stage whisper, "Well, if I were you and Sherman had threatened to shoot me, I wouldn't trust him for a moment—for I believe he'd do it."

Early in life Lincoln resolved not to weigh himself down with bad habits. He led a straight, clean life morally. What he said about the women of America at the end of the Civil War can be quoted as his attitude toward women during his entire life:

"If all that has been said by orators and poets since the creation of the world in praise of women were applied to the women of America, it would not do them justice for their conduct during this war. I will close by saying, 'God bless the women of America.'"

He neither drank nor smoked. In the early forties he wrote to George E. Pickett, afterward a Confederate general:

"I have just told the folks here in Springfield, on the hundred-and-tenth anniversary of Washington's birthday, that the one victory we can ever call complete will be that one which proclaims that there is not one slave nor one drunkard on the face of God's green earth. Recruit for this victory!"

The picture of his inner life is a harder one to draw than that of his appearance and habits. There were two men in Lincoln. One of them was the Lincoln known to all his townsfolk—the plain, honest, shrewd, kindly, humorous man, with a certain native dignity which kept them from calling him by his first name. "He was folky but not familiar," one of them afterward wrote. The other man was the dreamer, who made his dreams come true; the mystic, who dreamed of the swift ship carrying him to a dark shore before the battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and the night before his death; the thinker, who walked the streets wrapped in solitude, not seeing his best friends, but looking beyond the horizon and pondering in his own mind through many a lonely night the great problem of slavery. It was this Lincoln whom few even of his best friends knew. To the day of his death some of them persisted in believing that his greatness was an accident or a miracle. Lincoln's own words throw light on what were the guiding motives of his inner life:

The better part of one's life consists of our friendships,

he wrote to Judge Gillespie.

I would have the whole human race your friend and mine,

he said to his little son "Tad."

If any man cease to attack me I never remember his past against him,

he declared in one of his speeches.

Stand with anybody that stands right, and part with him when he goes wrong,

he said to men who esteem their party more than they do their principles.

The advice of a father to his son, "Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear it that the opposed may beware of thee," is good, but not the best. Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; yield lesser ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog than be bitten by him in contesting the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.

So he wrote, and so he lived.

He trained himself into a habit of sympathy. No man with whom he talked even for a few moments but felt that Lincoln was genuinely interested in him. Men trusted him for that, and because they saw by his everyday life that his sympathy was not put on but real. We like to read of the time in Springfield when he found a child sobbing on the porch of her home. She was to take her first railroad trip. The family had gone on and the hackman had forgotten to call for her trunk. There was no time to get him before the train went. Lincoln shouldered the trunk and carried it on his back down to the station, arriving just in time to catch the train. This habit of kindness never left him all his life through. He was merciful in the merciless days of the Civil War. He pardoned men condemned for cowardice in battle. "If God Almighty gives a man a cowardly pair of legs," he said, "how can he help running away?"

He allowed no boys of eighteen to be shot for desertion. Once when a man was condemned to death for sleeping at his post he drove ten miles in the middle of the night to make sure that his telegram pardoning him had been received. On the very day of his death he said at a Cabinet meeting, when the treatment of the Confederate leaders was under discussion: "Enough lives have been sacrificed. We must extinguish our resentments."

Thirty-six hours after the fall of Richmond Lincoln visited the place and sought out the home of General Pickett, who had made the great charge at Gettysburg. Lincoln had known him as a boy. He found the house and knocked at the door. "Is this where George Pickett lives?" he asked a woman who came to answer the door with a baby in her arms. She said that it was and that she was Mrs. Pickett. "I am Abraham Lincoln, George's old friend," he said. Then he took the baby in his arms and told Mrs. Pickett that everything would be done to make her comfortable and her home safe.

It is this simplicity and kindness which companions Lincoln forever in our thoughts with the gentle and heroic of older lands, so that of him John Bright, the English statesman, wrote: "In him I have observed a singular resolution honestly to do his duty, a great courage, a great gentleness under the most desperate provocations, and a pity and mercifulness to his enemies. His simplicity did much to hide his greatness."