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Lincoln

The Biography of a Writer

Lincoln
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For Abraham Lincoln, whether he was composing love letters, speeches, or legal arguments, words mattered. In Lincoln, acclaimed biographer Fred Kaplan explores the life of America's sixteenth president through his use of language as a vehicle both to express complex ideas and feelings and as an instrument of persuasion and empowerment. Like the other great canonical writers of American literature—a status he is gradually attaining—Lincoln had a literary career that is inseparable from his life story. An admirer and avid reader of Burns, Byron, Shakespeare, and the Old Testament, Lincoln was the most literary of our presidents. His views on love, liberty, and human nature were shaped by his reading and knowledge of literature.

Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his audience with equal and enduring effectiveness. Kaplan focuses on the elements that shaped Lincoln's mental and imaginative world; how his writings molded his identity, relationships, and career; and how they simultaneously generated both the distinctive political figure he became and the public discourse of the nation. This unique account of Lincoln's life and career highlights the shortcomings of the modern presidency, reminding us, through Lincoln's legacy and appreciation for language, that the careful and honest use of words is a necessity for successful democracy.

Illuminating and engrossing, Lincoln brilliantly chronicles Abraham Lincoln's genius with language.

HarperCollins; October 2009
416 pages; ISBN 9780061980589
Download in EPUB or secure PDF format
Excerpt


Chapter One

"All the Books He Could Lay His Hands On"

1809-1825

At six years of age, for a few weeks in the fall of 1815, in the town of Knob Creek, Hardin County, Kentucky, the boy went to his first school, taught by a typical frontier teacher commissioned by local parents to provide children with basic skills and only sufficiently knowledgeable himself to rise modestly above that level. Teachers were in short supply on the frontier that ran along the western ridge of the Appalachians; beyond was the sparsely settled western portion of Ohio and the territories of Indiana and Illinois; southward, much of the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Cash also was in short supply. Material possessions were minimal. By modern standards it was a starkly rudimentary life.

In this community of Protestants the supremacy of the Bible as the book of daily life encouraged acquiring basic reading skills. Simple arithmetic came next. "His father," the grown-up boy later recalled, "sent him to this school with the avowed determination of giving him a thorough education. And what do you think my father's idea of a thorough education was? It was to have me cipher through the rule of three." Beyond that, education was a luxury that neither time nor money permitted. Intellectual curiosity in a society in which it had no likely practical reward was rare, except for the occasional child who, inexplicably, without any relation to who his parents were and what the community valued, was transfixed by the power of words.

Words and ideas were inseparable in a nation in which the Bible dominated. It was given full currency as the source of the dominant belief system. It was also the great book of illustrative stories, illuminating references, and pithy maxims for everyday conduct. More than any other glue, it held the society together, regardless of differences of interpretation among Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. This was a world of believers. Here and there was a deist, an agnostic, or an atheist, but even those who had grounds of disagreement with Christian theological claims generally did so within the tribal circle and expressed themselves in small deviances, such as not attending church regularly or at all. Deistic voices from afar, from the East Coast, from the Founding Fathers, even from Europe, occasionally could be heard in the Appalachian woods and beyond. The deists rationalized religion, eliminated mystery: there is a creator, a God; otherwise, human beings are on their own, dependent on reason and action. But rural American Protestants in the nineteenth century much preferred miracle, redemption, brimstone, the literal truth of the Bible, and the apocalypse to come. As six-year-old Abraham Lincoln began to learn to read, his household text was the Bible.

His parents were fundamentalist believers, regular worshippers. Without education and illiterate, Thomas Lincoln was also blind in one eye and had weak sight in the other, which may have perpetuated his illiteracy. To sign his name, he made his mark. To worship, he recited and sang memorized prayers and hymns. Since words and beliefs were inseparable, he depended on cues from others and especially on his memory, which was the agent of sacred prayer and biblical knowledge. Both literate and illiterate American Christians often memorized long stretches of the Bible. And as young boys like Abraham became literate, they developed their ability to remember. From an early age, Lincoln had a tenacious memory. By modern standards, few books were available to him. Those he could recite almost by heart.

His first teacher was his mother, who had learned to read but not write. Thin, slight, dark-haired, Nancy Hanks was born in 1783 in Virginia, the daughter of Lucy Hanks and an unidentified father. In 1806, she married Thomas Lincoln. The next year, in Hardin County, Kentucky, where they had settled, she had her first child, Sarah; on February 9, 1809, Abraham; then another son, who died in infancy. Unlike her prolific Hanks predecessors and contemporaries, she was to have no more children.

What young Abraham learned from his father had nothing to do with books. In his later testimony to the absence of family distinction, he gave short shrift to his father's contribution to his upbringing. His stocky, muscular, dark-haired, large-nosed father, about six feet and almost two hundred pounds, seemed a Caliban of the carpentry shop and the fields. Thomas Lincoln's illiteracy, though, was less remarkable to his son than what the boy took to be his father's disinterest in learning to read and his lack of ambition in general. It left him a marginal man who at an early age had fallen out of the mainstream of American upward mobility, a plodder without ambition to rise in the world. But he had not been born to that necessity. The father that the young adult Lincoln knew had been substantially formed by circumstances, though for the son the totality was subsumed into a sense of his father's character. It was not a character that he admired. And it was one that he needed later to distance himself from. Thomas Lincoln "was not a lazy man," a contemporary of Abraham's remembered, but "a piddler—always doing but doing nothing great—was happy—lived Easy—and contented. Had but few wants and Supplied these."

Both father and son knew less than modern scholars about the paternal family's history, mostly because Thomas Lincoln had been cut off from much of his past. He knew only that his great-grandfather came from Berks County, Pennsylvania, to Rockingham County, Virginia, where his grandfather, the Abraham he named his son after, had four brothers. Everything before was lost in the haze of illiteracy and family tragedy. Actually, the first American Lincoln, Samuel, had emigrated from England to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. A next generation had been Quakers in Pennsylvania, where Samuel's grandson, Mordecai, had prospered. Mordecai's son, John, became a well-to-do farmer in Virginia. And it was one of John's sons, Abraham, who moved in the 1780s from Virginia to Kentucky with his five children, three of whom were sons, Mordecai, Joseph, and Thomas. In 1786, while planting a cornfield, Abraham was killed by Indians. As his body lay in the field, ten-year-old Thomas sat beside it. An Indian ran out of the woods toward him. Fifteen-year-old Mordecai, concealed in the cabin, aimed and shot the Indian in the chest. It was the eponymous story of Thomas's life, retold many times by a man who had a gift for narrative, got along with his neighbors, and attended church regularly.

Primogeniture gave his eldest brother the family possessions. The other sons were expected to move on. Thomas was not sent to school, even to learn arithmetic. A manual laborer as a teenager, then a carpenter, and then a farmer, he managed sustenance and little more. He made rough tables and cabinets on commission, built barns and cabins, made coffins. When he eventually acquired property, it provided mostly backbreaking work and disappointment. He had bursts of pioneer energy, resettling twice. Decent in every way, he struggled through life, gave no one any trouble, and made do. He started more strongly than he finished and, as he grew older, did only the irreducibly necessary.

In spring 1806 he had a glimpse beyond Kentucky. Hired to build a flatboat for a local merchant, he took it, loaded with goods, to New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. As a carpenter and day laborer, he accumulated enough cash to buy, soon after his son was born, almost 350 acres in Hardin County. He still owned some of the 200 he had purchased in 1803, on Nolin River, near Hodgenville, called Sinking Spring Farm. Then, in 1811, he bought 230 acres on Knob Creek, northeast of Hodgenville, to which he moved his family. On each farm, he built a one-room log cabin. So, too, did everyone else of his station and means, and the small commercial buildings of the local townships were identical, at most slightly larger. Thomas Lincoln's land transactions, including promissory notes and delayed sales, had title and debt complications. In the end, their actual value amounted to the equivalent of three or so years of what he could save from his earnings. It was not inestimable, given his start, but it left a narrow margin and next to no cash.