Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Abraham Lincoln by Mary A. Hamilton
The Story of Abraham Lincoln by  Mary A. Hamilton

The Young Backwoodsman

For Abraham life was dull and very monotonous: the round of work was much the same, summer and winter. He longed to escape from the dull work of a farm labourer; to go out and see the world. Until he was twenty-one, however, he was bound to serve his father; and his father seems to have had no idea that his son was fit for anything better than ordinary farm work. Other people nevertheless were truck by Abraham.

Until he was nineteen he had not left home at all; but then one day a rich land-owner who lived near came to him. He wanted some one to help his son to take a raft loaded with different kinds of goods down the Ohio River, selling the goods at the different places they passed. Abraham had struck this Mr. Gentry as being an honest and capable lad; he therefore asked him to undertake the voyage, and Abraham consented at once, glad of any chance of seeing something of life outside the settlement.

He took charge of the raft and steered it successfully down the river; the voyage took them past the great southern sugar plantations, right down to New Orleans. They had no adventures of any sort until they had almost come to New Orleans.

One night they encamped at Baton Rouge, a place on the bank of the river. Here they fastened their raft, and lay down to sleep on it for the night, wrapped up in thick blankets. They were both sound asleep. Suddenly Abraham started up. He heard the sound of many soft footsteps all round him. In the darkness, at first, he could see nothing; then he became aware that a band of negroes was attacking the raft, ready to steal their goods and to murder them. Abraham's cry waked up his companion, young Allan Gentry, and they threw themselves upon the negroes. If Abraham had not been uncommonly strong and active they must both have lost their lives, for the negroes far outnumbered them. He seized a huge log of wood, which served him as a club, and brandished it in his hand. His great height and the unknown weapon which he whirled round his head, terrified the negroes. He hit first one and then another on the head and threw them overboard, Allan Gentry helping. The fight was very fierce for a few moments, and then the negroes turned and fled. Abraham and Allan pursued them a long way into the darkness, but the thieves did not dare to return, though two men could not have held their own for long against such numbers.

The voyage ended successfully, and Abraham returned home for two more years. At the end of that time his father again moved. John Hanks had gone west to Illinois; he wrote to his uncle, praising the new country, and urging him to come there too. Thomas Lincoln was always ready to try something new: he sold his farm and his land to a neighbour. All the goods of the household were packed in a waggon drawn by oxen; the family walked beside it. They tramped for more than a week until they came to the new State; the journey was not easy. It was February. The forest roads were ankle-deep in mud; the prairie a mere swamp, very difficult for walking. They had to cross streams that were swollen into rivers by the rains.

At last they arrived. John Hanks had chosen a plantation for them, and got logs ready for building the house. Abraham worked very hard, and helped his father and John Hanks to make a cabin; then, with his own hands, he ploughed fifteen acres of ground. When that was done he cut down walnut trees, split them, and built a high and solid fence which went right round his father's property.

Abraham lived in Illinois until he was made President of the United States. Once he was addressing a meeting there, years after this, and Denis Hanks marched in amid the shouts and applause of the crowd, carrying on his shoulder a piece of the railing that Abraham had made for his father. It is now in the Museum at Washington, kept as a national treasure. How little could Abraham himself or any one who knew him at this time, have dreamed that this rail-splitter was to be the greatest man in America.

The winter that followed was one of the most severe ever known in Illinois; it is always referred to as the winter of deep snow. When spring came at last, Abraham said good-bye to his father and mother, and went out into the world to make a livelihood for himself. His boyish days were over. He was now twenty-one, and very tall and strong for his age. More than six feet four inches in height, he seldom met a man taller than himself. He is a great exception to the saying that all great men have been small—for example, Napoleon, Caesar, Hannibal, Shakespeare. Abraham was very well built; it was not till he stood up among other men that you realised that he was head and shoulders taller than most of them.

In the ordinary sense of the word, he had had no education. He knew no language but his own, and that not very well at this time. When asked could he write, he replied, "Well, I guess I could make a few rabbit-tracks." He had taught himself all the arithmetic he knew. But he knew two things that are the most important that can be got from any training: how to think, and how to work. When he made clear to himself what it was right to do, he did it without talking about it, all his life.

His experience in taking Mr. Gentry's cargo down to New Orleans induced a merchant called Offutt to offer him another job of the same kind. Offutt was an adventurous sort of dealer, who did all kinds of business. He wanted some one to help him who had a head on his shoulders, and he soon saw that Lincoln had plenty of sense. He therefore engaged him, and Lincoln took his cousin, John Hanks, to help him. They did not make much money by the voyage, but Lincoln showed great skill in managing the raft.

On this trip Lincoln came for the first time really face to face with slavery. New Orleans was a great slave market, and they spent some time there. For the first time he saw negroes being sold in the open streets, chained together in gangs. For the first time, too, he saw negroes being beaten; fastened to a block and scourged till the blood ran from their backs. Every one took it all as a matter of course, but Lincoln was deeply struck. His heart bled. At the time he said nothing, but he was silent for a long while afterwards, thinking over what he had seen. There and then, as his cousin used to tell afterwards, slavery ran its iron into him: to see these men chained was a torment to him, and he never forgot it: the picture was printed on his memory never to be forgotten, only to be wiped out when there were no more slaves in America. He was often in the slave states after this; but slavery always seemed to him horrible.


For the first time, he saw negroes being scourged.

Offutt was quite satisfied with the way in which the young backwoodsman had managed the trip. After his return he offered him a post in his grocery store at New Salem. He had a kind of half shop, half office, with a mill behind it; here he sold everything that any one could want to buy—grocery, drapery, stationery, miscellaneous goods of all kinds. Lincoln was clerk, superintendent of the mill, and general assistant.

Offutt soon began to admire his assistant immensely. He declared that Lincoln was the cleverest fellow he knew—he could read, and talk like a book; he was so strong and active that he could beat any one at running, jumping, or wrestling. Lincoln did not know any one in New Salem, and this "wooling and pulling," as he called it, of Offutt's annoyed him a good deal; as he knew, it was not at all likely to make people like him. The young fellows of the place did not mind his supposed cleverness; they knew nothing about that, and cared nothing; but they did resent the idea that he was stronger than they were.

At first they did nothing: he looked rather a dangerous person to attack, and not at all likely to take things meekly. Offutt's loud and continual praise, however, was more than they could stand. As Lincoln was on his way home one evening a group of the strongest fellows in New Salem, the "boys of Clary's Grove," attacked him. Jock Armstrong, the biggest and burliest of them all, challenged him to a "wrastle." Jock was not as tall as Lincoln, but he was much more solidly built, with huge shoulders like an ox and immensely strong arms: no one in New Salem had ever been able to throw him, and he expected an easy victory over this strange clerk.


His huge arms closed round Armstrong like a vise.

But Abe was as strong and as skilful as Jock: though he was thin his muscles were made of iron; his huge arms closed round the burly fellow like a vice. Even when his companions came to the champion's rescue Abe was a match for them. Armstrong was a sportsman and not ashamed to take a beating: he admired a man who was able to throw him. After this Lincoln had no stauncher friend, and he soon grew to be a person of importance in New Salem. His strength and his honesty made him respected.

Of his honesty there are numberless stories. One evening he was making up his accounts for the day. While doing so he found that he had charged a woman, who had come in in the morning to buy a great number of little things, 61 cents—that is, about 3d.—too much. Until it was time to shut up the shop the money seemed to burn in his pocket. It was late when the time for locking up came, but he could not wait. He started off at once for the woman's house, though it was several miles off, and walked there and back in the darkness to pay her her 3d. before he went to bed. He knew he could not sleep until he had done so.

People trusted him: those who were in trouble soon found out how wise and gentle he was, and they went to him for advice and help. He had a wonderful way of quite forgetting himself, and only thinking of making other people happy: generally silent, he could tell stories so that every one laughed. But though he enjoyed talking and going to see people, he always worked very hard.

And he did not only work in the shop: he was always eager to learn more. After the day's task was done, he would walk miles to get hold of some book that he wanted, and read it on the way home. When his cousin, a lazy fellow, wrote to ask his advice, he replied: "What is wrong with you is your habit of needlessly wasting time: go to work; that is the only cure for your difficulty."

When he came to New Salem he met people who had been well educated, and he was at once struck by the difference between their way of speaking and his. He resolved to learn to speak correctly. One evening he walked to Kirkham and back—it was twelve miles away—and bought a grammar there. For the next few weeks he spent all his spare time in studying it: he used to sit with his feet on the mantel-piece and work for hours without moving. In this way he soon knew all there was to know about grammar. When you read his speeches you will find that they are written in English as beautiful and simple as that of the Bible, which was the book he knew best of all.

He only remained with Offutt for a year. Offutt was too fond of talking to make his business a success, and he had to give up the store. It was Lincoln's first attempt at earning his living, and learning a trade did not seem very successful. Instead of at once looking for some new work of the same sort he enlisted as a soldier. The State of Illinois was thrown into a state of wild excitement by an attack made at this time by a powerful Indian tribe. Black Hawk crossed the Mississippi at the head of an army of red warriors. To drive them back, the Government of the country called for volunteers, and Abraham, who was one of the first to offer himself, was made a captain. The men entered for three months, during which they did a great deal of skirmishing and marching about, but took part in no regular battles. At the end of the time most of them went back to work. Abraham enlisted again; this time as a private in a battalion of scouts. He was not present at any battle, but he learnt something of war and a good deal of soldiers; it was hard work and not much glory. By the autumn Black Hawk was captured, and the war was at an end. Lincoln's horse had been stolen, and he had to walk back to New Salem, a three days' tramp. His campaigning had not been a great success.

When he returned, the elections for members of the Illinois Parliament were going on, and he offered himself as a candidate; spending the ten days between his return from the war and the time of election in making speeches. In New Salem he was popular, but he was not yet well known even there; he was young, and had had no experience. He was not elected, but he made good friends at the election time, and he began to be a capital speaker.

Meetings were not very formal in those days. One day when Lincoln was addressing a large hall full of people, in the middle of his speech he saw that a ruffian in the crowd was attacking a friend of his; they were struggling together, and his friend seemed to be having the worst of it. Lincoln jumped down from the platform where he stood, and marched to the middle of the room. He picked up the ruffian in his mighty arms and threw him some ten feet, so that he fell right outside the hall. There he lay, and did not attempt to return. Lincoln came back on to the platform and went on with his speech, just as if nothing had happened.

After the election he thought of becoming a blacksmith. Instead of this, he joined with a man called Berry in buying a store. Berry was a stupid and not very honest man. He got into debt; then he took to drinking, and soon afterwards died, leaving Lincoln with the business ruined and a lot of debts to pay.

After this he did not try storekeeping again: he was made postmaster of New Salem. This meant very little work: few people wrote letters there: he could carry the whole post in his hat, and he read every newspaper that came. He now had plenty of time for reading, and he read ceaselessly. Most of all, he read American history. The "Life of Washington" had been his earliest treasure; and as a boy he had pored over an old copy of the statutes of Indiana. This was, perhaps, the beginning of his interest in law. Now he was in a town, though a small one, and it was possible to get hold of books. He used to lie on his back under a tree, with his feet high up against the trunk, only moving so as to keep in the shade, and laying down the book now and then to think over what he had read and make sure that he understood it.

He studied surveying in this way for six weeks, and John Calhoun, the surveyor of the county, was so much astonished by his knowledge that he made him his assistant. His reading in law and history deepened his interest in politics: nothing interested him so much. He was resolved sooner or later to get into Parliament. One failure could not make him despair. There was a great world outside, and the door into Parliament was the door into that world. He was resolved to make his way in.

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