What’s in the Book?
Themes from Becoming Abraham Lincoln


Becoming Abraham Lincoln: The Coming of Age of Our Greatest PresidentEarly nineteenth century America was a wild, unsettled, barely civilized land. The Lincoln family struggled to survive such harsh conditions.

  • Grandfather Abraham Lincoln, one of the first settlers of Virginia, was killed by an Indian. Abraham’s killer was himself shot and killed by young Tom Lincoln, the father of the future President.
  • Tom Lincoln sold his Kentucky farm for twenty dollars cash and 400 gallons of whiskey, and loaded all the family’s belongings on a flatboat and sailed to Indiana. He chose a piece of land in the middle of the woods and began to clear a site for a cabin. “It was the brushest country that I have ever seen,” said Dennis. “You could drive a butcher knife up to the handle in it.”
  • “We, Lincoln’s family, including Sally and Abe and myself, slept and lodged in this cabin all winter,” recalled Dennis. “In the winter and spring, cut down brush, underwood trees, cleared ground, made a field of about six acres on which we raised crops. We hunted pretty much all the time. Here Abe killed his first turkey.”
  • Lincoln moved to the frontier town of New Salem., Denton Offut hired him to be a clerk in charge of his store. Brawling was a major pastime on the frontier. When Offut bragged that his clerk could “out run, out lift, out wrestle and throw down any man in Sangamon County,” Jack Armstrong heard about it and challenged the new man in town. “The fight took place in front of Offut’s store,” said James Rutledge.
  • When the classic brawl was over, Jack Armstrong offered his hand to Abe, saying, “He’s the best feller that ever broke into this settlement.”


Settlers in communities and towns practiced a folksy brand of democracy engaging in heated discussions of politics and rough and tumble election campaigns.

  • Lincoln joined the New Salem debating society. “As he rose to speak,” said R. B. Rutledge, “his tall form towered above the little assembly. Both hands were thrust down deep in the pockets of his pantaloons.”
  • His friends persuaded him to become a candidate for the Illinois State Legislature. He printed up his first handbills and made his first political speeches. One day he was making a speech when a fight broke out. When Lincoln saw that his friend was getting licked he stopped speaking and joined the crowd. “He pitched them out like they were boys and told them his friend could whip the whole of them one at a time,” said Rowan Herndon. “That ended the fuss.”


Lincoln’s well-known hunger for education is explored in detail. Six full chapters are devoted to his uncommon reading and writing habits.

  • “Seems to me now I never seen Abe after he was twelve ‘at he didn’t have a book some’ers around,” said Dennis.
  • His stepmother, Sarah Johnston Lincoln recalled, “When he came across a passage that struck him he would write it down on boards if he had no paper and keep it there till he did get paper. Then he would rewrite it, look at it, repeat it…Frequently he had no paper to write his pieces down on. Then he would put them with chalk on a board or plank, sometimes only making a few signs of what he intended to write… When the board would get too black he would shave it off with a drawing knife and go on again.”
  • His friend Nat Grigsby remembered where they went to school. “There was a school house built two miles south of Thomas Lincoln’s farm, the first school house that was built in this part of the state. The house was built of round logs just high enough for a man to stand erect under the ruff (roof). The floor was split logs or what we called puncheons. The chimney was made of poles and clay. The window was constructed by chopping out a part of two logs and placing pieces of split boards at proper distance and then we would take out old copy books and grease them and paste them over the window. This give us light. In this school room Abraham Lincoln and myself entered school.”
  • Lincoln came to New Salem’s teacher, Mentor Graham. “Spoke to me one day and said: ‘I had a notion of studying grammar’, recalled Graham. “There was none in the village and I said to him: ‘I know of a grammar at one Vance’s (a man named John Vance), about six miles. Got up and went on foot to Vance’s and got the book. The book was Kirkham’s Grammar, an old (1826) volume.”
  • “He could be seen usually when in pursuit of his ordinary avocations with his book under his arm,” remembered R. B. Rutledge. “At a moment of leisure, he would open it. If it was but five minutes time, would open his book, which he always kept at hand, and study, close it, recite to himself—then entertain company or wait on a customer in the store or post office, apparently without any interruption.”
  • “He read aloud very often” said Jimmy Short. “Frequently assumed a lounging position when reading.”
  • His niece, Harriet Hanks Chapman remembered that “His usual way of reading was lying down. In warm weather he seemed to prefer the floor. He would turn a chair down on the floor and put a pillow on it and lie there for hours and read.”


Lincoln’s earliest efforts at poetry were found in the notebook that his stepmother gave to William Herndon. Poems and stories he wrote as a young man can be found here.

  • “I taught Abe to write with a buzzard’s quill which I killed with a rifle,” said Dennis.
  • “Abe read all the books he could lay his hands on and when he came across a passage that struck him he would write it down on boards if he had no paper,” said his stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln. “When the board would get too black he would shave it off with a drawing knife and go on again.”
  • The title MY CHILDHOOD’S HOME comes from the opening line of an original Lincoln poem. According to Lincoln, “I went into the neighborhood where my mother and only sister were buried and from which I had been absent about fifteen years…Aroused feelings in me which were certainly poetry—though whether my expression of those feelings is poetry is quite another question.”
  • Lincoln wrote a satire mocking two neighborhood brothers. “The poem is smutty,” recalled Elizabeth Crawford.

    “The satire was good, sharp, cutting and showed the genius of the boy,” said his friend Nat Grigsby.


A little known, rarely covered aspect of his life finds Lincoln leading an unruly brigade of rough frontier fighters who did not like to take orders. It is not usually acknowledged that Captain Lincoln spent a night in the brig for violating an order.

  • Nearly all the men of New Salem volunteered to drive Black Hawk and his warriors out of Illinois. The men elected Lincoln as Captain. “I heard Mr. Lincoln say once that to the first order given on of them, he received the response—Go to the devil, sir!”
  • According to David Pantier, “I was a private in Captain Lincoln’s Company. While in camp there a general order was issued prohibiting the discharge of firearms within fifty steps of the camp. Captain L disobeyed the order by firing his pistol within ten steps of the camp. For this violation of orders was put under arrest for that day and his sword taken from him. The next day his sword was restored and nothing more was done in the matter.”
  • Captain Lincoln marched with his men, twenty-five miles one day, twenty miles another day. They were hungry and exhausted. Everybody complained about the camp food. “It is much like eating saddlebags,” said Lincoln. His brigade came upon the grisly remains of a deadly skirmish. “I remember how those men looked,” said Lincoln. “Every man had a round red spot on the top of his head where the redskins had taken his scalp. It was frightful but it was grotesque.”


This portrait of Lincoln shows him as a fully rounded human being, sensitive, complicated and deep. He was haunted by deep sorrows and a sense of loss, so troubled at times, his friends feared for his survival.

  • Lincoln’s mother, Nancy got sick in the fall of 1818. “I’ll never forget the mizry in that little green log cabin in the woods when Nancy died,” recalled Dennis. “Me n’ Abe helped Tom make the coffin.”
  • “The memory of Ann Rutledge was the saddest chapter in Mr. Lincoln’s life,” said Billy Herndon.
  • “Lincoln and she was engaged,” said Mentor Graham. “Lincoln told me so. She intimated to me the same.”
  • “During her last illness he visited her sick chamber,” said John Jones, “and on his return stopped at my house. It was very evident that he was much distressed.”
  • “Lincoln took her death very hard,” said G.W. Miles.

    Henry McHenry said, “As to the condition of Lincoln’s mind after the death of Miss R, after that event he seemed quite changed…He seemed wrapped in profound thought, indifferent to transpiring events, had but little to say but would take his gun and wander off in the woods by himself.”

  • Said Hardin Bale, “After the death of Miss Rutledge and because of it, Lincoln was locked up by his friends, Samuel Hill and others, to prevent derangement or suicide, so hard did he take her death.”
  • “He was fearfully wrought up on her death,” said John Hill. “My father (Samuel Hill) had to lock him up and keep guard over him for some two weeks I think, for fear he might commit suicide.”
  • “I run off the track,” said Lincoln years later. “It was my first. I loved the woman dearly and sacredly. She was a handsome girl. Would have made a good loving wife…I did honestly and truly love the girl and think often, often of her now.”
  • “Lincoln is a gloomy man,” said law partner John Stuart.
  • “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked,” Billy Herndon agreed.


Lincoln was tormented by the sight of slavery and vowed to end it if he ever had the chance. He earned the nickname “Honest Abe” as a storekeeper by treating his customers fairly.

  • “We saw Negroes chained, maltreated, whipped and scourged,” said John Hanks. “Lincoln saw it. His heart bled. Said nothing much. Was silent from feeling. Was sad. Looked bad. Felt bad. Was thoughtful and abstracted.”
  • “One morning,” wrote Herndon, “in their rambles over the city, the trio passed a slave auction…The whole thing was so revolting that Lincoln moved away from the scene with a deep feeling of ‘unconquerable hate.’ Bidding his companions follow him he said: ‘By God, boys! Let’s get away from this. If ever I get a chance to hit that thing (meaning slavery), I’ll hit it hard.'”
  • “That sight was a continued torment to me,” Lincoln said, “and continually exercises the power of making me miserable.”
  • “You ask what gave him the title of Honest Abe?” mused Mentor Graham. “That is answered in these few words. He was strictly honest, truthful and industrious.”

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