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Feature

Rules He Lived By

Once, when he was eleven years old, Abe walked four hours to borrow a copy of Parson Mason Locke Weems’s Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington from the farmer Josiah Crawford. He kept it with him at all times, even in bed. One night rain from a heavy storm came seeping through the timbers where he had the volume snugly tucked, badly damaging the pages and binding. To earn the seventy-five cents Crawford said he was owed for the damage, Abe toiled three days in the man’s fields “pulling fodder”—husking corn to feed the cows—a lot of hard work to pay for one book in those days, but this is the person, after all, who before long would be known far and wide as Honest Abe.

Kirkham’s Grammar was so popular it went through more than 100 printings.

Sarah Lincoln remembered how her stepson had always memorized his favorite writings, learning them by heart. “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 and repeat it.” For all the hard work Abe did to help support the family, her husband made sure there was time set aside for the boy’s learning. “Mr. Lincoln never made Abe quit reading to do anything if he could avoid it,” she said. “He would do it himself first.”

Because there were no public libraries on the frontier, books were precious possessions, shared and swapped among friends and families. Abe once joked that he probably had borrowed and read every book he “could hear of for fifty miles around.” It was in this manner that he found a constable’s copy of The Revised Statutes of Indiana, a bulky collection of state laws that also included the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, a document that provided the means by which new states would be created out of western lands and admitted into the Union. History fascinated him as much as the law, with one book in particular—William Grimshaw’s History of the United States—almost certainly leaving a lasting impression. In a section dealing with the American Revolution, Grimshaw had written this: “Let us not only declare by words, but demonstrate by our actions, that ‘all men are created equal.’”

As he got older, Abe found different jobs to occupy his time, a few of them out on the waterways that link the American heartland with the Gulf of Mexico. When he decided it was time to leave his father’s farm and seek a life on his own, he chose New Salem, Illinois, a rustic hamlet of twenty-five families that sat high on a bluff overlooking the Sangamon River, a key link to the Illinois River, and the mighty Mississippi beyond.

When Abe settled there in 1831, he was twenty-two and thinking long and hard about his future. The idea that he might one day be elected President of the United States was the furthest thought from his mind, yet the next six years formed his character in many vital ways. Looking back decades later on his arrival in the village, Abe compared himself to a “piece of floating driftwood” that had washed ashore, and that wasn’t so far off the mark.

Once he decided on pursuing law and politics, Abe determined that if he had any hopes of arguing cases in court or impressing voters on the campaign trail, then he needed to express himself with greater clarity and precision. He had no way of knowing that two of the most memorable speeches ever to be delivered by an American—the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address—would one day be shaped by skills he was about to hone on his own. All he knew was that he wanted to become a better public speaker, and that he should sharpen his use of language.

By far the best primer of the day was a guide written in 1823 by Samuel Kirkham, a Maryland teacher. The book was so popular it went through more than one hundred printings in the nineteenth century, reaching many thousands of people whose only hope of getting ahead was through self-improvement. Known as Kirkham’s Grammar, the full title of the book is contained in forty words:

English Grammar
In
Familiar Lectures,
Accompanied By
A Compendium;
Embracing
A New Systematick Order of Parsing,
A New System of Punctuation,
Exercises in False Syntax, And
A Key to the Exercises:
Designed
For the Use of Schools and Private Learners

From Abe’s standpoint, the key words there were the final two; if ever anyone was a “private learner,” it was Abraham Lincoln. The only problem was that no copy of the book was available in New Salem, though a local schoolteacher, Mentor Graham, told Abe that he knew of a nearby farmer, John C. Vance, who had one.

Abe wasted no time walking the six miles out to Vance’s property after breakfast one morning to make an offer. Only this time he didn’t borrow the book, he acquired it outright, either with hard-earned cash, or perhaps in return for some work he did in the farmer’s fields. Whatever arrangement they made, the name A. Lincoln was written boldly on the inside of the front cover, clear proof that the volume then belonged to him.

In the weeks and months that followed, Abe devoted every spare moment he could muster to his private lessons, sometimes standing alone on a hillside outside his home, practicing aloud. At other times he would stretch out on the counter of the general store he managed, his head propped up on a stack of calico prints while studying the grammar. Some nights, the village barrel maker would allow him to curl up by the fireplace in his shop, known as a cooperage, stoking the flames with wood shavings to make for better light.

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