In the Footsteps of Lincoln - What Do the Formative Years of Abraham Lincoln, Who Was Reared among Uneducated Backwoodsmen of the Kentucky and Indiana Frontier, Reveal about the Lawyer President Who Freed the Slaves and Saved the Union?

By olsen, eric p. | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview
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In the Footsteps of Lincoln - What Do the Formative Years of Abraham Lincoln, Who Was Reared among Uneducated Backwoodsmen of the Kentucky and Indiana Frontier, Reveal about the Lawyer President Who Freed the Slaves and Saved the Union?


olsen, eric p., The World and I


The Hardin County courthouse in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, is the hub of a once-bustling town center that has fallen on hard times. A scattering of storefront shops tender their wares to a few indifferent patrons. A police cruiser circles warily, a keen glance thrown my way as I loiter about the historic square.

North of town, car dealerships, gas stations, and super retail outlets file along U.S. 31 before petering out in the rolling countryside. I turn right onto an insignificant road behind the new Wal-Mart. Over a low ridge, and surviving through a couple of tumultuous centuries, stands a rustic log cabin, constructed in part by the pioneer settler Thomas Lincoln in 1806. Thomas lived close by with his wife, Nancy, and two-year-old daughter, Sarah.

I step into a narrow corridor between the cabin and an adjacent building. Examining the aged logs and primitive mud caulking, I listen for ghosts trapped in the close confines of the passageway. Did little Sarah Lincoln scamper through the corridor where I now stood? Did Nancy call on her neighbors to share the latest family news?

For Nancy was carrying another child, a boy, who would begin his sojourn in the world some fifteen miles to the south. The boy would suffer tragedy in his youth, yet come out of the frontier to save the nation, free a race of people held in slavery, and shine the light of freedom into the far corners of the earth.

This child of Thomas and Nancy, named Abraham, would rise to the presidency as storm clouds of civil war were gathering. Few knew or had time to consider his obscure origins as the crisis of disunion settled over the land. But from these origins a man matured to whom was entrusted the inheritance of self-government, won through bloody revolution.

The English statesman William Gladstone, upon hearing Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address just months before the president's assassination, was moved to remark, "I am taken captive by so striking an utterance as this. I see in it the effect of sharp trial when rightly borne to raise men to a higher level of thought and feeling. ... Mr. Lincoln's words show that upon him anxiety and sorrow wrought their true effect. The address gives evidence of a moral elevation most rare in a statesman, or indeed in any man."

Yet for Lincoln, sharp trials rightly borne were not merely the occasions when history took note; they were the tempering experiences of boyhood, adolescence, and young manhood when the character needed by the age was forged.

Lincoln was twenty-one when he moved to Illinois. Behind him were seven formative years on the Kentucky frontier and fourteen years in the Indiana wilderness. Thus it is not in the Land of Lincoln we must look to fathom the man but to Kentucky and Indiana--and a life of trials far removed from those confronted by the aspiring Springfield lawyer.

Beginnings

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on Nolin Creek three miles south of Hodgen's mill, today's Hodgenville, Kentucky. Abraham's grandfather came to Kentucky in 1782, following the trail cut by Daniel Boone seven years earlier. Thomas Lincoln continued the westward migration. He eventually purchased property in Elizabethtown but sold it for a loss on learning that the land title included fewer acres than he believed.

Inaccurate surveys and conflicting titles were vexing problems for many Kentucky pioneers--Thomas Lincoln more than most. Moving his young family to Nolin Creek near Hodgen's mill occasioned further litigation, which drove him to move to a third farm on Knob Creek, about ten miles northeast. This property eventually came under the cloud of an earlier claim as well.

Hodgen's mill has long since vanished, while Hodgenville has grown into a picturesque small town that honors Lincoln without the crass commercialism that could predictably be spawned by the memory of a famous man. There are no souvenir shops with plastic Abe figurines and imitation stovepipe hats, no Lincoln theme parks or Lincoln look-alikes trolling for tourist dollars.

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In the Footsteps of Lincoln - What Do the Formative Years of Abraham Lincoln, Who Was Reared among Uneducated Backwoodsmen of the Kentucky and Indiana Frontier, Reveal about the Lawyer President Who Freed the Slaves and Saved the Union?
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