A SON OF THE FRONTIER
ABRAHAM LINCOLN rarely talked about his childhood. This silence stemmed from more than his well-developed sense of personal reserve, for while he was proud of his achievements, he was also embarrassed by his crude family background. In a brief autobiographical sketch he penned in 1859, when he was beginning to attract attention as a possible presidential candidate, he spent only a couple of lines on his parents, noted without elaboration that he did “farm work” as a youth, ignored his childhood social experiences entirely, and devoted the greatest attention—half a paragraph—to his limited education. “It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life,” he told a campaign biographer in 1860. “It can all be condensed into a single sentence… in Gray's Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’”
DESCENDED FROM pioneer stock, Abraham knew little of his ancestry. The most vivid piece of family lore, which he had heard over and over again from his father Thomas, was how his grandfather had been killed by Indians while “laboring to open a farm” in the Kentucky forest. As a result, Thomas, who was eight years old at the time, had to make his own way in the world from an early age. He became “a wandering laboring boy, and grew up litterally without education.” A capable carpenter in and around Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Thomas began to rise in the world and bought a farm, though he apparently never lived on it. In 1806, he married Nancy Hanks, who was probably illegitimate, and they set up housekeeping in Elizabethtown in a cabin that he had built. A daughter, Sarah, was born the following year.