(February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865)
James A. Rawley
Abraham Lincoln, Civil War president of the United States, was born in a log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. He had an American lineage that reached back to 1637. Abraham’s father, Thomas Lincoln (1776– or 1778–1851), born in Rockingham County, Virginia, moved to Kentucky, where his father was killed by Indians. Thomas in 1803 bought a 238–acre farm in Hardin County. He married Nancy Hanks (1784–1819), a Virginian about whose ancestry little is known; she was perhaps illegitimate. The couple had three children: Sarah, the firstborn who died in childbirth in her late teens; Abraham; and Thomas, who died in infancy.
Thomas Lincoln was not the shiftless father sometimes portrayed. A farm owner and carpenter possessing scant education, he conscientiously served his church and community. Three farms he bought each failed to give him a clear title, because of Kentucky’s defective land laws. Early in 1816 the family moved to better surveyed land in southern Indiana, near Gentryville. Abraham later said the move was “partly on account of slavery.”
A strapping boy, Abraham worked hard, cutting wood and planting and harvesting crops. Until he was twenty-one, the youth, growing in height and muscular strength, performed farm labor. Pioneer life, pretty pinching at times, he later observed, offered little by way of education. He went to school “by littles” in his quaint phrase, in all less than a year.
What was remarkable about the pioneer farmboy was not only his enthusiasm for learning but also his mastery of several fields by self-education. The family apparently owned a Bible, an influence that increasingly shaped his outlook in mature years. Libraries were nonexistent, and books in the neighborhood were few. But Abraham borrowed Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress, Parson Weems’s Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington, and Robinson Crusoe. As a youth he read inspirational and patriotic literature. In his maturing years, he avidly read newspapers, and as president he read Shakespeare often.