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[What the Future President Thought of Education and Learning] March 9, 1832


       “Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing  of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the scriptures and other works, both of a religious  and moral nature, for themselves. For my part, I desire to see the time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present, and should be gratified to have it in my power to contribute something to the advancement of any measure which might have a tendency to accelerate the happy period.”

From Lincoln Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858, P. 9   The Library of America edited by Roy P. Basler, Penguin Putnam Inc.  1984

I. To understand the education of Abraham Lincoln, one should know of the

 Lincoln family historical timeline:

  • Early America territories, the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, description of education in America
  • Daniel Boone beckons Virginians to go west to Kentucky. 
  • Abraham Lincoln (16th President's grandfather) takes up the call to move and packs up to move to Kentucky via the Cumberland Trail by covered wagon and horses.  Abraham's son, Thomas at age five moves with them.
  • Abraham is killed by a "stealth Indian" in front of Thomas.  The Indian is shot by Mordecai, Thomas' brother. 
  • Thomas Lincoln continued to live in Kentucky. He saw it develop from a frontier wilderness into a rapidly growing state. But like his ancestors he preferred the rugged life on the frontier. In a brief autobiography written for a political campaign, Lincoln said that his father “even in childhood was a wandering labor boy, and grew up literally without education. He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name.”
  • Thomas  became a skilled carpenter, and never lacked the basic necessities of life. At one time he owned title to two farms. He always possessed one or more horses. He paid his taxes, and, like his neighbors, he accepted jury duty and militia duty when called.
  • Thomas would marry Nancy Hanks on June 12, 1806.  She has been described as very intelligent, sensitive, medium height with dark hair and gray eyes.  Her Virginia family ancestry is somewhat mysterious.  She was literate, but with no books in the cabins until little Abraham was 9 or 10 years of age, she taught him Bible verses and lyrics from old hymns.  He was greatly influenced from her.
  • Thomas owned several farms in Kentucky and Indiana.  The fact that he is described as an illiterate wondering boy, seems to conflict with his ability to purchase farmland.  Maybe his problem could be that he was a "family-only sustenance farmer," and the high amount of acreage he would purchase could not be developed for farming.   Farms of the sizes he would own, in Kentucky usually required use of a crew of slaves to make them work.  Thomas never really succeeded beyond basic survival.  Even in Illinois at his fourth farm near Lerna, Illinois, he had to borrow $20 from his son in Springfield.
  • Thomas' daughter Sarah was born in 1807.  Abraham was born in 1809, and Thomas was born later and died in infancy.
  • Thomas, Nancy, Sarah and Abraham moved to Indiana in 1816.
  • As in Kentucky, life in the Indiana wilderness was very hard.  For the first year a lean-to of three sides and an open side was used for housing.  Later a cabin with a door and window (neither covered) and dirt floor was built and moved into.
  • Nancy Hanks Lincoln, his first wife died of the milk sick in October of 1818.
  • The next year, Thomas Lincoln journeyed to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children. Abe Lincoln was very much attached to his kind stepmother, and he later referred to her as “my angel mother.”
  • Sarah and children would bring a wagon load of furniture, clothing, supplies and some books.  Her first task was to clean up the Lincoln children who had been by themselves in the wilderness for quite some time waiting for their father to return. 
  • The Lincoln children and Sarah's children got along well and along with cousin Dennis Hanks, the Thomas Lincoln extended family grew to 13 individuals.  Other family members moved to Indiana and used the three-sided lean-to for some time until another cabin could be built.
  • In 1830, a new threat of "Milk Sick" arose so Thomas and his extended family packed up again and made the move to Macon County Illinois.
  • At Macon County a farm was built after enduring the worst winter for years.  Thomas Lincoln and family would move to Coles County, Illinois and twenty-one year old Abraham would take a flat boat to New Salem.
  • Thomas and Sarah would own four farms near present-day Goosenest Farm (near Lerna).

II.  Abraham's Education:  From the John L. Scripp's Interview of Abraham

Lincoln in 1860 (in the Chicago Tribune)

    While here (Indiana farm), Abraham went to A B C schools by littles, kept successively by Andrew Crawford,--Sweeney, and Azel W. Dorsey. He does not remember any other. The family of Mr. Dorsey now resides in Schuyler County, Illinois. Abraham now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student, and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law license. What he has in the way of education he has picked up. After he was twenty-three and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar--imperfectly, of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.


  • When his father could spare him from chores, Lincoln attended an ABC school. Such schools were held in log cabins, and often the teachers were barely more educated than their pupils.
  • According to Lincoln, “no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond readin', writin', and cipherin', to the Rule of Three.” Including a few weeks at a similar school in Kentucky,
  • Lincoln had less than one full year of formal education in his entire life-- all in short winter-time periods to not interfere with farm work during the important seasons.
  • Abe's stepmother encouraged his quest for knowledge.
  • At an early age he could read, write, and do simple arithmetic.
  • Books were scarce on the Indiana frontier, but besides the family Bible, which Lincoln knew well, he was able to read the classical authors Aesop, John Bunyan, and Daniel Defoe, as well as William Grimshaw's History of the United States (1820) and Mason Locke Weems's Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington (about 1800). This biography of George Washington made a lasting impression on Lincoln, and he made the ideals of Washington and the founding fathers of the United States his own.
  • By the time Lincoln was 19 years old, he had reached his full height of 1.93 m (6 ft 4 in). He was lean and muscular, with long arms and big hands that gave him an awkward appearance. Although he had remarkable strength, he never liked farm work. He preferred instead the easy congeniality that he found at the general store in nearby Gentryville. A neighbor recalled “Abe was awful lazy, he would laugh and talk and crack jokes and tell stories all the time.”
  • Abe's childhood schools were in small log cabins with holes for windows.  There were few, if any books.  The Bible was used as the reading source in the later schools. 
  • Teachers were called "wizzards" if they could read, write, cipher to the rule of three, and knew Latin.  One of his teachers spent their school time learning manners of the time.  He only lasted a year. 
  • Sarah Bush Lincoln, Abraham's step mother was illiterate like Thomas, but encouraged Abraham's unusual ways in desiring to learn and read.

III. Abraham Lincoln the adult and, President

  • After turning 21 years of age, Abraham was free of his father's control.  He was an emancipated adult.  After helping his father and step-mother for a year at Macon County, Illinois, he would move to New Salem-- his first real town residence.
  • There he would read more, learn the job of surveying, involving much geometry, and also would read law books to then get qualified as a lawyer through what was then the Illinois bar exam.  His exam mostly included his reputation and references as being of high level in honesty and morals.
  • Abraham Lincoln constantly read from newspapers (at New Salem and later Springfield), Shakespeare, the books of Euclid, and many we don't even know of. 
  • When becoming President, Abraham Lincoln  would check out a pile of books from the Library of Congress and would learn the art of warfare and commanding of troops in battles.
  • Lincoln's writing was described as long sweeping style.  As President, he learned to compose messages in short form for the new T-mails or telegraphing.  He would use this throughout the last years of the Civil War.


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