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Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress, Words and Deeds in American History Collection Alternate: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet

[Detail] The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

Biography: Abraham Lincoln's Early Years

At 21, in a blue and white striped cotton shirt, a one-bit hat, and pants rolled up six inches from his socks, Abraham Lincoln appeared to his friends to be "as ruff a specimen of humanity as could be found."

Thirty years later, Lincoln was a candidate for the President of the United States, and James Q. Howard was sent to Springfield, Illinois to gather reminiscences such as this one for a campaign biography. Howard interviewed Lincoln and a number of his friends and associates. His notes became the basis for several biographies and its anecdotes became the stuff of legend. Search on biography and autobiography for Howard's notes and other materials that provide a sketch of Lincoln's early years.

  • What do the biographical anecdotes that Howard recorded suggest about Lincoln's character?
  • What did Lincoln's friends and associates tell Howard about why they liked Lincoln and what made him special?
  • How might Howard's mission to gather information for a campaign biography have influenced whom he chose to interview and the notes that he took?
  • How have biographers portrayed Lincoln over the years? How have they used Howard's notes?

An 1858 letter from newspaper editor Charles Ray reflects the growing demand for information about Lincoln during his senatorial contest with Stephen A. Douglas. It was not until the following year, however, with talk of a presidential nomination, that Lincoln consented to write a brief autobiography, which he sent to his friend and political associate, Jesse Fell. Lincoln's cover letter to Fell is available in the collection and the transcription includes the autobiography itself.

  • What does this letter to Jesse Fell, and Lincoln's reluctance to write an autobiography, suggest about Lincoln?

"We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union — It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods — There I grew up — There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond the "readin, writin, and cipherin" to the Rule of Three — If a straggler supposed to understand latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizzard — There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course when I came of age I did not know much — Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three, but that was all — I have not been to school since — The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity —"

From "Abraham Lincoln to Jesse W. Fell, December 20, 1859," transcription of autobiographical sketch.

  • What were some of the challenges of Lincoln's early life?
  • Why do you think that Lincoln emphasized his lack of education in his autobiographies?
  • What reasons would Lincoln's campaign biographers have had for emphasizing Lincoln's lack of education?
  • According to Howard's notes, what "advance(s)" did Lincoln make upon his "store of education" and how?
  • What examples of humor can you find in this brief autobiography? How does Lincoln create this humor? What does this humor contribute to the autobiography?

About six months after Lincoln sent Fell this autobiography, he wrote a longer piece, listed as "Abraham Lincoln, [May-June 1860] (Autobiographical Notes)" in the collection. This second autobiography is the final and most extensive account Lincoln ever gave of his life. Referring to himself as "A," Lincoln briefly mentions how he made fences on the frontier, commenting on the popular image of himself as a "rail-splitter," as explained in the transcription notes.

"March 1st 1830 — A. having just completed his 21st year, his father and family, with the families of the two daughters and sons-in-law, of his step-mother, left the old homestead in Indiana, and came to Illinois — Their mode of conveyance was waggons drawn by ox-teams, as A. drove one of the teams — They reached the county of Macon, and stopped there some time within the same month of March. His father and family settled a new place on the North side of the Sangamon river, at the junction of the timber-land and prairie, about ten miles Westerly from Decatur — Here they built a log-cabin, into which they removed, and made sufficent of rails to fence ten acres of ground, fenced and broke the ground, and raised a crop of sod corn upon it the same year — These are, or are supposed to be, the rails about which so much is being said just now, though they are far from being the first, or only rails ever made by A."

From "Abraham Lincoln, [May-June 1860] (Autobiographical Notes)," Page 5 .

  • How do you think that Lincoln's early years on the frontier, in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, might have shaped his attitudes and character?
  • In 1860, Lincoln wrote that he never "had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction," as being elected Captain of a volunteer Company during the Black-Hawk war. Why might that election have meant so much to him?
  • What do Lincoln's autobiographies reveal about why Lincoln sought public office? What were his motivations?
  • What do the biographical and autobiographical materials suggest about how Lincoln won election to the Illinois Legislature? Why did people vote for him?
  • Why do you think Lincoln might have included the story of being attacked in New Orleans by African Americans in his autobiography?
  • Why do you think the repeal of the Missouri Compromise inspired Lincoln to re-enter politics?
  • What is the appeal of the image of Lincoln as a "rail-splitter?" What was Lincoln's attitude toward this popular image of himself?
  • How is Lincoln portrayed in contemporary popular images? How do these images compare to those of the past?