Transcript of Lincoln the Boy, the Man, and the Myth
Written by Lindsey Beckley from research by Bill Bartelt
Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss
Lindsey Beckley: Hey, this is your host Lindsey here. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been doing the podcast for over a year. And we’ve learned a lot in that time but we’re wanting to learn more. The best way for us to do that is to get feedback from you, our listeners. The number one thing you can do to help us is to let us know what you like…and what you don’t like….about the show. Review us on iTunes, post on our facebook, email us at email@example.com, or even tweet at us on twitter. However you do it, we’d love to hear from you. Now, let’s get to the show.
[Folk style music]
Beckley: Abraham Lincoln once said, “It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life.” In subsequent years, many, many people have attempted to make something out of his early life. And on this episode of Talking Hoosier History, we will, once again, attempt to make something out of his early life as we explore the myth, the man, and the grey area in-between.
[Talking Hoosier History theme music]
Beckley: Hello, and welcome to Talking Hoosier History, brought to you by the Indiana Historical Bureau. For over a century, we’ve been marking Hoosier history. Now, it’s time to start Talking Hoosier History. I’m Lindsey Beckley and I’ll be your host.
It was December, 1816. Indiana was a brand new state and the Lincoln family was moving to the Little Pigeon Creek Community in what later became Spencer County, Indiana. The Lincolns – parents Thomas and Nancy and their children, 9 year old Sarah, and 7 year old Abraham– had lived in Kentucky until then, but Indiana offered an opportunity not available to Thomas before: the chance to hold clear title on a tract of land without dispute. As an added bonus, Indiana was a free state, something which aligned with the Lincoln’s Baptist views.
Beckley: Once they arrived at their new home, the family set to work building a modest shelter and clearing the land to make way for crops such as corn and wheat. And Abraham, while young, did his fair share of the work and could wield an axe quite well. He later recalled that:
Voice actor reading from Lincoln: He was large for his age, and had an ax put in his hands at once; he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument.
Beckley: The work required to meet the basic needs of food and shelter took up much of the family’s focus, but they still made time for other pursuits.
Both Abraham and Sarah learned to read and write while attending school in Kentucky and Abraham especially liked to practice his letters. One account said:
Voice actor reading from account: He scrawled them with charcoal, he scored them in the dust, in the sand, in the snow – anywhere and everywhere that lines could be drawn, there he improved his capacity for writing.
Beckley: Because of this fondness for writing, and because neither Thomas nor Nancy had ever quite mastered the skill, Abraham became the de facto letter writer of the family, penning letters to neighbors and family left behind in Kentucky.
Reading hearthside in the evenings, the children adventured with Robinson Crusoe, visited a faraway land with The Arabian Nights, and learned many valuable lessons through Aesop’s Fables and the Bible. Many people who knew Abraham in his youth recounted how much he loved to read and indeed, many images of Lincoln’s time in Indiana feature the young, lanky boy with a book in one hand and an ax in the other.
Literature may have opened a world of imagination to the Lincoln children, but there was much left to learn. Luckily, Andrew Crawford came to town around 1819 and took up the role of school master. Over the next 5 years, Abraham attended school under at least three different school masters, where he learned “readin, writin, and cipherin to the rule of 3.”
[Nature sound effect]
Beckley: Now a young man, it was time for Abraham to find employment. First, he labored on neighboring farms doing the same kind of work he did on his father’s farm – splitting rails for fencing, clearing land, helping with crops, and slaughtering hogs. While working for neighbor Josiah Crawford, Lincoln noticed that he owned a biography of George Washington which Lincoln had been longing to read. He borrow it, but while reading, he accidently left it on a windowsill, where it was soaked through by rain. Embarrassed by his carelessness, Honest Abe went to Mr. Crawford to tell him the truth – he had ruined the book and couldn’t pay for it. Instead, he worked the debt off with three days of hard labor.
For the most part, Abraham pursued jobs that gave him a chance to interact with new and interesting people. For example, he worked on a ferry taking people and cargo across the Anderson River. During this time, he also took the initiative to build a small row boat which he used to carry travelers from the banks of the river to catch passing boats. It was while doing this that he first made a whole dollar in one day – something he reminisced about later, saying
Voice actor reading from Lincoln: You may think it was a very little thing, but it was a most important incident in my life. I could scarcely believe that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day. The world seemed wider and fairer before me. I was a more hopeful and confident being from that time.
Beckley: Perhaps the most exciting and influential part of Lincoln’s time in Indiana was a two month span in 1828, when Abraham accompanied Allen Gentry on a flatboat trip to New Orleans. Lincoln seized the opportunity to get away from rural southern Indiana and see more of the world by travelling down the Mississippi River with a boatload of agricultural products such as corn, pork, and corn meal.
Abraham encountered many new things on this journey; settlements ranging in size from a few families to thousands of people, Spanish moss hanging from the trees, sprawling sugar plantations, and architecture much different than the rustic wooden structures he was accustomed to. One experience in particular from this trip made a lasting impression on the future president.
Once they had reached New Orleans, the two young men had a few free days to tour the city before they caught a steam ship back to Indiana. One day, while exploring the city, the two came across something else Lincoln probably had never saw before – a slave market.
Beckley: New Orleans was home to the largest slave market in America. In that district of the city, the streets were lined with African American men dressed in blue suits and women wearing in calico dresses. Behind the buildings, there were small, fenced in yards where fifty to one hundred men, women, and children waited to be torn from their families and sent to labor in strange and often cruel circumstances. The streets rang with the sounds of slave traders shouting about the attributes of the people being sold and the din of the crowd below, scrutinizing their appearance and making their offers.
Gentry later recalled visiting the market, saying
Voice actor reading from Gentry account: We stood and watched the slaves sold in New Orleans and Abraham was very angry…
Beckley: It’s hard to know how much this encounter by a 19 year old Abraham Lincoln informed the views of 52 year old President Lincoln, but such an experience surely made its mark on his later political beliefs.
Beckley: Lincoln first found his interest in law and politics while living in the Hoosier state. The Lincoln farm was situated relatively near 2 different county court houses. It was common at this time for people to attend court hearings for socializing and hearing the latest news. Living near multiple courthouses, Lincoln had ample opportunity to witness skilled lawyers practicing their craft. He also borrowed law books and newspapers, both of which greatly influenced his political development. Nineteenth century papers were highly partisan and when Lincoln first ran for political office in Illinois, his views reflected political arguments he likely leaned from newspaper pages.
While Lincoln’s first forays into politics wouldn’t be in Indiana, he did here for 14 years before the family moved to Illinois in 1830. Long after his departure from the state, Indiana governor Otis Bowen said
Voice actor reading from Bowen: Lincoln made Illinois but Indiana made Lincoln.
Beckley: And that certainly strikes a chord. He came to Indiana a 7 year old boy and left a 21 year old man. While in the state, he learned the value of hard work and honesty, had his first up close encounter with the horrors of slavery, and developed an interest in law: all of which came together to build the character of one of the greatest US presidents of all time.
Now, you might be thinking that story I just told, with little exception, sounds very charming…idyllic, even. But, as is often the case, there’s another side to the story. Let’s start back at the beginning.
[Folk music blended with modern music]
The Lincoln’s left Kentucky for Indiana due to land disputes. Lincoln later said:
Voice actor reading from Lincoln: This removal was partly on account of slavery; but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Kentucky.
Beckley: Given what Lincoln went on to do as president, many people play up the first clause of that statement and all but ignore the second. While the Lincolns were, in all probability, anti-slavery, the sentiment probably had less to do with moral outrage about the practice and more to do with economics. Nevertheless, the bigger issue for the family was land titles – 2 different times, Thomas Lincoln purchased property, only to have the titles challenged, and he lost money each time. He decided to move to Indiana over frustration with the lackadaisical way Kentucky land was parceled, rather than over any sort of moral problem with slavery.
Beckley: Regardless of why they moved to Indiana, once they settled here, life was hard. Lincoln may have been “large for his age,” but the fact remains that he was a 7 year old who “had an ax put in his hands” to tackle the physically demanding task of clearing land for subsistence farming. What’s more, if he and his father failed to clear enough land, it could spell disaster for the family…the kind of disaster that ends in a slow, horrible death by starvation. The Lincoln’s were in a slightly better position than some, since Thomas was a skilled carpenter with an alternate source of income, but their Indiana existence was still one largely of subsistence farming and hunting.
Beckley: And starvation wasn’t the only danger of frontier life. Lincoln remembered the area being populated with bears and panthers.
Beckley: Even domesticated animals posed a risk; once Lincoln recalled that he was kicked in the head by a horse when he was 10 years old and was “apparently killed for a time,” which most likely means that he was rendered unconscious…in any case, he wasn’t seen by a doctor to assess the extent of the damage – most likely because there were no – or at least very few – doctors in the area.
Beckley: Yet another ever present danger was illness. In the Autumn of 1818, the Little Pigeon Creek Community was struck by an illness which went by many names – puking fever, bilious fever, swamp fever, the slows, but most commonly, it was called milk sickness. The cause is now known to be drinking milk from a cow that ate a plant called white snake root, which contains the poison tremetol. But in 1818, they only knew that it seemed to come from drinking milk. That fall, several families in the area were plagued by the sickness, and soon it struck the Lincoln household; Nancy started showing the first symptoms of the illness in late September – that’s weakness, dizziness, and loss of appetite – and on October 5, 1818, Nancy died. Afterwards, 11 year old Sarah took on the duties of her mother, at least until Thomas married Sarah Bush-Johnston, a widow from Kentucky with three children, and that must have made things a bit tight in the household, what with the 3 Lincolns, 4 Johnstons, and 2 orphaned cousins all living in a one-room cabin with a single shared loft for sleeping.
Lincoln spent some time in his autobiographical sketches outlining his education…or lack thereof. While in Indiana, he attended subscription schools, where families in a community built a school house and paid the teacher directly. And even when there was a school to attend, children wouldn’t have gone as regularly as they do today. They went, as Lincoln later said, “by littles.” A week here, a month there…whenever they had the time and availability. The teachers weren’t necessarily professionally trained educators, either. Lincoln said:
Voice actor reading Lincoln: There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond “readin, writin, and cipherin to the rule of three.
Beckley: All told, Lincoln estimated that all of his schooling, when added together, didn’t even amount to a full year, and when he filled out his biographical survey for the Dictionary of Congress, he summed up his education with one word: defective.
The fact that Abraham Lincoln could read put him in the vast minority in frontier Indiana. Even 16 years after the Lincolns left Indiana, only 1 in 7 Hoosiers were literate. And, to set him apart even further, Lincoln enjoyed reading. Many relatives and neighbors recalled this unique trait, some with respect, like Nathanial Grigsby, who was a schoolmate of Lincoln’s. He recalled that Lincoln…
Voice actor reading from account: …would carry his books with and would always read whilst resting…
Beckley: during the work day and would…
Voice actor reading from account: …set up late reading & rise early doing the same.
Beckley: Others in the community, however, saw his penchant for reading and intellectual nature as signs of laziness. For example, one neighbor, when recounting Lincoln’s work ethic, said
Voice actor reading from account: Abe was awful lazy; he worked for me, was always reading and thinking…
Beckley: As most of Lincoln’s other employers described him as a hard, honest worker, it’s unlikely that Lincoln actually slacked off in his work; more likely, the neighbor equated traits of intelligence with poor work ethic. Being one of the few introspective, thoughtful people in the area must have been a fairly lonely and frustrating existence for the young Lincoln.
With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that Lincoln sought employment on the river since it got him away from the small community and introduced him to people from a variety of backgrounds. I mean, who could blame him? And after his sister Sarah died in childbirth in 1828, who could blame him for taking the chance to get as far away from his grief as he could by accepting the position on Gentry’s flatboat trip to New Orleans. As I said earlier, this trip may have been the most influential part of Lincoln’s time in Indiana…and it wasn’t even in Indiana. While in the state, he probably felt surrounded by undereducated, uninspired people, being forced to do menial labor, all of which motivated him to “Escape the frontier,” as historian Mark Neely would put it. It was in spite of his Indiana roots that Lincoln became who he was, not because of them.
Beckley: Ok, That’s quite a different story than the first one, isn’t it? And yet, everything I said in both is supported by evidence. Each version of the story represents a different interpretation of Lincoln in Indiana. The first is, somewhat amusingly, called the “Chin-fly Theory” and is derived from author Ida Tarbell’s statement:
Voice actor reading Tarbell: The horse, the dog, the ox, the chin fly, the plow, the hog, these companions of his youth became interpreters of his meaning, solvers of his problems in his great necessity, of making men understand and follow him. Beckley: The second is, just as amusingly, called the dung-hill theory. That name comes from historian Chauncey Black’s remark:
Voice actor reading Black: It is our duty to show the world the Majesty and beauty of his character, as it grew by itself and unassisted, out of this unpromising soil…We must point mankind to the diamonds glowing on the dunghill.
Beckley: These two theories differ so much that both cannot be the correct interpretation of the facts. In reality, the truth of the matter is probably somewhere in the middle.
Beckley: It’s hard to quantify Indiana’s impact on Lincoln as there are so many variables that come together to form someone’s character. But, we can judge the effect his time in the state had on his politics, as he first ran for public office just two years after leaving the Hoosier state. In his first known political address, the 23 year old candidate for the Illinois General Assembly chose to focus on three issues: high interest rate loans, internal improvements, and education.
While Lincoln specifies that the root of that first issue was a personal incident from his time in Illinois, the other two platform issues can be directly linked to his time in Indiana. The most obvious way Lincoln’s experience in Indiana influenced his politics was in his support of public education. In his 1832 address, he said:
Voice actor reading from Lincoln: I view [education] 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 counties, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance.
Beckley: This focus on education came directly from his sore lack of public schooling in southern Indiana.
Now, his support of internal improvements isn’t quite as obviously connected to his boyhood, but when you consider the fact that his means of access to the broader world was primarily through the Ohio River – and the goods, information, and people it transported – and that at this point in history “internal improvements” mostly referred to development of canals to connect small communities to large waterways, it’s reasonable to assume that seeing firsthand how that kind of access to the larger world could change lives influenced his stance on the matter.
Ultimately, it’s unreasonable to say that Lincoln wasn’t influenced by his time in Indiana. He was here from ages 7 to 21. It would be hard to walk away from a place you spent 14 years without being changed by that place. However, it’s also difficult to measure how Indiana shaped Lincoln’s character. His views changed dramatically after leaving Indiana due to life experiences and navigating major political events in American History.
He returned only once, in 1844, to his boyhood home. His visit brought back memories of the losses he experienced here, as well as some of the more joyous times. Inspired, he wrote the poem, “My Childhood’s home I see again.” I’ll leave you with a few stanzas.
Voice actor reading from Lincoln:
My childhood-home I see again,
And Gladden with the view;
And still as mem’ries crowd my brain,
There’s sadness in it too.
The very spot where grew the bread
That formed my bones, I see.
How strange, old field, on thee to tread,
And feel I’m part of thee!
Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this had been Talking Hoosier History.
[Talking Hoosier History theme music]
Beckley: To learn more about Abraham Lincoln in Indiana, check out the book “There I Grew Up: Remembering Abraham Lincoln’s Indiana Youth” by William E. Bartelt. The featred song of this episode was “Living Things” by Bloomington songwriter Tom Roznowski. It’s from the album “Wilderness Plots.” Visit Tomroznowski.net to learn more. As always, a huge thanks to Jill Weiss, our sound engineer extraordinaire. And Tom Mackie, formerly director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum at Lincoln Memorial University, who did an amazing job bringing life to the world of Lincoln in this episode. Also, thanks to Justin Clark for lending his voice to the show. Stay connected on social media…We can’t wait to hear from you. Thanks for listening!
Show Notes for Lincoln the Boy, the Man, the Myth
Bartelt, William. “There I Grew Up.” Remembering Abraham Lincoln’s Indiana Youth. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2008.
Campanella, William. Lincoln in New Orleans: The 1828-1831 Flatboat Voyages and Their Place in History. Lafayette: University of Louisiana Press, 2010.
Warren, Louis. Lincoln’s Youth: Indiana Years, 1816-1860. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 1959.
Greenwald, Erin. “The Price of Life.” The Historic New Orleans Collections Quarterly, Spring, 2015.
Lighty, Chandler. “Research Summary.” Research file, Indiana Historical Bureau. July, 2008.
Jill Weiss Simins is the producer and sound engineer for Talking Hoosier History. She records the audio, chooses the music and samples, and engineers the mix.
Bill Mackie, formerly director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum at Lincoln Memorial University, who voiced Abraham Lincoln in this episode.
Justin Clark, project assistant with the Hoosier State Chronicles newspaper digitization project, lent his voice to Lincoln’s neighbors and other “extra’s” in the episode.
The Talking Hoosier History Theme Song is “Rock and Gravel” by Indianapolis band Syd Valentine’s Patent Leather Kids. The trio recorded this song in Richmond, Indiana, in 1929. Used courtesy PublicDomain4U, accessed publicdomain4u.com.
The featured song of Episode 11 is “Living Things” by Bloomington songwriter Tom Roznowski. It’s off the album Wilderness Plots. Learn more about Tom and listen to more tracks at his website: http://www.tomroznowski.net/
Ed Lewis, “I Be So Glad When The Sun Goes Down,” recorded Parchman Farm, Camp B, Mississippi, 1959, Association for Cultural Equity, accessed http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-detailed-recording.do?recordingId=4051
Pat Ford, “Swedish Fiddle from Wisconsin Woods,” 1938, Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, accessed https://www.loc.gov/item/2017701969/
“Indiana Polka,” Edmud Jaeger, composer, Frederick Fennell, conductor, recorded September 1974, Library of Congress, accessed https://www.loc.gov/item/cwband.recs007/
Kevin MacLeod, “Sneaky Snitch,” Audio Library, No Copyright Music, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-rXQALDv-4
Bensound, “Funny Song,” Audio Library, No Copyright Music, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mHpr8lhjZE
Ross Bugden, “Solstice,” Copyright and Royalty Free, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yRIt5yS36s
AShamaluevMusic, “Free Romantic Background Music for Videos,” No Copyright Music, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h45gVQ_FjD4
Ikson, “Walk,” Audio Library, No Copyright Music, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szEfp07r5Cg
Lobo Loco, “Visions of 2018,” Free Music Archive, ID 783, accessed http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Lobo_Loco/Hoh_Hey/Visions_of_2018_ID_783
Lobo Loco, “All Night Long – Guitarversion,” Free Music Archive, ID 775, accessed http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Lobo_Loco/Hoh_Hey/All_Night_Long_-_Guitarversion_ID_775