How Did Abraham Lincoln Learn to Read?

I was lunching with a Book Group that had read my book ABE AND MOLLY: The Lincoln Courtship.  The woman to my left told me about her grandchildren’s reading.  The granddaughter who’d been read to consistently by Daughter #1 since babyhood was markedly brighter and more intelligent, so the woman said, than the two grandchildren of Daughter #2.  She had never read to them at all. The first child loved to go to the library; the other two could care less.  Then the woman said to me: “Wasn’t Lincoln fortunate that his stepmother taught him to read?”

I honestly started to say, “Did you find that in The Literature?”  That’s because I did not remember finding it there.  Then I realized, of course, that this woman would not have known The Lincoln Literature – of which there is a great deal.

And I began wondering, “How did Lincoln learn to read?”

Learning to read is not that easy to do.  Generally speaking, it can’t be done on one’s own.  Lincoln was obviously ambitious to learn.  But who helped him?  Teachers?  His stepmother?  His cousin? Did he have access to a dictionary?  Did he discuss his reading with anyone?

The Lincoln myth suggests that Lincoln mainly taught himself.  Is this credible?  His schooling appears negligible and sporadic.  The schoolmasters he had were itinerant and not very good.  In the campaign biography he wrote in 1860 Lincoln said where “I grew up [t]here were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond ‘readin, writin, and cipherin.’”  He goes on, “when I came of age I did not know much…  Still, somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three.”

Kenneth Winkle points out that the cult of the self-made man, of which Lincoln was the ultimate representation, caused men to exaggerate the negative aspects of their youth.  Because of this, it’s difficult to know of exactly what Lincoln’s boyhood education consisted.  He recalled attending an “A.B.C. school” in Kentucky where he was taught first by a Zechariah Riney and later by Caleb Hazel.  According to David Herbert Donald, a contemporary recalled that Hazel could “perhaps teach spelling, reading and indifferent writing and perhaps could cipher to the rule of three, but had no other qualifications of a teacher, except large size and bodily strength to thrash any boy or youth that came to his school.”

Later in Indiana Lincoln was allowed three attempts at formal schooling.  He and his four Lincoln/Johnston siblings attended a log cabin school taught for one term of three months by an Andrew Crawford, a justice of the peace.  Donald says: “Though Sarah Bush Lincoln was illiterate, she had a sense that education was important, and Thomas wanted his son to learn how to read and cipher.”

Young Abe next attended a school taught by a James Swaney four miles from the Lincoln house, so far from his chores that he could attend only intermittently.  For about six months he went to another school, taught by an Azel W. Dorsey.  He was now 15 and his sporadic schooling ended.

Dennis Hanks, Abe’s cousin who lived with the Lincolns, claimed to have administered the first lessons in reading.  Another cousin John Hanks remembered Abe as “somewhat dull… not a brilliant boy, but worked his way by toil.”  There are also recollections aplenty from boyhood companions that characterize Abe as lazy.  It’s clear that he had no appetite for farm work or manual labor.  He had decided, probably by his early teens, to move in a different direction.

Testimony of his contemporaries tells us that young Abe read virtually every chance he got.  If he was not a particularly bright student, he had a tenacity that brought results.  The stepmother who encouraged his education remembered: “He must understand everything – minutely and exactly – he would repeat it over and over to himself again and again – some times in one form and then in an other and when it was fixed in his mind to suit him he… never lost that fact or his understanding of it.”

What books was Lincoln exposed to as a youth?  Dillworth’s Spelling Book introduced him to grammar and spelling even before he left Kentucky.  The Columbian Class Book and The Kentucky Preceptor would have expanded on those lessons.  It’s clear that he read the family Bible and heard it read; also The Pilgrim’s Progress; we hear the rhythms of these books in Lincoln’s speeches.  Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln brought to Indiana a copy of Aesop’s Fables and, according to Donald, a copy of Lessons in Elocution, a strange book for an illiterate woman to possess.  Lincoln read Shakespeare and history: the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, a History of the United States by William Grimshaw, a Life of George Washington. He borrowed books from neighbors and in a famous case had to work off the costs of damages he had wrought to a book.

It looks very much as if there was more education in Lincoln’s background than he readily admitted.  Probably more parental encouragement, too.   It does look likely that Lincoln’s meager schooling gave his education a start; he must have learned the basics of reading there.  And he must have found that he enjoyed reading, perhaps particularly poetry.  He must also have realized that if he wanted to trade a life of manual labor for a life of mental work, reading was the ticket out.  Perhaps his determination to escape was what truly got him to read.

Do you have comments on this post?  Please let’s hear them!

Notes: Para 5: Collected Works; para 6: Winkle (YE), p. 124-130, Donald (L), p. 23; para 7-11: Donald (L), p. 28-31.

Frederic Hunter is author of ABE AND MOLLY: The Lincoln Courtship,

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One Response to How Did Abraham Lincoln Learn to Read?

  1. Betsy Kain says:

    It ‘s amazing to me, Mr Hunter, how much you have learned and know about Abe and Molly! It’s all so interesting….thank you!

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