Abraham Lincoln: A story and a Play/School Days
The new stepmother brought a large wagonload of furniture and clothing to her Indiana home. One of the pieces was a bureau which had cost fifty dollars. It must have seemed very wonderful to Abraham and Sarah, who had been used to rough homemade furniture all their lives.
When Mrs. Lincoln looked around her new home she said she would not be satisfied until a floor had been laid. The house must also have windows and a door. When these had been attended to, and the furniture set in place, Abraham was more comfortable than he had ever been in his life.
The stepmother had a loving heart, and though she had three children of her own, she treated Abraham and Sarah very kindly and did all she could to make them happy.
"Even if we live in these backwoods, they must have book learning," she declared. "They shall not grow up ignorant."
There was a small schoolhouse not far away, and soon after the stepmother had taken charge of the family, the children began to go to school. There they studied "readin', writin' and cipherin'."
There were few books in the school, and neither paper nor ink, as it was nearly impossible for people living in the midst of the forest to get such things. The school-house itself was small and dark. When the door was closed the only light came through squares of greased paper, which were used instead of glass for windows.
The benches where the children sat were logs split in halves and set up on legs. Yet Abraham was so glad to get a chance to learn, that he was happy during the short time he was able to go to this school. He loved his studies so much, that after working hard on the farm all day, he used every spare minute of the evening reading the few books he was able to borrow from his neighbors, or doing "sums" with bits of charcoal on the wooden fire shovel.
There were no lamps nor candles in the house. The boy, however, would stretch out on the floor before the fireplace, and by the light of the burnings logs, he managed to do his sums and his reading. Abraham's stepmother soon discovered that he had a bright mind and she encouraged him to study. She loved him dearly, for he was as thoughtful and kindhearted and truthful as he was eager to learn.
"Abe never gave me a cross word or look. I must say Abe was the best boy I ever saw or expect to see," she said afterwards.
When Abraham was fourteen years old he went for a short time to another school, and again when he was nearly seventeen. This last was four or five miles away, but it was better than any of the others. Here the boy had a chance to use pen and ink, and was given a copy-book in which to write.
The teacher had been "out in the world." So, with the other studies, he taught these backwood pupils what he called "manners." He showed them how to enter a room filled with people. He trained the boys in taking off their hats and bowing politely to the girls when they met them.
"How much our teacher knows!" thought the pupils, and though they were awkward, they tried their best to follow the master's directions. When Abraham afterwards left his country home and went to live in a city, he was probably very glad of the "manners" he learned that winter.
There were other things which he enjoyed greatly in this last school. One of them was the Friday "speaking," when the boys and girls took their turns in standing up before the class and recited the "pieces" they had learned. Then there were compositions. At one time Abraham wrote on "Cruelty to Animals." His tender heart could not bear to have dumb creatures surfer. Still another of his compositions was on "Temperance." One of the neighbors admired this so much that he had it printed in a newspaper.
Abraham never had another chance to attend school. Altogether he spent less than one year in a school-room, yet "between times" he taught himself as best he could, borrowing every neighbor's book he could get.
This borrowing once got him into sad trouble. Abraham was working for a rich man named Crawford. During the day he split rails, ploughed and took care of the cattle. He sometimes helped in the house, too, and even tended the baby for Mrs. Crawford, who was very kind to him and loaned him books, which he read after he went to bed at night.
One evening when Abraham had finished reading, he tucked the book away between the logs in the wall beside his bed, as he usually did when he was ready for sleep. Before morning a storm arose, and he woke up to find the book drenched through from the rain which had made its way through the chinks of the wall.
When he took it back, Mr. Crawford said, "I won't accept such a book. You may keep it, but you must pay for it by pulling fodder." Abraham felt quite bitter that a wealthy man like Mr. Crawford should be so hard upon him, a poor boy. But he set to work, and in three days he earned his first book. It was Weem's "Life of Washington."
For weeks afterwards Abraham spent all his spare time in reading and rereading his precious book. Over and over again he followed Washington through the brave adventures of his youth and the battles in which he dared so much.
While Abraham was poring over the life of the "Father of his Country," the boy little dreamed that he himself would become the wise, "Big Brother." Yes, it would be through his love and foresight that America would be saved, and her people kept together in one great family.
"Robinson Crusoe," "Aesop's Fables," "Pilgrim's Progress" and a "History of the United States" were also great favorites with Abraham. He came to know them almost by heart. Then, of course, there was the Bible, which he had learned to love when a tiny, little fellow. His own mother had often read it to him before he was old enough to study it for himself.
Much as Abraham liked to read, he was also fond of sports. He ran races, he took part in wrestling matches, and when there was a huskingbee or a house-raising, there he was to be found, the merriest, happiest one of the whole company. He was such a big, strong fellow, six feet four inches tall before he was twenty years old, that he could outstrip his fellows in everything he tried.
No one around could chop wood or split rail so fast as Abraham Lincoln. No other man could lift so big a weight as he, or equal him in wrestling. But he was not satisfied with doing these things. He was just as eager to be a fine story teller, to be a clear writer, and to argue so well that everyone who listened would be forced to agree with him. He soon became the wonder of the whole country side, and people would gather about him whenever they had a chance to listen to his stories and speeches.
Though he went to school for such a short time, and though there were so few books that he could get hold of, yet Abraham was constantly learning in other ways. People from other places passed through the country from time to time, and the boy listened eagerly to their stories.
He would often repeat these stories to himself when he was alone. Then, between his father and his men friends there were talks to which Abraham gave close attention, hoping to learn something he did not already know. Most exciting of all was what he heard at the court-house in the town fifteen miles away. He did not consider the long walk through the woods, but whenever it was possible for him to leave his work for the day, he would set out for the town with long, swinging steps.
When he arrived at the court-house he was sure to be rewarded. Men and women were tried there for wrong-doing, and they were often defended by great lawyers who had come from the cities far away. Abraham listened carefully to the speeches which he stored away in his mind. At such times the log-house in the backwoods, the hum-drum ploughing and wood chopping were forgotten, for the young fellow was living in thought in the big, outside world.
After such days in court, Abraham could often be seen standing in the middle of the field, when he should have been at work, repeating the speeches he had heard to a crowd of neighbors. So well did he speak, that they, too, forgot the work in hand, and were carried far away from their backwood's home.
Now, in the books Abraham read, and in the talks and speeches he heard, there were words whose meaning he did not know, and expressions that were not clear. Then he was much troubled. He would spend a long time thinking over the matter and trying to understand.
At such times he would say to himself something like this, "Whenever I speak to others, no matter what the subject may be, it shall be said so clearly and simply, that every one will understand me."
He kept his word. In the great speeches he afterwards made—speeches which stirred the hearts of all who heard them and which will live forever, his words were so clear and simple that everyone could understand.