Lincoln’s Reading Habits

Harvard University Press
7 min readFeb 12, 2019

No American president before or since has faced the problems that confronted Abraham Lincoln when he took office in 1861. Nor has any president expressed himself with such eloquence on issues of great moment. Lincoln’s writings reveal the depth of his thought and feeling and the sincerity of his convictions as he weighed the cost of freedom and preserving the Union. The Annotated Lincoln explores Lincoln’s essential writings examines the extraordinary man who produced them and explains the context in which they were composed. With generous annotations, Harold Holzer and Thomas A. Horrocks explore Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery, emancipation, racial equality, the legality of secession, civil liberties in wartime, and the meaning of the terrible suffering caused by the Civil War. Here is a look at Lincoln’s early life and literary influences from the introduction.

“Writing — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world.”

So Abraham Lincoln once eloquently put the matter in a declaration that offers itself as evidence of its truth, in one of his most curious and least remembered public addresses: a lengthy lecture on discoveries and inventions ranging from “the fig-leaf apron” in the Garden of Eden to America’s “steamboats and railroads.”

Mundane the speech may have otherwise been, but when its subject turned to writing — embracing everything from Webster’s dictionary to the “five books of Moses” — Lincoln proved positively inspired. Writing remained the greatest of discoveries, he emphatically insisted, “great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space.”

Lincoln spoke not only from conviction but also from personal experience. In regard to writing — even writing about writing — Lincoln stands as one of its most inspired practitioners. From his earliest scribblings as a teen- ager to his final memoranda on the day he went to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln may have spent more time writing — most of it wisely and memorably — than performing any other task. We think of him perhaps first as a rail splitter, an attorney, a debater, a stump speaker, a commander in chief, an emancipator, or a pardoner — but nearly all of those roles required mastery of the art of writing, and over the years Lincoln’s compositions, the most significant of which are featured in this volume, included legal documents, letters, and orations as long as 10,000-word stem-winders and as succinct as the 272 words he spoke at Gettysburg, along with presidential proclamations, dispatches, and declarations. With such a huge archive to his credit, it remains difficult to imagine how Lincoln ever found the time to do much else. Using the crude implements of the day — at the end of his life, no better than steel-nib pens and ink dipped regularly from inkwells and blotted once applied to paper — Lincoln created an American treasure trove of definitive thoughts on freedom, opportunity, and nationhood.

That Lincoln would come to be celebrated after his death as one of this nation’s greatest writers would have surprised and perhaps shocked some of the well-educated contemporaries who saw the living Lincoln as a man lacking the accoutrements of refinement, as nothing more than a country bumpkin who spoke like a hayseed and wrote like a yokel completely ignorant of the fundamentals of grammar. Lincoln, of course, was always aware of those who underestimated his intelligence and talents. As a young man, painfully conscious of his intellectual deficiencies, Lincoln committed himself to a rigorous course of self-education, so that by the time he reached middle age he possessed a steely inner confidence in his ability to hold his own intellectually with his more refined and better-educated peers. Behind the folksy nineteenth- and early twentieth-century images of Lincoln reading and writing by the hearth fire in a log cabin isolated on the prairie lies a real story of a man whose life was, in many ways, a constant act of becoming, including becoming a great writer.

Born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln was the second of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s three children. Lincoln’s Virginia- born parents named their first son in honor of his paternal grandfather, Abraham, who was killed by Indians in 1786. Within two years of Lincoln’s birth, his parents, in search of more fertile land, moved the family seven miles away to Knob Creek, where a third child, Thomas, was born, only to die shortly after birth. When Lincoln was seven years old, the family made another move, instigated primarily by Thomas Lincoln’s problems with land titles, this time across the Ohio River to the southern Indiana frontier.

In 1818, two years after arriving in Indiana, Lincoln’s mother died from a disease called “milk sick,” probably caused by drinking milk from cows that had ingested poisonous snakeroot. A year later, ten-year-old Abraham and his older sister, Sarah (who would die in childbirth in 1826), gained a stepmother when Thomas Lincoln married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children of her own. Although Lincoln deeply mourned the death of his mother, he developed a warm affection for his stepmother, who, unlike Lincoln’s father, encouraged and supported her stepson’s tireless pursuit of knowledge. After thirteen years in Indiana, the Lincoln family, searching for better economic opportunities, moved again, this time to Macon County, Illinois.

An exemplar of the self-made man, Lincoln worked tenaciously to overcome his humble beginnings. Self-conscious about the primitive environment into which he was born, the illiteracy of his parents, and a formal education limited to less than a year, Lincoln embarked on a vigorous regimen of self-improvement, spending as much time as he could enhancing his reading and writing skills. His limited exposure to formal schooling was not an unusual circumstance in early nineteenth-century America; it was an experience shared by many of his generation, especially those residing in the western and southern regions of the country. What was extraordinary about Lincoln’s experience, however, was the remarkable trajectory of his career, which culminated in his election and reelection as president of the United States and his emergence as one of this country’s greatest writers of nonfiction, despite what he referred to as his “defective” education and the fact that he did not master the fundamentals of grammar until he reached his early twenties.

Lincoln’s writing skills in his mature years were primarily influenced by his youthful reading habits. His early reading tended to be intensive rather than extensive. Since books were scarce on the frontier, he would have read a few books more than once, memorizing much of what he read. The King James Bible, for example, was one such book that Lincoln, as well as many Americans of the time, read, reread, and memorized. As shown in several of the documents presented in this volume, Lincoln possessed a fluent knowledge of the Bible. An increasingly voracious reader, he devoured other books belonging to his stepmother or borrowed from neighbors, such titles as Aesop’s Fables, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Prog­ress, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and Mason Locke Weems’s and David Ramsay’s biographies of George Washington.

Other books integral to Lincoln’s development as a writer — and speaker — were Thomas Dilworth’s New Guide to the English Tongue (1740), William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution (1779), Lindley Murray’s English Reader (1795), and Samuel Kirkham’s English Grammar (1823). Lincoln was introduced to Dilworth’s work (popularly known as Dilworth’s Spelling­ Book) during his time in Indiana or later in New Salem, Illinois. In addition to lessons in spelling, pronunciation, and grammar, the Spelling­Book contained selections of prose and verse by leading eighteenth-century British authors. Lincoln copied out and memorized sections of Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, especially those passages meant to improve reading and speaking skills. Murray’s popular English Reader, which Lincoln believed was the best schoolbook of its time, also offered for its various exercises poetry and prose selections from British authors of the same period. After Lincoln left the family farm and moved to New Salem, he embarked on a study of Kirkham’s English Grammar to further improve his writing skills, walking several miles to borrow the book from an acquaintance.

Lincoln’s ability to write the eloquent prose for which he became famous developed over time, gradually enhanced through strenuous practice and constantly reinforced through his active reading habits. After Lincoln’s death, his stepmother recalled Lincoln’s fascination with words and their meaning when he was young: “Abe read all the books he could lay his hands on — and when he came across a passage that Struck him he would write it down on boards if he had no paper & keep it there till he did get paper — then he would re-write it — look at it repeat it — He had a copy book — a kind of scrap book in which he would put down all things and this preserved them.”

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