All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1961

How Lincoln Got His Education


Mr. Pettengill, noted attorney and author, was formerly a congressman from Indiana. This ar­ticle first appeared in American Mercury Mag­azine.

In June of 1860, friends asked Abraham Lincoln to prepare a short biographical sketch, which could be used as a campaign docu­ment. Lincoln did so, writing of himself in the third person, and insisted that it be used without material change:

“The aggregate of all his school­ing did not amount to one year.

“He regrets his want of education and does what he can to supply that want.

“After he was 23, he studied English grammar, imperfectly of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does.

“He was never in a college or academy as a student, never even inside a college or academy build­ing until after he had a license to practice law.”

As you can see, Lincoln felt, as so many do, that education comes from schools and books, and hav­ing had little of either, he felt he had little education.

Whence, then, came the power to put in pure and limpid English—as clear as a Vermont trout stream—his letter to Mrs. Bixby, who had lost five sons in the War; the closing paragraphs of his Sec­ond Inaugural; and the Gettys­burg Address? Whence, also, came the power to make speeches and state papers that march to their conclusion with the precision of a proposition of Euclid?

Now books are important teach­ers. I do not downgrade them in the least. They open many doors and tell you many things—some of which you remember for years.

A subject taught in school is like a whetstone on a scythe. It may leave little of its substance on the scythe, but it leaves it sharper.

But books and schools are not as important as that from which they come—life itself—and then they are important only as long as they are true to life, or some facet of life.

An anecdote of Charles Ketter­ing, the noted inventor and re­search scientist of General Motors, illustrates this point. Kettering had thought up some new idea as to how a piston could work better in an engine. When he described his idea to a famous engineer, the man said, “It won’t work.” Ketter­ing asked, “How do you know it won’t work?”

The man said, “Why, every en­gineer and all the books on engi­neering know it won’t work.”

Kettering said, “But does the piston know it won’t work?”

So they asked the piston by put­ting it in an engine. The piston did not know it could not work! It did work. The books were wrong.

Life the Great Teacher

Life is the great teacher. Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed this in a sentence worth remembering: “The scholar loses no hour that the man lives.” And he added: “The scholar recognizes his teach­er in every man.”

What you learn from contact with life, with your schoolmates, teamwork on the athletic field, competition in the classroom, loy­alty to the old school, loyalty to your country, how you sort-out those you meet in life, those with honor, and those without honor—with what these teach you, you can go far with no more than one shelf of books, unless, of course, you go into some specialty like law, medicine, engineering, and so forth.

So the question remains, where did Lincoln get his education? Who and what were his teachers?

Who Can Say?

In Abraham Lincoln: The Prai­rie Years, Carl Sandburg says, “In wilderness loneliness he compan­ioned with trees…. Silence claimed him as her own. In the making of him the element of silence was immense.”

In describing the life of Lin­coln’s family and the pioneer peo­ple with whom he grew up, the Encyclopedia Britannica says: “Many, if not all, frontier women of the old days were dreamers. Their lives were hard, their emo­tions mainly sealed up, but all around them was the mystery of the primeval forest; they treas­ured it in silence….

“How had he gathered into him­self a subterranean sense of beau­ty in words, whether it had grown out of long reading of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Robert Burns—the favorite books of his maturity—whether it linked back to his mother’s world, with its forests and empty spaces, its loneliness and its lampless nights of stars, who can say?”

Yes, who can say? A great book remains to be written on how the wilderness and the prairie influ­enced the American character.

Lincoln and all pioneer people learned to think for themselves. They had to. There were no news­paper editorials, telephones, radios, or television sets by which pundits from afar could form their opin­ions and judgments for them.

And so, without all these mod­ern advantages (!) which we pos­sess, they were free from the mass-mind, the “Group Think,” which is one of the curses of our time. They thought as individuals, groping for the truth and the right as God gave them to see it.

Lincoln wrote his own speeches! He did not have the benefit of a stable of ghost writers like the statesmen of our time, who read a speech to a nationwide radio audi­ence and stumble over the words as if they had never seen them in type before.

In his speeches and state papers, Lincoln seldom quoted anyone as authority for what he was saying. Occasionally he quoted Jefferson—his kindred spirit—and once or twice, Henry Clay. Few others. He was his own authority. He thought things through to conclusions that seemed right to him.

Self-reliance was his teacher, as it was to all pioneer people. “Trust thyself, every heart responds to that iron string.” Nobody ever taught Lincoln to use his vote so as to eat his bread in the sweat of other people’s brows. Lincoln made his own way—and he traveled far!

Tools Reveal Their Secrets

The crude tools of the pioneers taught him their secrets. The axe was put in his hands when he was eight years old, and it was not far from his grasp until he was man grown. What you learn through your hands you seldom, if ever, forget, which is something not true of what you learn through your eyes and ears.

These tools taught him many things. They taught him how other people had to struggle to make a living. He learned the trades of the farmer, the woodsman, car­penter, stone mason, surveyor, storekeeper—many others. And thus it was that he learned to un­derstand people and talk to them in words they understood.

We speak somewhat scornfully of a “Jack of all trades, and mas­ter of none,” and, of course, a man must be master of something to earn a living. Nevertheless, the tools of all these trades taught Lincoln many things not found in books today.

The Voice of Nature

Nature was his teacher. Think of Lincoln as a boy in the primeval forest of Little Pigeon Creek in Southern Indiana where the sound of an axe had never before been heard, where trees grew nearly as tall as the Redwoods of California, where there was silence and mys­tery and peace. Think of him look­ing up through the foliage far overhead to the blue sky of noon, or the bright stars of night—do you think he did not hear voices in the air? Do you believe he ever thought that a divine hand was not behind it all? Do you think he did not hear the same voices that the Psalmist heard?

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament show­eth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.”

These words were heard in the wilderness of Southern Indiana, seven score years ago. You don’t hear them so well in a city apart­ment filled with “rock and roll.”

Poverty and privation were his teachers. They were close to him and to all around him. From them he learned kindness, compassion, sympathy, understanding. He learned many things from living with poor people which rich men’s sons often never learn at all. Be­cause this was so, people liked him and trusted him and later voted for him.

It was thus that he could later write to a mother of five dead sol­dier sons in words no other man had ever put on paper. And so only he could make the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln never lost the common touch and so it came about, in the terrible years of war, that the plain people of the North came to speak of him as “Father” Abra­ham. He trusted them, and most of them trusted him. Pride, vanity, and high office never spoiled him.

The mystery and the mastery of Lincoln came from books, a little; but from Life, the Great Teacher, he learned many lessons.