LINCOLN, Abraham (1809-1865), President. Autograph manuscript leaf with integral signature ("Abraham Lincoln") from Lincoln's earliest surviving autograph manuscript, his home-made "Sum-Book," used as an adolescent schoolboy. [Pigeon Creek, Spencer County, Indiana, 1824-1826]. 2pp., an irregular oblong (5¼ x 7¾ in. approx.), one side with neat mathematical calculations and five lines of verse; verso with numerical calculations. Losses at margins affecting several letters in bottom-most line, paper evenly age-toned.
"ABRAHAM LINCOLN HIS HAND AND PEN": LINCOLN'S EARLIEST HANDWRITTEN MANUSCRIPT. A LEAF FROM HIS HOME-MADE "SUM-BOOK" USED AS A SCHOOLBOY, CONTAINING POETRY AND ONE OF LINCOLN'S EARLIEST FULL SIGNATURES. PROVIDING A UNIQUE WINDOW INTO THE EARLY EDUCATIONAL ASPIRATIONS OF THE FRONTIER BOY AND FUTURE PRESIDENT
On one side of the leaf, beneath arithmetical calculations, Lincoln has written: "Abraham Lincoln his hand and pen he will be good but God knows When." Herndon, the first biographer to examine the "Sum-Book" leaves, regularized capitalization and spelling, added punctuation and rendered the lines as follows:
his hand and pen,
he will be good,
but God knows when."
It is now known that this particular quatrain did not originate with the young frontiersman. It appears to be an inscription traditional in the family, as Albert J. Beveridge discovered a virtually identical inscription in Mordecai Lincoln's personal copy of Bailey's Dictionary, where the name "Abraham" was replaced by the name "Mordecai" (cited by Basler 1:2fn.). On the rest of the leaf, Lincoln has penned the first two stanzas of a hymn by Isaac Watts (1674-1748; No.58 in Book 2 of Hymns and Spiritual Songs). Its tone of melancholy longing must have struck a strong chord with the young Lincoln. The swift passage of time and the changes wrought by it constitutes a theme Lincoln reverted to in his own later poetical efforts (especially the verses "My child-hood's home I see again And sadden with the view..."; See Basler 1:376-379). Literally rendered, spelling errors preserved, and with a few missing letters supplied from Herndon's 1865 transcription, they read: "Time What an em[p]ty vaper tis and days how swift they are swift as an Indian arr[ow] fly on like a shooting star the presant moment Just [is here] then slides away in h[as]te that we [can] never say they['re ours] but [only say] th[ey]'re past." Herndon gives a more polished rendition (Herndon and Weik, Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle, pp.36-37):
"Time, what an empty vapor 'tis,
And days how swift they are:
Swift as an Indian arrow--
Fly on like a shooting star.
The present moment just is here,
Then slides away in haste,
That we can never say they're ours,
But only say they're past."
Lincoln's Earliest Written Records
"The earliest Lincoln documents come from Indiana, fugitive pages from a sum book in which the boy practiced arithmetic...If the pages suggest youthful diligence, they also betray an irreverent streak and a somewhat darker outlook than sentimentalists later described in this period of his life" (M. Neely, The Last Best Hope of Earth, p.5). Lincoln's "Sum-Book," as it is usually termed, consists of a modest handful of frayed leaves, two of which are dated 1824 and one 1826. These date from Lincoln's adolescent years on the Indiana frontier, where his family had settled in 1816. In it, the young man--aged 15 to 17--copied mathematical exercises (multiplication, simple and compound interest) plus tables of measurement (wet, dry and land). As biographer David Herbert Donald writes, Lincoln "was able to sew together a few sheets of paper into a little notebook in which he wrote down his more advanced problems and his answers to them. Here he recorded complicated calculations involving multiplication (like 34,567,834 x 24,423) and division (such as 4,375,701 divided by 2,432), which he completed with exceptional accuracy" (Education Defective: Abraham Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness, remarks before the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, 19 Nov. 1997, http://www.gettysburg.edu/academics/cwi/Lincoln_Fellowship/dd.html).
On several leaves, over and in between the mathematical problems, perhaps at a slightly later date, Lincoln wrote passages of original poetry and several schoolboy doggerel rhymes. The "Sum-book" remained for many years in the possession of Lincoln's step-mother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, but after Lincoln's death, she gave it to Lincoln's former law partner and biographer-to-be, William Herndon. Its 10 separate surviving leaves constitute, according to Roy P. Basler, "the only extant manuscripts of this early period" (Lincoln, Collected Works, ed. R.P. Basler, 1953, p.2 fn.). In the intervening 60-odd years since Basler's comment, no additional autograph manuscripts from Lincoln's little-known early years have come to light. In fact, as Neely notes, "Little else survives to illuminate the events of Lincoln's formative years in Indiana" (Ibid.).
Lincoln's Early Schooling
Thomas Lincoln, Abraham's father, had almost no education, and, according to his son, "never did more in the way of writing to bunglingly sign his own name." Abraham's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who died in 1818, when Abraham was nine, is believed to have been able to read, but apparently, could not write. When the family lived in Hardin County, Kentucky, Lincoln and his sister both attended local "A.B.C." schools, which taught the most elementary reading, writing and arithmetic. Then, in 1816, the family moved to southern Indiana, a "wild region,' Lincoln wrote, "with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. Timber clearing, hunting and agricultural chores filled most of his days. "There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education" in this place, he remembered, and opportunities for schooling were rare. In 1819, his father re-married a widow, Sarah Bush Johnston, who seems, by the available accounts, to have encouraged Lincoln's strong interest in learning. So, "when Andrew Crawford opened a school about a mile from the Lincoln cabin, the parents saw that the children attended for a term of perhaps three months. Ungraded, this was a "blab" school, where students recited their lessons aloud, and the schoolmaster listened through the din for errors" (Donald). When Crawford's frontier school closed, Lincoln occasionally attended one run by James Swaney, some four miles distant, and, finally, for about a half-year, another conducted by one Azel W. Dorsey. Thus ended Lincoln's formal education, at the age of 15. This spotty and haphazard early education, Lincoln later calculated, probably amounted in total to less than a year's actual schooling. As a result of this "education defective," Lincoln, as he explained, "could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity" (Lincoln, campaign autobiography, 1859).
The "Sum-Book" and its Vicissitudes
Blank paper--on which to record rules, tables and practice examples-- was scarce and relatively expensive in frontier Indiana. In fact, Lincoln's step-mother, in her interview with Herndon, reported that Lincoln had used a board or wooden shake as a substitute: "when the board would get too black [from pencil lead?] he would shave it off with a drawing knife and go on again." It appears, though, by 1824-26, Lincoln had managed to obtain some small folio sheets of rather thick paper. These he carefully bound up to fashion himself a crude but serviceable notebook. No sewing punctures or stab-holes are evident in the margins of the surviving leaves, leaving us in the dark as to the nature of the notebook's original binding (cloth?, paper?) and its appearance.
The survival of these few leaves of the "Sum-Book" is in itself remarkable. The book remained with Lincoln's father and step-mother after Lincoln left home and moved to Illinois. In September 1865, Lincoln's stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln (1788-1869), gave it to Lincoln's biographer and former law partner, William Herndon, when he interviewed her on her farm in Charleston, Illinois. Even at that date, Herndon' description ("a few leaves from a book made and bound by Abe") suggests it was probably disbound and in parlous state.
This frayed and crumpled leaf, though, is a powerful testament to the young Lincoln's indomitable drive for education and self-improvement, in spite of his poverty, in spite of the limited opportunities in his immediate surroundings. In these pages of carefully figured sums punctuated by a brief poetic fancy, we can perceive a powerful, imaginative but untutored mind embarking on a lifetime of dedicated self-education, carefully disciplining and training the mind that would endow and empower his future efforts as rural surveyor, small-town postmaster, attorney, Congressman and ultimately, President.
Census of Surviving Leaves from Lincoln's "Sum-Book" (Numbered in the order illustrated by Basler, Collected Works, vol.1)
1. Leaf, dated 1824, containing division tables and quatrain, "Abraham Lincoln is my [name] And with my pen I wrote the same." Justin Turner Collection, 1953 - Anonymous owner (sale, 13 June 1991, lot 218A, $130,000) - Private collection.
2. Leaf, containing "Compound multiplication" exercises and inscription "Abraham Lincoln His Book." Oliver R. Barrett Collection, 1953 - Indiana Historical Society.
3. The present leaf. Oliver R. Barrett Collection, 1953 - The Forbes Collection.
4. Leaf, containing "The Single Rule of Three." Hay Library, Brown University.
5. Leaf, dated 1824, containing "Multiplication" exercises. Columbia University Library.
6. Leaf, containing "Simple Interest," exercises. Foreman M. Lebold Collection, 1953. Private collection.
7. Leaf, containing "Simple Interest" examples. A. C. Goodyear, 1953 -- Beinecke Library, Yale University.
8. Leaf, dated 1 March 1826, containing "Discount" explanation and exercises. Chicago Historical Society.
9. Leaf, containing "Land Measure" and "Dry Measure" exercises. Herndon-Weik Collection, Library of Congress.
10. Leaf, containing "Compound Interest." Peter H. Brandt, 1953.