Published with Permission
Written by Katharine Trauger
Half-orphaned at age ten, almost totally self-educated, successful lawyer…who was this famous home scholar?
“I have no wife and you, no husband. I came deliberately to marry you. I’ve known you from a girl and you’ve known me from a boy. I’ve no time to lose; and if you’re willing, let it be done straight off.”
Imagine such a proposal! Imagine accepting it and inheriting, in the bargain, two half-grown children to finish raising in addition to your own three.
So it goes, for you, Sarah, as you gracefully join this man who is land rich, but poor in most other ways. When his wagon heads out for the estate his dad bought on Daniel Boone’s advice, it includes your down mattress. It is a good decision.
The twelve-year-old girl and her ten-year-old brother whom you meet days later are shy, and wretched, but fascinated with your mattress. You arrange that the first work shall be a wood floor for your new family’s tiny cabin.
Hand-whittling the pegs to secure his mother’s coffin has affected your stepson. He hardly speaks.
You discover, though, that this boy loves reading and writing. Indeed, his carefully executed scrawling, made with sticks in the dirt, appears everywhere. In all, he receives about a year’s “schooling” in his whole life, whenever a schoolmaster happens through the area. By age eleven, he is writing simple poems and showing his blossoming wit in other ways, such as writing his name with blackberry ink and then saying, “That doesn’t look a bit like me!”
Soon, other children learn they can sneak up on him while he is reading, and play naughty pranks. You disallow this and tell them he will be a great man, some day. He repeatedly reads the only book your family owns, the Bible. From lenders, though, he experiences the works of Aesop, Bunyan, and Defoe, plus an extensive U.S. history and a biography of Washington, his hero. One day, he walks twenty miles to borrow a book from a lawyer. Within a hard, pioneer existence, he makes time for his first love, reading until midnight and on lunch breaks. Often, as he reads, he makes notes with charcoal on a shovel blade.
Others think him peculiar. They can read, but your stepson draws meaning from his reading, sometimes orally debating questions with himself as he walks the rows of fields. While sitting with a girl near a stream on a moonlit night, who but your stepson thinks to lecture on the physics of astronomy? Few dare to ridicule him, though: He is taller, faster, and stronger than anyone around.
That strength earns him respect that pays, and he often spends days alone with God’s creation, clearing neighbors’ land, the only other sound his ax, or maybe his own voice debating. His self-taught intelligence earns another type of respect—family and neighbors come to him for letter writing. As he questions them about content and style, he teaches himself the best ways to word an idea. He walks thirty miles to a courthouse to learn how lawyers speak and act, mimicking preachers and other speakers, to find his own speaking and life styles.
All the while, you watch with a growing, tranquil satisfaction, as this young man becomes a calm force wherever he is. You add your own characteristic wisdom and peace when you can, but mostly your contribution involves mending, cleaning, and keeping a good supply of corn dodgers on hand. You love and understand your stepson like your own, but more, you love him as if he were God’s own, as if the tasks of meeting his needs were a gift from God.
Joining the church at age 14, knowing how to read the entire Bible, being the one who refused to set fire to a live turtle or let a drunkard freeze to death—such marks of distinction draw your stepson closer to the ones Jesus would have befriended: the downtrodden and the sincere. Yet, he so loves a good joke that he helps muddy little friends “walk” upside-down on your ceiling. You laughingly tell him he ought to be spanked and he cheerfully cleans up the mess.
Distinction carries him away from you, though, as a neighbor hires him to help deliver goods down river. Your nineteen-year-old stepson’s method is: first, to cut logs and build a raft.
Upon arrival, he sees people who are vastly different from himself in ways he could never imagine. Every nuance of skin color and speech accent; every type of sin, whether illegal or not; every level of poverty and wealth pass before him. He tastes of the world’s drink and smoke and eschews it, and on his return, he gives all his earnings over to his dad.
Further heroics on the river earn him more than money—his reputation for cool-headedness grows. He moves to Illinois, and adds honesty in business to his reputation. Formally studying grammar and debate, working in a store built with logs he cut down and hewed, serving in the military, trying his hand at surveying and as postmaster, his wit ever attracts as his wisdom inspires admiration. Your stepson continues rising in the eyes of all around. Soon he uses his wisdom to defend the weak in court. Yet it is his wit that gains him an invitation to dinner with President Van Buren, who later says his sides ached from laughing that night.
He continues for twenty-three years as a lawyer, taking in partners, marrying, running for an occasional office. After the Kansas-Nebraska Bill allows the spread of slavery, though, he becomes serious about politics, winning a position as state representative. He receives several nominations for U.S. Senate and Vice-President before finally winning the race for President, even earning re-election, during the most difficult years ever, of our nation’s history.
Who is your famous stepson?
Answer: Abraham Lincoln, known and respected worldwide, sixteenth president of the United States, U.S. Representative, Illinois General Assemblyman, successful lawyer, county surveyor, postmaster, Black Hawk militiaman, and home scholar.
Another question: What was Senator Stephen A. Douglas’ opinion of Mr. Lincoln?
Answer: He said, “You have nominated a very able and very honest man.”