Abraham Lincoln: Childhood & Education

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Abraham Lincoln is well-known for the events of his presidency, but many of his actions were shaped by the experiences of his youth. In this lesson, we'll explore Lincoln's early years and see how they shaped his worldview.

Young Abraham Lincoln

Students are known to frequently ask about their education ''when will I ever use this in real life?'' The truth is, you never know. Maybe you'll end up a farmer, a lawyer, or the President of the United States who keeps the country from falling apart.

Abraham Lincoln was the American president from 1860-1865. He would guide the country through the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the birth of a new nation. Although they were unassuming considering his later accomplishments, Lincoln's early years earned him a reputation, an education, and set him on the path towards saving the American republic.

Birth and Early Years

Many American presidents were born into wealth and privilege. Abraham Lincoln was not one of these presidents. Born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky on February 12, 1809, Lincoln's early life was typical of rural America. His father, Thomas, was an uneducated but hard-working farmer and skilled carpenter that was clever and well respected in his community. He and his wife, Nancy, were members of a distinct faction within the Baptist church that had seceded because of their radical views opposing slavery.

Drawing of the cabin in which Lincoln was said to have been born
Cabin drawing

The Lincoln family moved around frequently as Thomas and Nancy tried to earn enough money to support the family. In 1816 they moved to Indiana because Kentucky was becoming more accepting of slavery. Seven-year-old Abe was old enough now to help his father build their new cabin in the woods. It was also here, however, that tragedy first struck the Lincoln family. Nancy Lincoln died of ''milk sickness'', which occurs when a person drinks the milk of a cow that's been eating poisonous plants. Thomas remarried three years later.


Thomas's new wife, Sarah, was kind and attentive and recognized young Abe's intellect. She encouraged him to read as widely as he could, and he did, borrowing books from clergymen, teachers, neighbors, and any travelers that passed by. This penchant for reading proved to be the most consistent education Abraham Lincoln would receive. He later claimed that he had spent perhaps a total of 12 months in a school house in his entire childhood. From the books he borrowed, Lincoln taught himself the things that most children learn in school.

Abe's interest in his education did cause some conflict with his father, who needed Abe's help on the farm and didn't think there was time for school. To help pay the bills, Thomas rented Abe's labor to neighbors (a common practice of the time). Abe was unusually tall for his age and stronger than many of the other boys. He quickly gained a reputation for swinging an axe with more power and speed than anyone in the region. In the frontier, having a reputation as a master woodchopper was actually pretty high praise.

Between his self-education and full-time work, Abe did still find time to be a teenager. Due to his size and strength, he was more than willing to wrestle and race his peers, and he developed a reputation as a prankster. There was one popular activity, however, that Abe never took a liking to. Hunting was a major pastime in the rural Midwest, but Abe never learned to enjoy killing animals for sport.

Later Youth and Experiences

Always looking for work, Abraham Lincoln took a variety of positions in his late teens and early twenties. Perhaps most significantly, however, he started working on a riverboat on the Mississippi River. This took him beyond Indiana and exposed him to something he'd largely been shielded from in his life: slavery. Lincoln saw firsthand the buying and selling of African American slaves along the riverboat routes and witnessed numerous acts of inhuman treatment and violence towards slaves. He was repulsed, and that feeling would stick with him for the rest of his life.

Lincoln worked a riverboat, exposing him for the first time to slavery

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