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Topic Thirteen:  My Personal Stories

Lincoln, in stovepipe hat, with Allan Pinkerton and Gen. John McClernand at Antietam

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An Autobiography

Letters and Photos from the Library of Congress

Derived from the Library of Congress Lincoln Papers and Prints and Photographs Division


Abraham Lincoln, [May-June 1860]

(Autobiographical Notes) 


Abraham Lincoln by 1855, had become a nationally known figure.  People wanted to know about him:  where he came from and how he was raised.  When nominated for President in 1860, he new the need for autobiographical information existed, and cooperated with reporters and others to provide his life story.  These are actual comments written by him and from interviews by reporters. 

Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12. 1809, then in Hardin, now in the more recently formed county of Larue, Kentucky-- His father, Thomas, & grand-father, Abraham, were born in Rockingham county Virginia, whither their ancestors had come from Berks county Pennsylvania-- This lineage has been traced no further back than this-- The family was originally Quaker, though in later times they have fallen away from the peculiar habits of that people-- The grand-father Abraham, had four brothers -- Isaac, Jacob, John & Thomas-- So far as known, the descendants of Jacob and John are still in Virginia-- Isaac went to a place near where Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, join; and his descendants are in that region-- Thomas came to Kentucky, and after many years, died there, whence his descendants went to Missouri-- Abraham, grandfather of the subject of this sketch, came to Kentucky, and was killed by Indians about the year 1784-- He left a widow, three sons and two daughters-- The eldest son, Mordecai, remained in Kentucky till late in life, when he removed to Hancock County Illinois, where soon after he died, and where several of his descendants still reside-- The second son, Josiah, removed at an early day to a place on Blue River, now within Harrison county, Indiana; but no recent information of him, or his family, has been obtained-- The eldest sister, Mary, married Ralph Crume and some of her descendants are now known to be in Breckenridge County Kentucky-- The second sister, Nancy, married William Brumfield, and her family are not known to have left Kentucky, but there is no recent information from them-- Thomas, the youngest son, and father of the present subject, by the early death of his father, and very narrow circumstances of his mother, even in childhood was a wandering laboring boy, and grew up litterally without education-- He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name-- Before he was grown, he passed one year as a hired hand with his uncle Isaac on Wataga, a branch of the Holston river-- Getting back into Kentucky, and having reached his 28 th year, he married Nancy Hanks -- mother of the present subject -- in the year 1806. She also was born in Virginia; and relatives of hers of the name of Hanks, and of other names, now reside in Coles, in Macon, and in Adams Counties, Illinois, and also in Iowa-- The present subject has no brother or sister of the whole or half blood-- He had a sister, older than himself, who was grown and married, but died many years ago, leaving no child. Also a brother, younger than himself, who died in infancy-- Before leaving Kentucky he and his sister were sent to for short periods, to A. B. C. schools, the first kept by Zachariah Riney, and the second by Caleb Hazel, In his At this time his father resided on Knob-creek, on the road from Bardstown Ky. to Nashville Tenn. at a point three, or three and a half miles South or South-West of Atherton's ferry on the Rolling Fork-- From this place he removed to what is now Spencer county Indiana, in the autumn of 1816-- A. then being in his eigth year-- This removal was partly on account of slavery; but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Ky-- He settled in an unbroken forest; and the clearing away of surplus wood wood was the great task a head. A. though very young, was large of his age, and had an axe put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument -- less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons-- At this place A. took an early start as a hunter, which was never much inp improved afterwards-- A few days before the completion of his eigth year, in the absence of his father, a flock of wild turkeys approached the new log-cabin, and A. with a rifle gun, standing inside, shot through a crack, and killed one of them-- He has never since pulled a trigger on any larger game--2 In the autumn of 1818 his mother died; and a year afterwards his father married M rs Sally Johnston, at Elizabeth-Town, Ky -- a widow, with three children of his her first marriage, She proved a good and kind mother to A. and is still living in Coles Co. Illinois-- There were no children of this second marriage-- His father's residence continued at the same place in Indiana, till 1830-- While here A. went to A. B. C. schools by littles, kept successively by Andrew Crawford, ________ Sweeney, and Azel W. Dorsey-- He does not remember any other-- The family of M r Dorsey now reside in Schuyler Co. Illinois--A. now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year--He never was in a College or Academy as a student; and never inside of a College or Academy building till since he had a law license-- What he has in the way of education he has picked up-- After he was twentythree, and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar, imperfectly of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now did does-- He studied and nearly mastered the Six-books of Euclid, since he was a member of Congress-- He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want-- In his tenth year he was kicked by a horse, and apparantly killed for a time-- When he was nineteen, still residing in Indiana, he made his first trip upon a flat-boat to New-Orleans-- He was a hired hand merely; and he and a son of the owner, without other assistance, made the trip-- The nature of part of the load cargo-load, as it was called -- made it necessary for them to linger and trade along the Sugar coast -- and one night they were attacked by seven negroes with intent to kill and rob them. They were hurt some in the melee, but succeeded in driving the negroes from the boat, and then "cut cable" "weighed anchor" and left--


March 1 st 1830-- A. having just completed his 21 st year, his father and family, with the families of the two daughters and sons-in-law, of his step-mother, left the old homestead in Indiana, and came to Illinois-- Their mode of conveyance was wagons drawn by ox-teams, as A. drove one of the teams-- They reached the county of Macon, and stopped there some time within the same month of March. His father and family settled a new place on the North side of the Sangamon river, at the junction of the timber-land and prairie, about ten miles Westerly from Decatur-- Here they built a log-cabin, into which they removed, and made sufficient of rails to fence ten acres of ground, fenced and broke the ground, and raised a crop of sod corn upon it the same year-- These are, or are supposed to be, the rails about which so much is being said just now, though they are far from being the first, or only rails ever made by A.


The sons-in-law, were temporarily settled at other places in the County-- In the autumn all hands were greatly afflicted with augue and fever, to which they had not been used, and by which they were greatly discouraged-- so much so that they determined on leaving the County-- They remained however, through the succeeding winter, which was the winter of the very celebrated "deep snow" of Illinois-- During that winter, A. together with his step-mother's son, John D. Johnston, and John Hanks, yet residing in Macon county, hired themselves to one Denton Offutt, to take a flat boat from Beardstown Illinois to New-Orleans; and for that purpose, were to join him -- Offut -- at Springfield, Ills so soon as the snow should go off-- When it did go off which was about the 1 st of March 1831 -- the country was so flooded, as to make traveling by land impracticable; to obviate which difficulty the purchased a large canoe and came down the Sangamon river in it-- This is the time and manner of A's first entrance into Sangamon County-- They found Offutt at Springfield, but learned from him that he had failed in getting a boat at Beardstown-- This lead to their hiring themselves to him at $12 per month each; and getting the timber out of the trees and building a boat at old Sangamon Town on the Sangamon river, seven miles N. W. of Springfield, which boat they took to New-Orleans, substantially upon the old contract-- It was in connection with this boat that occurred the ludicrous incident of sewing up the hogs eyes-- Offutt bought thiry odd large fat live hogs, but found difficulty in driving them from where purchased them to the boat, and thereupon conceived the whim that he could sew up their eyes and drive them where he pleased-- No sooner thought of than decided, he put his hands, including A. at the job, which they completed -- all but the driving-- In their blind condition they could not be driven out of the lot or field they were in. This experiment failing, they were tied and hauled on carts to the boat-- It was near the Sangamon River, within what is now Menard County--


During this boat enterprize acquaintance with Offutt, who was previously an entire stranger, he conceived a liking for A. and believing he could turn him to account, he contracted with him to act as clerk for him, on his return from New-Orleans, in charge of a store and Mill at New-Salem, then in Sangamon, now in Menard County-- Hanks had not gone to New-Orleans, but having a family, and being likely to be detained from home longer than at first expected, had turned back from St. Louis-- He is the same John Hanks who now engineers the "rail enterprize" at Decatur; and is a first cousin to A's mother-- A's father, with his own family & others mentioned, had, in purs pursuance of their intention, removed from Macon to Coles county-- John D. Johnston, the step-mother's son, went to them; and A. stopped indefinitely, and, for the first time, as it were, by himself, at New-Salem, before mentioned-- This was in July 1831-- Here he rapidly made acquaintances and friends-- In less than a year Offutt's business was failing -- had almost failed -- when the Black-Hawk war of 1832 -- broke out-- A joined a volunteer Company, and to his own surprize, was elected Captain of it-- He says he has not since had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction-- He went the campaign, served near three months, met some the ordinary hardships of such an expedition, but was in no battle-- He now owns in Iowa, the land upon which his own warrant for this service, was located-- Returning from the campaign, and encouraged by his great popularity among his immediate neighbors, he, the same year, ran for the Legislature and was beaten -- his own precinct, however, casting it's votes 277 for and 7, against him-- And this too whle he was an avowed Clay man, and the precinct the autumn afterwards, giving a majority of 115 to Gen l Jackson over M r Clay-- This was the only time A was ever beaten in a direct vote of the people-- He was now without means and out of business, but was anxious to remain with his friends who had treated him with so much generosity, especially as he had nothing elsewhere to go to-- He studied what he should do -- thought of learning the black-smith trade -- thought of trying to study law -- rather thought he could not succeed at that without a better education. Before long, strangely enough, a man4 offered to sell and did sell, to A. and another as poor as himself5 an old stock of goods, upon credit-- They opened as merchants; and he says that was the store-- Of course they did nothing but get deeper and deeper in debt-- He was appointed Postmaster at New-Salem -- the office being too insignificant, to make his politics an objection-- The store winked out-- The Surveyor of Sangamon,6 offered to depute to A that portion of his work which was within his part of the county-- He accepted, procured a compass and chain, studied Flint, and Gibson a little, and went at it-- This procured bread, and kept soul and body together-- The election of 1834 came, and he was then elected to the Legislature by the highest vote cast for any candidate-- Major John T. Stuart, then in full practice of the law, was also elected. During the canvass, in a private conversation he encouraged A. study law-- After the election he borrowed books of Stuart, took them home with him, and went at it in good earnest-- He studied with nobody-- He still mixed in the surveying to pay board and clothing bills-- When the Legislature met, the law books were dropped, but were taken up again at the end of the session. He was re-elected in 1836. 1838. and 1840-- In the Autumn of 1836 he was licenced obtained a law licence, and on April 15, 1837 removed to Springfield, and commenced the practice, his old friend, Stuart taking him into partnership-- March 3 rd 1837, by a protest entered upon the Ills. House Journal of that date, at pages 817. 818, A. with Dan Stone, another representative of Sangamon, briefly defined his position on the slavery question; and so far as it goes, it was then the same that it is now. The protest is as follows-- (Here insert it)7 In 1838. & 1840 M r L's party in the Legislature voted for his as Speaker; but being in the minority, he was not elected-- After 1840 he declined a re-election to the Legislature-- He was on the Harrison electoral ticket in 1840, and on that of Clay in 1844, and spent much time and labor in both those canvasses-- In Nov. 1842 he was married to Mary, daughter of Robert S. Todd, of Lexington, Kentucky-- They have three living children, all sons -- one born in 1843, one in 1850, and one in 1853-- They lost one, who was born in 1846. In 1846. he was elected to the lower House of Congress, and served one term only, commencing in Dec. 1847 and ending with the inaugeration of Gen. Taylor, in March 1849-- In 1852 All the battles of the Mexican war had been fought before Mr. L-- took his seat in Congress, but the American army was still in Mexcico, and the treaty of peace was not fully and formally ratified till the June afterwards-- Much has been said of his course in Congress in regard to this war-- A careful examination of the Journals sh and Congressional Globe shows, that he voted for all the supply measures which came up while he was there, and for all the measures in any way favorable to the officers, soldiers, and their families, who conducted the war through; with this exception that some of these measures passed without yeas and nays, leaving no record as to how particular men voted-- The Journals and Globe also show him voting that the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced begun by the President of the United States-- This is the language of M r Ashmun's amendment, for which M r L. and nearly or quite all, other whigs of the H. R. voted--


M r L's reasons for the opinion expressed by this vote were briefly these that the President had sent Genl. Taylor into an inhabited part of the country belonging to Mexico, and not to the U. S. and thereby had provoked the first act of hostility -- in fact the commencement of the war; that the place, being the country bordering on the East bank of the Rio Grande, was inhabited by native Mexicans, born there under the Mexican government; and had never submitted to, nor been conquered by Texas, or the U. S. nor transferred to either by treaty -- that although Texas claimed the Rio Grande as her boundary, Mexico had never recognized it, the people on the ground had never enforced, and recognized it, and neither Texas nor the U. S had ever enforced it -- that there was a broad desert between that, and the country over which Texas had actual control -- that the country where hostilities commenced, having once belonged to Mexico, must remain so, until it was somehow legally transferred, which had never been done.


Mr. L. thought the act of sending the troop an armed force to the among the Mexicans, was unnecessary, inasmuch as Mexico was in no way molesting, or menacing the U. S. or the people thereof; and that it was unconstitutional, because the power of levying war is vested in Congress, and not in the President. He thought the principal motive for the act, was to divert public attention from the surrender of "Fifty-four, forty, or fight" to Great Brittain, on the Oregon boundary question.


Mr. L. was not a candidate for re-election-- This was determined upon, and declared before he went to Washington, in accordance with an understanding among whig friends by which Col. Hardin, and Col. Baker had each previously served a single term in the same District-*8


In 1848, during his term in congress, he advocated Gen. Taylor's nomination for the Presidency, in opposition to all others, and also took an active part for his election, after his nomination -- speaking a few times in Maryland, near Washington, several times in Massachusetts, and canvassing quite fully his own district in Illinois, which was followed by a majority in the district of over 1500 for Gen. Taylor--


Upon his return from Congress he went to the practice of the law with greater earnestness than ever before-- In 1852 he was upon the Scott electoral ticket, and did something in the way of canvassing; but owing to the hopelessness of the cause in th Illinois, he did less than in previous presidential canvasses--

In 1854. his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind, when the repeal of the Missouri compromise aroused him as he had never been before. In the autumn of that year he took the stump with no broader practical aim or object that to secure, if possible, the re-election of Hon Richard Yates to congress-- His speeches at once attracted a more marked attention than they had ever before done-- As the canvass proceeded, he was drawn to different parts of the state, outside of Mr- Yates' district-- He did not abandon the law, but gave his attention, by turns, to that and politics-- The State agricultural fair was at Springfield that year, and Douglas was announ announced to speak there.

In the canvass of 1856.10 Mr. L. made over fifty speeches, no one of which, so far as he remembers, was put in print-- One of them was made at Galena, but M r L. has no recollection of any part of it being printed; nor does he remember whether in that speech he said anything about a Supreme Court decision-- He may have spoken upon that subject; and some of the newspapers may have reported him as saying what is now ascribed to him; but he thinks he could not have expressed himself as represented--


[Note 1 This famous autobiography was labeled in his personal papers, probably by Lincoln's secretary, John G. Nicolay, as "Notes furnished by Mr. Lincoln in 1860."

As early as 1858, Lincoln had been urged to put together an autobiographical statement that could be used to his political advantage, particularly for audiences that were unfamiliar with him. Early in Lincoln's senatorial campaign against Stephen A. Douglas, on June 29, 1858, Charles H. Ray of the newly consolidated Chicago Press & Tribune wrote to Lincoln: "We want an autobiography of Abraham Lincoln, the next U. S. Senator from Illinois, to be placed at our discretion, for publication if expedient. 'A plain unvarnished tale' is what we would desire. You are the only man who can furnish the facts. To save the imputation of having done it to us, you might give Herndon the points, and he would send them to us. We do not care for a narrative -- only a record of dates, place of nativity, parentage, early occupations, trials, disadvantages &c &c --- all of which will make, if we are rightly informed, a telling story." Lincoln's reply is lost, but it is clear from Ray's next letter that the candidate demurred. But Ray persisted. In his next letter he wrote: "In my way of thinking, you occupy a position, present and prospectively, that need not shrink from the declaration of an origin ever so humble. If you have been the architect of your own fortunes, you may claim the most merit. The best part of the Lincoln family is not, like potatoes, under the ground. Had you not better reconsider your refusal?" (See Ray to Lincoln, July, 1858).
That Lincoln did not reconsider is evident in a letter Ray subsequently sent him in late July from upstate New York: "You will not consider it an unfavorable reflection on your antecedents, when I tell you that you are like Byron, who woke up one morning and found himself famous. In my journey here from Chicago, and now here -- one of the most out-of-the-way, rural districts in the State, among a law-going and conservative people, who are further from railroads than any man can be in Illinois -- I have found hundreds of anxious enquiries burning to know all about the newly raised up opponent of Douglas -- his age, profession, personal appearance and qualities &c &c." (Ray to Lincoln, July 28, 1858).
Whether Lincoln actually relented and yielded to Ray's repeated requests is not known, but Ray's initial request -- "only a record of dates, place of nativity, parentage, early occupations, trials, disadvantages &c &c" -- seems an apt description of the autobiographical statements Lincoln eventually composed. What is clear is that the present document was not Lincoln's first such attempt. That was written some six months earlier and was sent to Jesse W. Fell on Dec. 20, 1859. (See Abraham Lincoln, Autobiographical Sketch for Jesse W. Fell, December 20, 1859). While it is written in the first, rather than the third person, and is much more succinct than the present statement, it follows a similar outline, and some of its phrases are repeated here.
It is sometimes assumed that the present autobiographical statement, the most extensive account Lincoln ever gave of his life, was written expressly for the use of campaign biographer and Chicago Press & Tribune editor John L. Scripps. But Scripps was only one of the recipients of the text of this autobiography, which was written soon after Lincoln's nomination for the presidency, probably by the end of May 1860. John G. Nicolay, writing to Jesse W. Weik on Feb. 13, 1895, explained:
"The autobiography beginning on page 638, Vol. I of the Lincoln Complete Works was written by Mr. Lincoln within a week or two after his first nomination. The request for it came first from friends in Columbus Ohio. who placed it with other material in the hands of W. D. Howells, and he wrote a campaign biography from it (about 100 pages) which together with several of Mr. Lincoln's speeches, was printed in an ordinary campaign volume of about 400 pages; Follet Foster & Co being the publishers -- the same firm that published the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.
"The MS copy sent to Columbus was made by myself, being among my first work as Mr Lincoln's private secretary. Mr Lincoln's original MS, which is now in my possession, was retained to make other copies from. One of these went into Mr Scripp's hands, who wrote his campaign biography which was printed in pamphlet form (32 pages) and so far as I know, was not otherwise printed. This was issued as a campaign document by the Chicago Press and Tribune Co. A third copy went into the hands of Mr W. D. Bartlett, then Washington correspondent of the New York Independent and New York Evening Post. . . . Possibly other copies may have been made for o[t]hers, but I do not remember any. (John G. Nicolay Papers, Library of Congress)
A form letter in John G. Nicolay's hand in this collection, declining to provide biographical information about Lincoln to unknown correspondents, indicates that this text was not routinely given out.
The document transcribed here is in Lincoln's hand and represents the retained original, from which Nicolay made copies for the campaign biographers. The manuscript is written on 14 numbered leaves and two unnumbered slips. The first 12 pages seem to represent a fair copy, rather than a composition draft. This suggests that Lincoln either revised an existing text or composed a new one before making a fair copy, so as to eliminate strikeouts and changes. Pages 13 and 14 are on a different paper and contain a number of strikeouts and changes, suggesting the text on these pages appears as originally drafted. One of the unnumbered slips is marked with an asterisk to indicate the place at which its text was to be inserted. The other unnumbered slip, whose subject is Lincoln's purported remarks on the Supreme Court in an 1856 speech at Galena, may represent an afterthought, as Lincoln's autobiographical narrative ends in 1854. But it also seems to have been prompted by the need to respond to a particular charge, and thus may represent a remnant of an earlier account, perhaps dating from the 1858 campaign.]

[Note 2 The two previous sentences have been enclosed in parentheses, but these marks are in light pencil and were not part of the original composition. In light of the way other parenthetical marks appear in the manuscript, it seems highly unlikely that these light pencil marks were added by Lincoln himself.]

[Note 3 On May 9, 1860, at the Illinois State Republican convention, Lincoln's cousin John Hanks appeared carrying two fence rails purported to have been made by Lincoln 30 years before in Macon County, Illinois. Lincoln then spoke briefly, allowing to have split many rails in his youth. Much publicity was made from this, and Lincoln thus acquired an appealing popular image as a rail-splitter. And this reference is evidence that this version of the autobiography was written after May 9, 1860.]

[Note 4 Reuben Radford was a New Salem storekeeper whose place of business had been wrecked by vandals. Lincoln and a partner purchased Radford's stock of goods.]

[Note 5 William G. Berry was Lincoln's partner in storekeeping.]

[Note 6 John Calhoun was the Sangamon County surveyor at the time, a Democrat, and supporter of Stephen Douglas, who later made him surveyor-general of Kansas Territory. He presided over the Kansas convention that wrote the Lecompton Constitution.]

[Note 7 In January of 1837, the Illinois General Assembly considered a series of resolutions in response to petitions received from other state legislatures in regard to domestic slavery. In their original form, the resolutions were introduced by a preamble deploring the condition of slaves but holding that the Federal Government had no power to free them. The resolutions followed disapproved of abolition societies, asserted that property in slaves was protected by the Federal Constitution, and denied that the Federal Government could abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of the District's citizens. The resolutions were adopted after much debate and some amendment, but the amended version in which they were adopted has not been preserved. In any event Lincoln and Dan Stone found the final version so objectionable that they issued this protest on March 3, 1837:
"The following protest was presented to the House, which was read and ordered to be spread on the journals, to wit 'Resolutions upon the subject of domestic slavery having passed both branches of the General Assembly at its present session, the undersigned hereby protest against the passage of the same. They believe that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils. They believe that the Congress of the United States has no power, under the constitution, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the different States.
They believe that the Congress of the United States has the power, under the constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; but that that power ought not to be exercised unless at the request of the people of said District. The difference between these opinions and those contained in the said resolutions, is their reason for entering this protest.'" (Illinois House Journal, 1836-37, 817-18)]

[Note 8 This asterisk indicates where the paragraph that follows (written on a detached slip) is to be inserted.]

[Note 9 Except for a disconnected paragraph on a separate slip about something that occurred in the canvass of 1856, Lincoln's autobiographical narrative ends rather abruptly at this point. What Lincoln seems about to describe, but does not, is his resoundingly successful response to Senator Stephen A. Douglas in the summer of 1854. As Lincoln was well aware, this was a breakthrough in his political fortunes. Thereafter, as he indicates, he found himself at the forefront of the fight over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and his political career was reborn.]

[Note 10 This paragraph, which appears on a separate slip, seems to represent either an afterthought or a remnant of an earlier account. Lincoln is here responding to charges that he said something in Galena in 1856 that was inconsistent with his later statements on the Supreme Court decisions. As the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court was handed down in 1857, a decision Lincoln criticized then and later in his 1858 debates with Douglas, it is possible that this slip was written out for an earlier autobiographical statement.]

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