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The Humble Beginnings of Honest Abe

May 11–15, 2015   |   Vol. 123, Week 5

Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, a statesman, and one of our most famous presidents—and he did all that with only one year of formal schooling. This week on Home School Heartbeat, host Mike Smith shares the best stories from Lincoln’s remarkable educational journey.

“Lincoln understood that … knowledge with a purpose can inspire and delight us.”—Mike Smith

This Week’s Offer

Would you like some helpful material to supplement your U.S. history course? This free resource is packed with books, websites, and educational resources on one of our nation’s most famous presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

Mike Smith: Americans know Abraham Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents—a strong leader, powerful writer, and persuasive speaker who guided our country through a civil war and the end of slavery.

We might expect such a man to have come from a privileged background and studied at prestigious schools. But Lincoln’s education didn’t look anything like this.

From a very young age until he was about 15, Abe Lincoln attended school intermittently, walking several miles each way to learn the basic lessons of reading, writing, and arithmetic. He said later that “all his schooling did not amount to one year.” He went to what’s called a “blab school”—a noisy place in which the students read their lessons out loud all at the same time, to prove that they were really studying.

Despite these less than ideal circumstances, Lincoln applied himself to his studies. He used his rudimentary school lessons as the basis for lifelong education. Fascinated by writing, the young Lincoln practiced it everywhere—on the back of a shovel, in dust, and in snow. He read every book he could get his hands on, carefully evaluating the ideas they contained.

Like the young Abe Lincoln, homeschoolers have realized that learning opportunities don’t have to be expensive or complicated to bring results. Students learn best when they have an attitude that values education and is determined to benefit from it.

Mike: Abraham Lincoln may have learned how to read in a country schoolhouse, but he knew one thing that no schoolmaster taught him: books can unlock the world. “The things I want to know are in books,” he would say.

There was only one book in the Lincoln family cabin—the Bible. So young Abe read it. He also borrowed books—classics such as Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe. There is even a story that Abe once walked nearly 20 miles to borrow a book from a lawyer.

The sight of Abe with a book was familiar to family and friends. When the noon break came after he had worked in the fields all morning, Abe would pull a book from his pocket and throw himself down under a tree to read. His stepmother, Sarah Lincoln, encouraged his reading habits.

The older Abe grew, the more he read. When he was about 22, he decided to improve his grammar. He walked six miles to borrow a grammar book, and studied it by firelight. And later, as a congressman in Washington, D.C., he would bury himself in the Library of Congress to read (much to his colleagues’ amusement).

As homeschooling parents, there are many lessons that we seek to teach our children. One of the most important is the value of reading. Through books, our children can discover the world.

Mike: Abraham Lincoln was a farmer, clerk, surveyor, soldier, lawyer, congressman, and president. He was a clear writer and convincing speaker. Yet he learned little of this in school. “I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three,” he once said of his deficient education. “The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.”

One of the things Lincoln picked up was surveying. In his early twenties, he took a job as a surveyor, even though he had no experience or training in the field.

He obtained two books on surveying, then spent six weeks—night and day—studying. With the help of a friend and schoolteacher named Mentor Graham, Lincoln learned decimal fractions, how to use mathematical instruments, and how to change the scale of maps. This intense preparation proved successful, and he became known as an accurate surveyor who could be called upon to settle boundary disputes.

Lincoln picked up his education in other ways. He offered to write letters for friends. As he carefully chose words that would best express what the letter writer wanted to say, he honed his own skills.

Lincoln understood that knowledge for the sake of knowledge quickly becomes meaningless—but knowledge with a purpose can inspire and delight us.

Mike: Abe Lincoln received less than one year of formal schooling, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t educated. He taught himself. And on his limited income, he couldn’t spend a lot of money on books and tutors. However, Abe was a resourceful fellow. He had some clever tricks for learning.

In his early twenties, Lincoln decided to study a difficult grammar textbook. He borrowed it from an acquaintance and read it by firelight. Sometimes, he asked a friend to test him by holding the book and asking questions out of it.

Lincoln’s longtime law partner, William Herndon, described Lincoln’s study habits this way:

Mr. Lincoln’s habits . . . of reading law, politics, poetry, etc. . . . were to come into the office, . . . sprawl himself out on the sofa, chairs, etc., and read aloud, much to my annoyance. I have asked him often why he did so and his invariable reply was: “I catch the idea by two senses, for when I read aloud I hear what is read and I see it; and hence two senses get it and I remember it better.”

If your child seems to have hit a brick wall in his or her lessons, try out some of Lincoln’s study techniques. Have your child read out loud. Ask questions to test comprehension. These simple ideas can jump-start the learning process.

Mike: We tend to think of Abe Lincoln at the height of his career—the presidency. But he didn’t arrive there without many setbacks. He lost his first campaign at the age of 23 when he ran for the Illinois legislature. Two years later he tried again. This time he was elected and served four terms.

In 1842, Lincoln tried for the Whig nomination to Congress. He failed twice, finally gaining the nomination in 1846 and serving one term. After returning to Illinois, Lincoln practiced law for over a decade. During that time, he lost two Senate races.

Were those many lost elections failures for Lincoln? It depends on how you look at it. While his years in the state and federal legislatures gave him political experience, the years in between provided life experience. Lincoln tried his hand at a variety of occupations, demonstrating integrity in each one. He became a highly respected lawyer in his community.

During those years, Lincoln also solidified his views on slavery. His debates with Senate opponent Stephen Douglas brought him national attention and invitations to speak all over the country. Thrust into the limelight, Lincoln gained a reputation as an antislavery spokesman, eventually capturing the Republican nomination for president.

As we homeschool our children, we can be encouraged to know that the ultimate measure of success is not high test scores, but strong character. With that kind of education, our children can do great and mighty things.

I’m Mike Smith.

Mike SmithMike Smith

Michael Smith and his wife Elizabeth, along with Michael Farris and his wife, Vickie, incorporated Home School Legal Defense Association in 1983 and were the original board members. The Smith family’s lives changed dramatically when Mike heard a radio program in 1981 that introduced him to the idea of homeschooling. He and Elizabeth started homeschooling—taking it just one year at a time—to meet the academic and social needs of their children.

Mike came to HSLDA full-time in 1987 and has served as president of the organization since the year 2001. In addition to serving as president, he also is a contact lawyer for California, Nevada and Puerto Rico. All of Mike’s children are now grown, and three of the four were homeschooled. The most enjoyable part of Mike’s job is when he is able to go to homeschool conferences and meet what he calls America’s greatest heroes, homeschooling moms.

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