In the past few weeks I had a couple of interesting discussions with various people about graduating, life plans and the future in general.
I thought this a good opportunity to write up the formal and not so formal education of Abraham Lincoln, the various jobs he worked before becoming a lawyer and his interest and study of law which in 1836 had him acquire his law license.
I think Abraham Lincoln’s life presents a good case on why you do not have to get it right the first time. Or the second. Or the third.
As long as you stay open to opportunities, willing to work hard and full of ambition, you cannot really fail:
It’s common knowledge that the 16th President had very little formal schooling but historians argue about exactly how much of the inside of a classroom Abraham Lincoln, as a child, actually saw.
From his own estimate his “schooling did not amount to one year”.
But two math-notebook pages recently authenticated as belonging to Lincoln suggest he, may have spent more time in school than usually thought.
Fact his that before Abraham Lincoln entered school, his cousin, Dennis Hanks, claimed credit for giving Lincoln “his first lesson in spelling, reading and writing.”
Lincoln and his sister later, after the family moved from Kentucky to Indiana, infrequently attended three so-called A B C schools kept successively by Andrew Crawford, a man named Sweeney, and Azel W. Dorsey.
Other than that, Abraham Lincoln was self-educated, studying every book he could get his hands on. He mastered the Bible, Shakespeare, Aesop’s Fables, poetry, English and American history.
Proudly, in a biography he wrote in 1860, Lincoln notes that he “studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid”.
As much as Abraham Lincoln enjoyed learning, he knew that it would not feed or clothe him – so, a great part of his education wasn’t reading books but very much hands on.
His first lesson after being a hired hand to his father was from a flat boat pilot, who took him to New Orleans via the Sangamon, Illinois, and Mississippi rivers. Lincoln had just turned 22 and helped the family move to Illinois before he decided on branching out on his own.
Lincoln accepted an offer from businessman Denton Offutt to meet him in Springfield and take a load of cargo to New York. Offutt who was impressed by the location of New Salem thought that steamboats could navigate the Sangamon up to that point, made to open a general store and Lincoln was hired as his clerk.
Offutt did not open his store until September but once Abraham Lincoln took his place in the store, he began to meet a rougher crowd representing the settlers and workers from the surrounding communities who came to purchase supplies or have their corn ground - and he made friends and gained respect.
In the spring of 1832 Offutt’s business had failed, and Lincoln was out of work. Around the same time, the Black Hawk War erupted and Lincoln joined a group of volunteers from New Salem, setting himself up for yet another hard lesson of schooling on how to deal with life and, this time, rowdy soldiers.
Without a job, Lincoln and William F. Berry, whom Lincoln met during the Black Hawk War, purchased one of the three general stores in New Salem. The business purchase was made by signing personal notes for the balances due.
By 1833 it was clear that the Sangamon River inadequate for commercial transportation and the growth of New Salem halted. Even though they tried to save the business by applying for a liquor license, they could not continue the store and had to sell it with heavy losses.
Lincoln was again unemployed and would soon have to leave New Salem. But in May 1833, some of his friends were interested in keeping him in New Salem and he was appointed as the postmaster of New Salem.
Lincoln would keep this position for three years, and during this time he earned, from commissions, between $150 and $175, hardly enough to be considered a full-time source of income.
YET another friend helped Lincoln win the appointment as an assistant to the county surveyor.
Lincoln had no experience at surveying, but relying on borrowed copies of two works was able to teach himself the practical application of surveying techniques as well as the trigonometric basis of the process.
While these efforts certainly paid for food and lodging, the bills from his partnership were coming due – and Lincoln could not pay them.
And once more, his friends stepped in.
When his surveying equipment as well as his horse were seized and auctioned off to pay the bills, a man named James Short bought everything up to the last compass and returned the items and horse to Abraham Lincoln.
After that episode, Lincoln realized that he could not remain in the position he was in, pay his debts and make a better life for himself without climbing even higher. This is when Lincoln set his sights on becoming a lawyer.
Abraham Lincoln had always been interested in attending court and reading law – but now, in 1835, he began to study in earnest. From the Revised Statutes of Indiana, the Declaration of Independence, and the United States Constitution, he moved on to the Chitty’s Pleadings, Greenleaf’s Evidence, and Joseph Story’s Equity Jurisprudence.
He could not dream of affording law school so, in his own words, “I studied with nobody.”
In March 1836 Lincoln took the first step to becoming a practicing attorney when he applied to the clerk of the Sangamon County Court to have himself registered as a man of good and moral character.
After passing an oral examination by a panel of practicing attorneys Lincoln received his law license on September 9, 1836 and in April 1837 he was enrolled to practice before the Supreme Court of Illinois.
In April 1837 he moved to Springfield where he went into his first partnership as a lawyer.