“How I Earned my First Dollar”

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In the Executive Chamber one evening, there were present a number of gentlemen, among them Mr. Seward.
A point in the conversation suggesting the thought, the President said: “Seward, you never heard, did you, how I earned my first dollar?” “No,” rejoined Mr. Seward. “Well,” continued Mr. Lincoln,

I was about eighteen years of age. I belonged, you know, to what they call down South, the “scrubs;” people who do not own slaves are nobody there. But we had succeeded in raising, chiefly by my labor, sufficient produce, as I thought, to justify me in taking it down the river to sell.

After much persuasion, I got the consent of mother to go, and constructed a little flatboat, large enough to take a barrel or two of things that we had gathered, with myself and little bundle, down to New Orleans. A steamer was coming down the river. We have, you know, no wharves on the Western streams; and the custom was, if passengers were at any of the landings, for them to go out in a boat, the steamer stopping and taking them on board.

I was contemplating my new flatboat, and wondering whether I could make it stronger or improve it in any particular, when two men came down to the shore in carriages with trunks, and looking at the different boats singled out mine, and asked, “Who owns this?” I answered, somewhat modestly, “I do.” “Will you,” said one of them, “take us and our trunks out to the steamer?” “Certainly,” said I. I was very glad to have the chance of earning something. I supposed that each of them would give me two or three bits. The trunks were put on my flatboat, the passengers seated themselves on the trunks, and I sculled them out to the steamboat.

They got on board, and I lifted up their heavy trunks, and put them on deck. The steamer was about to put on steam again, when I called out that they had forgotten to pay me. Each of them took from his pocket a silver half-dollar, and threw it on the floor of my boat. I could scarcely believe my eyes as I picked up the money. Gentlemen, you may think it was a very little thing, and in these days it seems to me a trifle; but it was a most important incident in my life. I could scarcely credit that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day,–that by honest work I had earned a dollar. The world seemed wider and fairer before me. I was a more hopeful and confident being from that time.

Quoted in Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House (New York:Hurd and Houghton, 1867), p96

This friendly spirit on the part of the President made the captain think that he ought to reciprocate the courtesy; so on one occasion, when we were all sitting on the quarter-deck, the captain undertook to contribute some rather uninteresting personal reminiscences, that had no point whatever to them, – in fact, they merely related to the various positions he had held in the mercantile marine, and the amount of wages he had received from the different parties that had employed him, with various other insignificant items of information of no interest except to himself, – when the President, who, in spite of his uniform good-nature, began to feel extremely bored, suggested by way of checking the captain’s loquacity, that he, too, had been something of a sailor, and would give a little of his experience in that capacity. Whereupon he gave us his own version of an incident in his life that I have since heard repeated with a very different significance,

“When I was a young man,” said Mr. Lincoln, “about eighteen years of age, I was living in Kentucky, and, like everybody else in that part of the country at that time, I was obliged to struggle pretty hard for a living. I had been at work all winter helping a man distill a quantity of whisky, and as there was little or no money in the country, I was obliged to take the pay for my winter’s services in whisky.” Turning to Mr. Chase with a quizzical look, he added; “You were not around in those days. Chase, with your greenback printing-machine. Whisky,” he continued, “ was more plentiful than almost anything else, and I determined, if possible, to find a market for my share in some other locality, so as to get the largest amount possible for my winter’s work. Hearing that a man living a short distance up the Ohio River was building a flat-boat to send to New Orleans as soon as the water in the river was at a proper stage, I paid him a visit and made an agreement with him that if he would take my whisky to that city I would go with him and work my passage. Before the boat was completed and ready to start, I made up my mind that I should find a good deal of whisky in New Orleans when I arrived there, and having found a man who had a lot of tobacco that he was sending to market, I made a trade with him for half of my whisky, so that if whisky should be down when I got there, tobacco might be up, or vice versa ; at any rate, I should not have all my eggs in the same basket. The boat was ready at the proper time, and stopped at our landing for me and my whisky and tobacco.

My short experience as a sailor began from that moment. Our voyage down the river was not attended by much excitement or any catastrophe. Floating with the current during the day, we always tied up to a tree on the bank of the river at night. One evening, just after we had tied up the flat-boat, two men came down to the shore and asked me what I would charge them to row them out in the small-boat that we had with us into the middle of the river to meet a steamboat that was coming up the river, and on which they wanted to take passage. I told them I thought it would be worth a shilling apiece, and the bargain was made. I pulled out into the stream and delivered them safe on board the steamer, and, to my astonishment, received for my services a dollar. It was the first money I had had for some time. On my way back to the flat-boat, I made a calculation to myself that I had been gone about an hour, and that if I could earn a dollar every hour and live long enough, I would be a rich man before I died.” Here Mr. Lincoln’s story ended.

The captain, whose curiosity had been somewhat excited, inquired how the whisky and tobacco sold in New Orleans; but the President, with a peculiar twinkle in his eye, replied: “Captain, I was only relating to you my experience as a marine, not as a merchant,” which hint the captain had the good sense to understand. Lincoln did not refer to the subject again, and I never knew the result of his rather shrewd commercial venture.

In the admirable oration on the life of Lincoln, delivered by Mr. Bancroft before the two houses of Congress, he alluded to this incident as the beginning of the President’s career, – “commencing life as a flat-boatman on the Mississippi,” etc.; but I think Mr. Bancroft was somewhat in error in his conclusions. Mr. Lincoln was never a “flat-boatman.” Flat-boatmen are a peculiar class in the West, – rough, uncouth, almost uncivilized, they are unlike any other class of laborers, and lead a reckless, “devil-may-care” sort of existence. I went up the Mississippi on one occasion when a lot of men from the Wabash were returning home from a flatboat service down the river, and although I have been four years among the Indian tribes, I never saw or heard anything more like savage life than these young fellows exhibited. Mr. Lincoln was not like one of these; and to compare a man of earnest purpose working his way from a youth of privation and penury to the head of a great nation, making the means that presented themselves secure the ends he sought, adapting himself to the situation with a skill akin to genius, – to compare such a man with a class of mere physical toilers is a great error.

Quote in Egbert L. Viele, “A Trip with Lincoln, Chase, and Stanton,” Scribners Monthly 16 (October 1878), p. 816


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