Autobiographical Sketch (December 20, 1859)

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J.W. Fell, Esq.
Springfield, Dec 20, 1859

My dear Sir:

Herewith is a little sketch, as you requested. There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me. If anything is made out of it, I wish it to be modest, and not to go beyond the materials. If it were thought necessary to incorporate any thing from any of my speeches, I suppose there would be no objection. Of course it must not appear to have been written by myself. – Yours very truly
A. Lincoln

[ Enclosure:]

I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families – second families, perhaps I should say. My Mother, who died in my ninthtenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks, some of whom now reside in Adams, and others in Macon counties, Illinois. My paternal grandfather, Abraham Lincoln, emigrated from Rockingham County, Virginia, to Kentucky, about 1781 or 2, when, a year or two later, he was killed by Indians, not in battle, but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest. His ancestors, who were quakers, went to Virginia from Berks County, Pennsylvania. An effort to identify them with the New England family of the same name ended in nothing more definite, than a similarity of Christian names in both families, such as Enoch, Levi, Mordecai, Solomon, Abraham, and the like.
My father, at the death of his father, was but six years of age; and he grew up, litterally without education. He removed from Kentucky to what is now Spencer county, Indiana, in my eighth year. We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond the reading, writing, and Arithmetic “readin, writin, and cipherin” to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizzard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three, but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.
I was raised to farm work, which I continued till I was twenty two. At twenty one I came to Illinois, and passed the first year in Macon County. Then I got to New-Salem ( then at that time in Sangamon, now in Menard County, where I remained a year as a sort of Clerk in a store. then came the Black Hawk war; and I was elected a Captain of Volunteers. a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since. I went the campaign, was elated, ran for the Legislature the same year (1832) and was beaten – the only time I ever have been beaten by the people. The next, and three succeeding biennial elections, I was elected to the Legislature. I was not a candidate afterwards. During this Legislative period I had studied law, and removed to Springfield to make practice it. In 1846 I was once elected to the lower House of Congress. Was not a candidate for re-election. From 1849 to 1854, both inclusive, practiced law more assiduously than ever before. Always a whig in politics, and generally on the whig electoral tickets, making active canvasses. I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again. What I have done since then is pretty well known.
If any personal description of me is thought desired desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing, on an average, one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes. no other marks or brands recollected.

Was ever tone so dry? Not a word about things that vanity might like to make known, but a good deal that might speak against it. The wealth of metaphor that adorns his style, the finesse of his letters, the impetuous rhythm of his speeches – all these are lacking in this arid document, and only an expert would recognize an eminent stylist. We feel much as we should feel if a celebrated chef were to prepare large quantities of a tasteless soup in order to feed those who had heard much of his culinary skill, and wanted to know his secret.

And yet, this fragment is a masterpiece in what it says and in what it conceals. People may like to know of the grandfather who fell as a pioneer, leaving his son to be educated by the wild bears. They will be amused, too, by the joke about the “wizard.” But Lincoln is too proud to talk about his strenuous efforts to gain access to the wells of knowledge. Enough for him to say that he has picked up education here and there, from time to time, under the pressure of necessity. Not a word does he say about his work in the local legislature, about the matters he fought for in Congress. But he does not mind revealing the real acquisition of popularity with comrades and townsmen, true to him in war and campaign. Personal details? Is he to tell people the name of his favorite poet; that he does not care for drink, and is fond of telling anecdotes; that he would rather chop wood in his shirt sleeves than go to parties in a frock coat? Six feet, four inches high (“nearly”, to keep within the strict letter of the truth); a hundred and eighty pounds, coarse hair, and no birthmarks. With this splendid formula a la Don Quixote, he ends his epistle.

By Emil Ludwig,”Abraham Lincoln: And the Times that Tried His Soul” , Ludwig-205-16