The family had been in Indiana two years when Lincoln’s mother contracted a fatal case of milk sickness. The illness is caused by drinking milk or eating meat from a cow that has ingested a toxic plant called white snakeroot.
In 1819, Thomas Lincoln went back to Kentucky to marry a widow, Sarah Bush Johnston, and the two returned to Indiana with her three children in tow. She also brought a small library, including Aesop’s Fables, “Robinson Crusoe,” “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “Sinbad the Sailor.”
Those stories inspired Lincoln, as did Parson Weems’ “The Life of Washington” and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which demonstrated the sacrifices the founding fathers had made to create the United States. Lincoln received only a year or two of formal schooling. His stepmother encouraged him in his attempts to better himself, which he did by studying books and practicing oratory.
In 1830, Thomas Lincoln moved his family again, this time to Illinois in pursuit of more productive farmland. Abe struck out on his own, settling first in New Salem and later Springfield, where he enjoyed a successful law practice. In 1834 he launched a political career that would take him from the Illinois legislature to the White House.
A strong work ethic. A love of learning. A clear sense of right and wrong. A gift for gab and the intellect to back it up. Lincoln’s formative years prepared him well for the Civil War that would consume his presidency.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.