Learning by Littles

"The aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student. What he has in the way of education he has picked up. After he was twenty-three and he had separated from his father, he studied English grammar - imperfectly of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He regrets his want of education and does what he can to supply the want." So wrote Abraham Lincoln on the subject of his education.

It was an education acquired, as he put it, "by littles." Opportunities for attending school were scarce on the frontier of the early 19th century, since few people were literate enough to teach. Education was, however, something that Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln wanted for their children, so when it was possible to do so, they sent Abraham and Sarah to attend whatever school was available. As a result, Abraham studied under five different schoolmasters during his childhood in Kentucky and Indiana. Each of these sessions lasted approximately two months and spelling, reading, writing, and ciphering to the Rule of Three were taught.

In Kentucky, Abraham "…acquired the alphabet and other rudiments of education" from Zachariah Riney. Samples of Riney's handwriting indicate that he was able and qualified to teach the three R's. Neighbor and friend Caleb Hazel was Lincoln's second schoolmaster. Evidence indicates that he was a trained scribe and a good teacher of English grammar. Hazel possessed many fine books and his teaching contributed much to the education of young Abraham.

In Indiana, where schools were attended chiefly in the winter when the outdoor work was less pressing, Lincoln attended terms of school when he was 11, 14, and 17 years old. In his eleventh year, he studied under Andrew Crawford, a stern, yet capable, teacher. Crawford loaned Abraham a copy of Weems' Life of Washington, a book that profoundly influenced the young student. During his fourteenth year, Abraham very briefly attended the school taught by James Swaney. Later, at the age of seventeen, Lincoln attended a school taught by Azel W. Dorsey. Dorsey was the best educated of his Indiana teachers and probably was responsible for helping him acquire his excellent grasp of mathematics.

Referring to his educational opportunities in Indiana, Abraham stated, "There were schools, so called, but little qualification was ever required of a teacher. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. When I came of age I did not know very much. Somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three."

But he did know how to read and books were an important part of his life. In addition to Weems' book, he studied the pages of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, and Ramsey's Life of Washington. For Abraham to get books and read them "…was the main thing."

Though Abraham Lincoln was largely self-educated, he did have opportunities that others did not and was able to take advantage of them when they were available.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

3027 East South Street
PO Box 1816

Lincoln City, IN 47552


(812) 937-4541

Contact Us