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How to Use
the Readings


Inquiry Question

Historical Context


Reading 1
Reading 3
Reading 4



Table of

Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Learning By Littles

"The aggregate (combined total) 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 in a June 1860 autobiographical sketch. (1)

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 educated enough to teach. Education was, however, something that Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln wanted for their children, so when it was possible; 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 (method of computing math) to the Rule of Three were taught.

In Kentucky, Abraham learned the alphabet and education basics from Zachariah Riney. Samples of Riney's handwriting indicate that he was able and qualified to teach the three R's (reading, writing, and arithmetic). Neighbor and friend Caleb Hazel was Lincoln's second schoolmaster. Evidence indicates that he was trained 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 11th 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 by impressing upon him the sacrifices that the early patriots had made to create the United States. During his 14th 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 (stranger) supposed to understand Latin, happened to so-journ (stopover) in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard. 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…." (2)

According to a childhood friend, Abraham Lincoln used "Pike's Arithmetic," which was the short name for Nicholas Pike's New and Complete System of Arithmetic. While studying the book, Abraham learned simple addition, compound subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, coins, weights and measures. One of the things Pike taught in his book was the "Rule of Three," which stated that if three numbers were known, the fourth could be computed by looking at the proportion between the first and second. According to the rule, the proportion between the third and fourth numbers would be the same. (3)

Questions for Reading 2

1. How did Abraham's educational opportunities compare to yours today? Who played a key role in helping him to take advantage of the opportunities he had?

2. What were the principal subjects he learned during his schooling? How do you think he used this knowledge later in his life?

3. Who were his teachers? What training did they have? How did each of them affect his education?

4. Why did Abraham say his education was acquired by "littles?"

5. What do you think was Abraham's attitude toward education? Do you think you will have the same attitude about education when you are an adult as you do now?

Reading 2 was adapted from The Lincoln Notebook, prepared by the staff of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.

(1) A Letter Written for John Scripps, June 1860, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. IV. You can visit the entire collection online via the Humanities Text Initiative on the University of Michigan's Digital Library Production Service website at
(2) Letter to Jesse Fell, December 1859, in
Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. III. You can visit the entire collection online via the Humanities Text Initiative on the University of Michigan's Digital Library Production Service website at
(3) Louis A. Warren,
Lincoln's Youth: Indiana Years, 1816-1830 (Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana Historical Society, 1991).


Comments or Questions

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