Johnson in the White House and later assisting him on his memoirs led to her bestselling Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts. Visit her at DorisKearnsGoodwin. The frontier state had not yet developed party machinery to officially nominate candidates. Persons desiring to run simply put forward their own names on a handbill expressing their views on local affairs. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed. I am young and unknown to many of you.
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It was not simply for himself; it was for the people he hoped to lead. He wanted to distinguish himself in their eyes. The sense of community was central to the master dream of his life—the desire to accomplish deeds that would gain the lasting respect of his fellow men. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me.
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If the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined. When Abraham was nine, Nancy Hanks died from what was known as milk sickness, a disease transmitted by way of cows that had eaten poisonous plants.
After her burial, Thomas abandoned his young son and his twelve-year-old daughter, Sarah, for a period of seven months while he returned to Kentucky to find a new wife. Inside, there were few furnishings, no beds, and scant bedding. A floor was laid, door and windows hung, and she provided clothing for the children. How, within the confines of this desolation, did Lincoln develop and sustain a grand, visionary ambition, a belief that he was meant for higher and better things?
Schoolmates in the ABC school in rural Kentucky where he was taught to read and write at the age of seven recalled that he was able to learn more swiftly and understand more deeply than others. In the age-old debate about whether leadership traits are innate or developed, memory—the ease and capacity with which the mind stores information—is generally considered an inborn trait. What appeared a gift, he argued, was, in his case, a developed talent.
My mind is like a piece of steel—very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out. While his mind was neither quick nor facile, young Lincoln possessed singular powers of reasoning and comprehension, unflagging curiosity, and a fierce, almost irresistible, compulsion to understand the meaning of what he heard, read, or was taught.
I do not think I ever got angry at anything else in my life. He scrawled them in charcoal, he scored them in the dust, in the sand, in the snow—anywhere and everywhere that lines could be drawn. He had developed his talent for storytelling, in part, from watching his father.
Though Thomas Lincoln was unable to read or write, he possessed wit, a talent for mimicry, and an uncanny memory for exceptional stories. Night after night, Thomas would exchange tales with farmers, carpenters, and peddlers as they passed along the old Cumberland Trail. Young Lincoln sat spellbound in the corner. No small part of his motivation was to entertain his friends the next day with a simplified and riotous version of the arcane adult world.
He thrived when holding forth on a tree stump or log captivating the appreciative attention of his young audience, and before long had built a repertoire of stories and great storytelling skills.
To the delight of his friends, he could reproduce their rip-roaring sermons almost word for word, complete with gestures of head and hand to emphasize emotion. Then, as he got older, he found additional material for his storytelling by walking fifteen miles to the nearest courthouse, where he soaked up the narratives of criminal trials, contract disputes, and contested wills and then retold the cases in lurid detail. Not all his humorous gifts were filled with gentle hilarity, and he would learn to muzzle his more caustic and mocking rejoinders.
During a severe rainstorm, the book was damaged. Crawford demanded that Lincoln repay the value of the book by working two full days pulling corn. The boys in the neighborhood, one schoolmate recollected, liked to play a game of catching turtles and putting hot coals on their backs to see them wriggle. The young boy possessed a profound sense of empathy—the ability to put himself in the place of others, to imagine their situations and identify with their feelings.
Leadership: In Turbulent Times
One winter night, a friend remembered, he and Abraham were walking home when they saw something lying in a mud hole. On another occasion, when Lincoln was walking with a group of friends, he passed a pig caught in a stretch of boggy ground. The group continued on for half a mile when Lincoln suddenly stopped. He insisted on turning back to rescue the pig. Relatives recalled that he was never sick. Accordingly, when Lincoln reached the age of nine or ten, his own formal education was cut short.
Left on his own, Abraham had to educate himself. He had to take the initiative, assume responsibility for securing books, decide what to study, become his own teacher. He made things happen instead of waiting for them to happen. Gaining access to reading material proved nearly insurmountable.
Some leaders learn by writing, others by reading, still others by listening. Lincoln preferred reading aloud in the presence of others. When the time came to return the borrowed books, he had made them his own.
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As he explored literature and the history of the country, the young Lincoln, already conscious of his own powers, began to imagine ways of living beyond those of his family and neighbors. When his father found his son in the field reading a book or, worse still, distracting fellow workers with tales or passages from one of his books, he would angrily break up the performance so work might continue. He thought his son was deceiving himself with his quest for education. At times, when the tensions with his father seemed unbearable, when the gap between his lofty ambitions and the reality of his circumstances seemed too great to bridge, Lincoln was engulfed by sadness, revealing a pensive, melancholy side to his temperament that became more pronounced as time went by.
To the villagers of New Salem, the tall young stranger struck them as odd and unappealing. Almost anyone who had contact with him in the little community spoke of his kindness, generosity, intelligence, humor, humility, and his striking, original character.
For the farmers, who might ride fifty miles to grind grain into flour at the village gristmill, the store offered a common meeting place to unwind, exchange opinions, share stories. In discussions about politics, he revealed an intimate familiarity with the issues of the day. Clearly, this was no ordinary clerk.
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