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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

Rules He Lived By

When Abe was confident that he understood everything in the 228-page book, he asked several friends to test him with questions. Two of his best helpers—Lynn McNulty Greene and Daniel Burner—actually wrote their own names inside his Grammar.

And what kind of questions might they have asked?

Certainly some of them—such as “What is a noun?” or “What is a verb?”—would have been fairly easy. Quoting Kirkham, Abe would have immediately replied that a noun “is the name of any person, place, or thing, as man, Charleston, knowledge,” or that a verb “is a word which signifies to BE, to DO, or to SUFFER; as I am; I rule; I am ruled.”

He would stretch out on the counter, his head propped up on a stack of calico prints, while studying the grammar.

Lynn Green and Daniel Burner might also have asked Abe to give examples of “personal pronouns,” “relative pronouns,” “prepositions,” “participles,” or “punctuation”—all those pesky P’s!—but more likely they would have spent a good deal of time on the “parsing” exercises. To parse a word is to give a description of its meaning and to name the part of speech to which it belongs, and then to explain how it relates to other words that appear with it in the same sentence.

So what, we must ask, drove Abe to such great lengths that he would memorize every rule of this book?

Perhaps Samuel Kirkham had the answer, one that appears in the very first chapter of his primer. Grammar, Kirkham wrote there—and you can be sure that Abe was paying very close attention—“is a leading branch of that learning which alone is capable of unfolding and maturing the mental powers, and of elevating man to his proper rank in the scale of intellectual existence.” A few sentences later, Kirkham declared that “in every situation, under all circumstances, on all occasions;—when you speak, read, write, or think, a knowledge of grammar is of essential utility.”

We are left to wonder, too, what Abe might have felt when he read the stirring words that Kirkham used to close that opening section, which he called a lecture:

Remember that “knowledge is power;” that an enlightened and a virtuous people can never be enslaved; and that, on the intelligence of our youth, rest the future liberty, the prosperity, the happiness, the grandeur, and the glory of our beloved country. Go then, with a laudable ambition, and an unyielding perseverance, in the path which leads to honor and renown. Press forward. Go, and gather laurels on the hill of science; linger among her unfading beauties; “drink deep” of her crystal fountain; and then join in the “march of fame.” Become learned and virtuous, and you will be great.

On September 9, 1836, five years after arriving in New Salem—and just four years after walking all those miles to get a copy of Kirkham’s Grammar—Abe was granted a license to practice law in Illinois. He moved to Springfield, the state capital, in 1837, and married Mary Todd in 1845. By that time he had begun an eventful journey that would define the remainder of his life, and would direct a grateful nation during its hour of greatest peril, the Civil War.

In a short sketch of his life written while he was running for the nation’s highest office in 1860, Abe summarized some of the main events of his youth, touching lightly on his education. He took special pains to point out how he had “studied English grammar, imperfectly of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he does now,” which even his political rivals would agree was very good indeed. A few months after writing those words, Abraham Lincoln would take the Oath of Office as the sixteenth President of the United States.

As for his copy of the Grammar, that followed a destiny all its own. Abe never owned a home in New Salem—he rented rooms in various boarding houses. One place he stayed in from time to time was the tavern owned by James Rutledge, one of the founders of the town, and the father of Ann Rutledge, a beautiful young woman who some historians say Abe had fallen in love with and hoped one day to marry. Sadly, Ann died of a fever in 1835 when she was twenty-two, so no one can say whether that would have happened.

But something the historians do know for certain is that on the title page of Kirkham’s Grammar—on the sheet facing Abe’s own signature—are written out the words “Ann M. Rutledge is now learning her grammar.” What probably happened—again, no one can say for sure—is that when Abe had learned all that he needed from the book, he gave it to Ann, who was four years younger, and who by all accounts was just as eager as he was to improve herself. He may also have been her tutor, but that is just another guess.

The slim volume, bound in light brown leather, remained in the Rutledge family for more than ninety years, and was used by a number of relatives over three generations for their own study. Today the binding is loose and the pages show traces of wear after so much thumbing, yet otherwise it is in remarkably good condition.

In 1922, William Rutledge gave the book to the Decatur, Illinois, public library, which ten years later presented it to the Library of Congress in Washington. It is regarded today as one of the Top Treasures of our national collections, an object of uncommon importance and rarity.

In 1846, Abe wrote a poem about his youth he titled “My Childhood Home I See Again,” which was published the following year in a small Illinois newspaper. He was inspired to jot down what he called a canto of ten stanzas after briefly visiting the place where he lived in Indiana, but he just as easily could have been thinking about the time he spent in New Salem. Here is part of what he wrote:

O Memory! thou midway world
'Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,

And, freed from all that's earthly vile,
Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle
All bathed in liquid light.

Every word is carefully chosen, each one correctly used. Samuel Kirkham surely would have been pleased by this polished effort at forceful self-expression, of that we may be certain.

And the best was yet to come.

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Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.