All the time, too, he was trying to improve himself. He liked to sit around and talk and tell stories, just the same as ever; but he saw this was not the way to get on in the world. He worked, whenever he had the chance, outside of his store duties; and once, when trade was dull and hands were short in the clearing, he “turned to” and split enough logs into rails to make a pen for a thousand hogs.
When he was not at work he devoted himself to his books. He could “read, write, and cipher”—this was more education than most men about him possessed; but he hoped, some day, to go before the public; to do this, he knew he must speak and write correctly. He talked to the village schoolmaster, who advised him to study English grammar.
“Well, if I had a grammar,” said Lincoln, “I’d begin now. Have you got one?”
The schoolmaster had no grammar; but he told “Abe” of a man, six miles off, who owned one. Thereupon, Lincoln started upon the run to borrow that grammar. He brought it back so quickly that the schoolmaster was astonished. Then he set to work to learn the “rules and exceptions.” He studied that grammar, stretched full length on the store-counter, or under a tree outside the store, or at night before a blazing fire of shavings in the cooper’s shop. And soon, he had mastered it. He borrowed every book in New Salem; he made the schoolmaster give him lessons in the store; he button-holed every stranger that came into the place “who looked as though he knew anything”; until, at last, every one in New Salem was ready to echo Offutt’s boast that “Abe Lincoln” knew more than any man “in these United States.” One day, in the bottom of an old barrel of trash, he made a splendid “find.” It was two old law books. He read and re-read them, got all the sense and argument out of their dry pages, blossomed into a debater, began to dream of being a lawyer, and became so skilled in seeing through and settling knotty questions that, once again, New Salem wondered at this clerk of Offutt’s, who was as long of head as of arms and legs, and declared that “Abe Lincoln could out-argue any ten men in the settlement.”
In all the history of America there has been no man who started lower and climbed higher than Abraham Lincoln, the backwoods boy. He never “slipped back.” He always kept going ahead. He broadened his mind, enlarged his outlook, and led his companions rather than let them lead him. He was jolly company, good-natured, kind-hearted, fond of jokes and stories and a good time generally; but he was the champion of the weak, the friend of the friendless, as true a knight and as full of chivalry as any one of the heroes in armour of whom you read in “Ivanhoe” or “The Talisman.” He never cheated, never lied, never took an unfair advantage of anyone; but he was ambitious, strong-willed, a bold fighter and a tough adversary—a fellow who would never “say die”; and who, therefore, succeeded.