Dr. Samuel Wheeler - Abraham Lincoln's inspirational passion for learning

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[February 14, 2020]  LINCOLN - After being bestowed an honorary doctorate on the occasion of Lincoln College's 155th Charter Day on Friday, Dr. Samuel Wheeler captivated the audience with the astounding story of Abraham Lincoln and his drive to learn.

Lincoln accumulated less than a year of formal schooling.

Yet it is today, Wheeler said, "the values we ascribe as inherently "Lincolnian" are the very one's we work so hard to instill in the next generation."

Those character qualities include: Honesty - Humility - Integrity - Courage - Empathy; all characteristics celebrated in the Abraham Lincoln Center for Character Development, the Lincoln Heritage Museum, and the qualities on which the college is dedicated.

Wheeler progressed through Lincoln's life from childhood to the Presidency describing Lincoln's passion and determination to learn at every stage of his life, and how Lincoln encouraged others to do the same at every turn and request of him.

Wheeler narrated Lincoln's life story slipping in quotes that attributed Lincoln's constant pursuit of knowledge.

Lincoln would write words down that he didn't recognize, write on boards if he had no paper, look it up, study and commit to memory what words meant.



"Those stories that Lincoln would walk miles to borrow a book or stay up reading all night; those were true," Wheeler said.

Months after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his former law partner, William Herndon of Springfield, sought out Lincoln's step-mother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, who was living near Charleston, IL. He wanted to write a biography, but there were many questions to address: "How did a little boy who grew up in a log cabin with a dirt floor and largely illiterate parents go on to achieve greatness?"

Sarah met her step-son at nine years-of-age. She fed him and cleaned him up. She told Herndon there was something different about her step-son. He was, "Diligent for knowledge."

She had kept the crude homemade 'copy book' that Lincoln wrote in growing up and much has been learned today from those early writings.

The pages were later divided and shared as artifacts at various locations. The pages at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library are writings of the 14 to 15-year-old lad. He practiced figures and wrote a poem:

Abraham Lincoln is my name
And with my pen, I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and leave it here for fools to read


Out of the family's dire needs, Lincoln labored at farm work, plowing and clearing land and chopping trees from eight years-of-age to 22. He was also hired out to work other farms. He was noted to carry a book for his break times.

Wheeler said, "Lincoln was desperate to learn."

"Why?"

His biological family suffered in ways that he saw education could have prevented or solved. Education was his ticket out of the wilderness that he grew up in. 

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In New Salem, he found mentors that nurtured his talents and he continued his self-studies, and there he explored various professions from store clerk, surveyor, postmaster and soldier to lawyer.

Of Lincoln's determined spirit, Wheeler said, "His ambition was endless."

As Lincoln entered politics, he was passionate about public education, saying, "I can only say that I view education as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in, Lincoln said. He signed for Land Grant Colleges in 1862. This was an Act that revolutionized higher education, Wheeler said.

Lincoln married a well-educated woman, Mary Todd, who would go on to encourage a love of learning and education in their children. Lincoln was proud that his oldest son Robert became a Harvard grad.

Admired in his law practice, Lincoln would get requests for mentoring. To one law student asking to clerk, he said, "If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already... Get the books and read. Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other thing."

To another student Lincoln ended his letter emphasizing, "Work, work, work is the main thing."

For a man without a formal education, it might mean working exponentially harder, but Lincoln believed that determination could overcome all odds, Wheeler said.

As President, Lincoln applied the same practice when the bloody battles of the Civil War dragged on and the country struggled. He by-passed his West Point educated generals, went to the Library of Congress books to study military strategies for himself. He then searched and found a general who saw the war the way he did, Ulysses S. Grant.

Lincoln came from the humblest of circumstances and came to see education as his deliverance. He bettered himself through hard work, persistence and grit. He freely told anyone who wanted to know his secret - 'work, hard work, punishingly hard work.'

In speaking to a group of soldiers to inspire, Lincoln said, "I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake but for yours. I happen to temporarily occupy this big white house. I'm a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here, as my father's child has."

Lincoln added, "It's an order that each of you may have through this free government, which we have enjoyed an open field and fair chance for your industry, free enterprise and intelligence. The you may all have equal privileges in the race of life with all of its desirable human aspirations.

In looking at Abraham Lincoln's life, Wheeler says, "It doesn't matter where you start in life, you can achieve greatness."


[Jan Youngquist]

 

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