Lincoln is, of course, the quintessential barefoot boy made good. Folks these days make a big deal about his going barefoot, and make it a virtue.
But then these days when many of us try to do it, it’s not seen as a virtue at all.
Our local paper, The Columbus Dispatch, had a feature on his boyhood home in the Sunday travel section. You can see that here: Birthplaces of Lincoln, Davis illustrate divide in 1860s Kentucky. Their travel editor had traveled to Hodgenville, KY, to the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. There they have the original Lincoln boyhood log cabin (or so they think, or maybe they have part of it, or maybe some of it is mixed up with parts of the Jefferson Davis boyhood log cabin — really).
But they show the Lincoln’s in their log cabin, and of course Abe Lincoln is barefoot.
[Picture and the caption from the Dispatch. Photo credit: Steve Stephens.]
As part of the National Park Service displays, they also have their Junior Rangers program (usually things like coloring books and stamps and a bit of education). They show Abe Lincoln barefoot as a boy on the cover of their activity book.
You all may remember that I had trouble getting into the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, IL. I don’t think I’d have that trouble at the National Memorial. The Federal government tends to be more welcoming to bare feet (or at least not quite as anti). Besides, their Superintendent’s Compendium (DOC) says nothing about bare feet, so we know there is no rule against them.
The Springfield Museum (I wrote up my visit here) also made sure that Boyhood Lincoln, while barefoot, had footwear close at head.
I always find it deliciously ironic that Lincoln himself, as a boy, would be unwelcome in his own museum.
When I was on that Lincoln kick, I also wrote about many of the descriptions of stories when Lincoln went barefoot, you can read that here, in Barefoot Lincoln. One thing I did not include there, was the story of Lincoln’s first speech.
Here it is, from Abe Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories, by Alexander McClure.
Lincoln made his first speech when he was a mere boy, going barefoot, his trousers held up by one suspender, and his shock of hair sticking through a hole in the crown of his cheap straw hat.
“Abe,” in company with Dennis Hanks, attended a political meeting, which was addressed by a typical stump speaker—one of those loud-voiced fellows who shouted at the top of his voice and waved his arms wildly.
At the conclusion of the speech, which did not meet the views either of “Abe” or Dennis, the latter declared that “Abe” could make a better speech than that. Whereupon he got a drygoods box and called on “Abe” to reply to the campaign orator.
Lincoln threw his old straw hat on the ground, and, mounting the drygoods box, delivered a speech which held the attention of the crowd and won him considerable applause. Even the campaign orator admitted that it was a fine speech and answered every point in his own “oration.”
The story in the book is accompanied by this drawing.
That is one weird looking drawing. To be fair, at this point Lincoln isn’t a “mere boy”, but about 21 years old.
The speech took place in Decatur, IL, and they have honored him and the speech with a nice statue in their town square.
In these sorts of stories I always wonder how accurate they are. A lot of mythology gets attached to near-mythological figures. But a 1929 story in The Decatur Review (it appears they were serializing the new-at-that-time book History of Decatur and Macon County, by E. T. Coleman) contains this letter:
Decatur, May 9, 1929
Dear Sir: I am interested in your History of Macon County and notice that you mention a speech by Abraham Lincoln in 1830 or thereabout. My grandfather, N. N. Baker, the father of the late Joseph N. and Amzi Baker, heard that speech, and as told me by my mother and grandmother, it was delivered from a goods box in front of a store. He was barefoot. He wanted the Sangamon river declared navigable as far as Decatur.
Route 3, Decatur, Ill.
OK, so, unlike the Decatur statute, it was a goods box, not a stump. But that’s not too bad.
And how do you think that speech might be written up these days? Well, we don’t have to guess. Here’s a description from Following in Lincoln’s Footsteps, By Ralph Gary.
In the summer of 1830, he was working at the farm of either Mr. Shepard, west of Church Street and north of Main, or for William Hanks Jr., near Main and Union. He heard a commotion in the public square, came to investigate, and heard the last part of a political speech denouncing a candidate for the Whig Party. The young farmhand is said to have hopped up on the stump in fron of Harrell’s Tavern to speak in defense of the Whig. The splinters hurt his bare feet as he shifted around, but the crowd cheered wildly, and he learned he could speak. A bronze statue stands on the northeast corner and is entitled, “Lincoln’s First Political Speech.” It depicts Lincoln as barefoot with one foot on the stump.
Geez, do you think the author made up anything there, trying to make it all more dramatic? (This is why one should try to get as close to original sources as possible when trying to verify historical information.)
I highlighted the most egregious statement, from a barefooter’s perspective. Look at the drama! The splinters hurt his feet!
Really? This guy hasn’t a clue, but we barefooters are pretty darn sure that Lincoln’s bare feet could handle a stump (or, as we know, a goods box) just fine. It’s just that nobody anymore can even consider the idea that well-used bare feet are perfectly capable of handling all sorts of surfaces with the least difficulty.
Anyways, it’s good to see that the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial doesn’t whitewash Lincoln’s bare feet. It’s not too far from my neck of the woods. Some day I’ll have to visit to see if they say anything else.