Back to School With President Lincoln

By Molly Cadwell

Are you headed back to school soon? Feeling anxious? Excited? Confused?

To get ready for the 2019-20 school year we thought we’d share some wisdom from President Lincoln about the importance of getting an education, his favorite study strategies, and facing back-to-school nerves. While Lincoln received very little formal education, he certainly valued education and what it can do for a person. Whether you’re a teacher, a parent of a nervous soon-to-be 1st grader, or about to head off to college, we hope you find these bits of wisdom helpful, comforting, or inspiring!

While running for state legislator, Lincoln described why he thought every person should be entitled to some level of education and the joys we can find through reading. On March 9, 1832, he wrote a letter to the people of Sangamo County, in which he said:

“Upon the system of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the scriptures and other works, both of a religious and moral nature, for themselves.”

Lincoln believed that an education was important and that your education could take you far. In his 1852 eulogy of fellow Kentuckian, Henry Clay, Lincoln wrote that:

“Mr. Clay’s lack of a more perfect early education, however it may be regretted generally, teaches at least one profitable lesson; it teaches that in this country, one can scarcely be so poor, but that, if he will, he can acquire sufficient education to get through the world respectably.”

Because Lincoln was largely self-taught, he developed some interesting learning strategies during his life. Once, William Herndon asked Lincoln why he read aloud so often. To this, Lincoln replied:

“When I read aloud two senses catch the idea: first, I see what I read; second, I hear it, and therefore I can remember it better.”

Maybe this strategy can help you out this year in school?

While Lincoln understood the importance of an education, he also knew that the pursuit of education could be hard or scary at times. On June 28, 1862 Lincoln wrote to Quintin Campbell who had just started school at West Point. Campbell must have been a little nervous about starting school far from home because when his mother requested that Lincoln write him, this is what Lincoln wrote:

“Your good mother tells me you are feeling very badly in your new situation. Allow me to assure you it is a perfect certainty that you will, very soon, feel better — quite happy — if you only stick to the resolution you have taken to procure a military education. I am older than you, have felt badly myself, and know what I tell you is true. Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life. Take the advice of a friend, who, though he never saw you, deeply sympathizes with you, and stick to your purpose.”

1820s print showing the Hudson River and West Point Military Academy on the opposite bank of the river. Lincoln visited West Point in June of 1862 to discuss military strategy with General Winfield Scott.
Image from Library of Congress. Created and published in New York by Henry I. Megarey between 1821 and 1825.


Why do you think education is important? Have you ever been nervous about starting school or beginning a big project? What advice would you give to new students or teachers as they begin the school year?

If you’re a teacher and think your class might enjoy a visit to President Lincoln’s Cottage this year, be sure to check out our educational offerings! We have programs available for a variety of grade levels and can even connect with you virtually through our distance learning program. For more information, visit our School Groups page.

Keep an eye on our blog, newsletter, and social media for a longer essay about Lincoln’s views on Education coming in early September!

Molly Cadwell is the Communications Intern at President Lincoln’s Cottage

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