The Influence of Riley's Narrative upon Abraham Lincoln

R. Gerald McMurtry


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp 133-138

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The Influence of Riley's Narrative upon Abraham Lincoln


Of all the books that Lincoln read during his youth there is none more interesting and entertaining than Captain James Riley's Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce. This book, although extensively read during Lincoln's time, is today out of print and not available to the modern reader. Lincoln received from this book many ideas regarding slavery. He also found the book instructive and educational.

Much has been written concerning some of the books which Abraham Lincoln read, and their influence upon his subsequent career.1 The classics, text books, and patriotic works listed as having been read by him have received considerable attention. Little has been written concerning the books which do not fall under the above classification. However, some of these forgotten volumes exerted a tremendous influence upon his mental development. There were at best few books in southern Indiana during Lincoln's time there, but there is a tradition that he read most of the books within a fifty mile radius of his home.2 Due to the fact that he spent less than a year in school under five different schoolmasters, it is an interesting endeavor to determine the influence of certain books in his struggle for an education.3

Considerable interest has been shown in recent years in the compilation of books which Lincoln read. Historians and students have been able to make up a list of approximately two hundred titles, either mentioned by Lincoln in his letters and speeches or mentioned by authors in numerous Lincoln biographies. A list of books that Lincoln read creates the principal background of his formal education.4

In Lincoln's day Riley's Narrative was a standard work, and is said to have been so popular in southwestern Indiana during the period of his residence there, that it constituted

  • 1 The outstanding authorities on the books that Lincoln read are M. L. Houser, Rufus Rockwell Wilson, H. E. Barker, and William E. Barton.
  • 2 "Mr. Lincoln once told Leonard Swett that when he was a boy in a he borrowed and read every book he could hear of for fifty miles around." M. L. Houser, Abraham Lincoln, Student—His Books, 11.
  • 3Lincoln's five schoolmasters were Zachariah Riney, Caleb Hazel, Andrew Crawford, James Sweeney, and Azel W. Dorsey.
  • 4 "Lincoln Lore" number 167, published by the Lincoln National Life Foundation.
an entire library in many pioneer homes.5 The first edition of the book was published in 1817, and, with the sale of many other editions, over a million copies were distributed in a short period of years.6 Probably no book published in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century attained so extensive a circulation in so short a time as did the Narrative.7

Conclusive proof has been established that Lincoln read Riley's Narrative because of the fact that John Locke Scripps in his campaign biography entitled "Life of Abraham Lincoln" contains the following information concerning the books that he read as a youth:

Abraham's first book, after Dilworth's Spelling-Book, was, as has been stated, the Bible. Next to that came Aesop's Fables, which he read with great zest, and so often as to commit the whole to memory. After that he obtained a copy of Pilgrim's Progress—a book which, perhaps, has quickened as many dormant intellects and started into vigorous growth the religious element of as many natures, as any other in the English language. Then came the Life of Franklin, Weems's Washington, and Riley's Narrative.8

Scripps' biography was the only one of himself that Abraham Lincoln ever authorized, revised, and endorsed. He insisted that every statement, however unimportant, should be accurate.9 Mr. Scripps submitted the manuscript to Lincoln before its publication, and Lincoln himself approved the statement that one of the books read by him during his youth was Riley's Narrative.

The identical copy that Lincoln read is not extant, and the imprint of this particular book is not known.10 It is assumed that Lincoln read the Narrative while a youth in Indiana. Due to the proximity of southern Indiana to Kentucky it is

  • 5 Houser, Lincoln, Student—His Books, 13.
  • 6 W. Willshire Riley, Sequel to Riley's Narrative (1851). 434. That the Narrative by Captain Riley, of which this book was a "Sequel" or a continuation, had been read by more than a million now living in these United States, was the claim of the author, son of the Captain. Ibid., iv.
  • 7 After his (Riley's) escape the Narrative was prepared from his journals and log books, by Anthony Bleecker (New York, 1816) and was reprinted in England obtaining a wide circulation in both countries, though it was supposed to he fiction until others of the crew arrived to corroborate the story. Another survivor of the shipwreck, Archibald Robbins, also published a narrative (Hartford, 1842). Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. V, 255-256.
  • 8 John L. Scripps, Life of Abraham Lincoln (M. L. Houser reprint), 3.
  • 9Ibid., "Foreword," v.
  • 10 In an alphabetical list of authors of books Lincoln studied, compiled by Esther Cowles Cushman, the custodian of the Lincoln collection at Brown University, it 18 indicated that Lincoln's copy of the Narrative is not known to be extant. M. L. Houser, Lincoln, Student—His Books, 31.
thought that the majority of the books in this newly settled territory were brought from Kentucky. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Kentucky was the cultural background of the territory west of the Alleghenies, with Lexington as its center. There is a slight probability that Lincoln's copy of the Narrative may have borne a Lexington, Kentucky, imprint of the 1823 edition.11

This book is said to have made a striking and permanent impression on the minds of the early American youths who read it, and it is easy to believe that: the youthful Lincoln found it both interesting and entertaining.12 The modern reader would likely find the book interesting, due to its quaint style, if he should have the patience to peruse its very fine print. The Narrative undoubtedly left an indelible impression on Lincoln's mind in regard to race superiority and the moral wrongs of slavery.13

The unusually interesting title page of Riley's Narrative in-short gives a brief synopsis of the book:

An Authentic Narrative Of The Loss Of The American Brig Commerce Wrecked On The Western Coast of Africa In The Month Of August 1815 With An Account Of The Sufferings Of Her Surviving Officers And Crew Who Were Enslaved By The Wandering Arabs Of The Great African Desert Or Zahahrah And Observations, Historical, Geographical, Made During The Travels Of The Author, While A Slave To The Arabs, And In The Empire Of Morocco By James Riley Late Master And Supercargo Illustrated and Embellished With Eight Engravings Lexington, Kentucky Published For The Author William Gibbes Hunt Printer 182314

  • 11 The Lincoln National Life Foundation has in its collection a copy of Riley's Narrative, bearing the Lexington, Kentucky, imprint of 1823. This copy was purchased in Bardstown, Kentucky, only twenty miles from Lincoln's Knob Creek home.

    In the year 1818 Captain Riley journeyed through the western states on horseback, taking a route through Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh down the Ohio to Maysville, and then to Lexington in Kentucky. At Lexington Riley was hospitably received and elegantly entertained by the Hon. Henry Clay, Col. James Morrison, and Mr. Holly, president of Transylvania University, Dr. Preston, W. Brown, Cabot Breckinridge, Esq., and other distinguished citizens.

    The interest of the citizens of Lexington in the adventures of Captain Riley after his visit probably induced a Lexington book dealer to order copies of his book with a Lexington imprint published for sale in that city.

  • 12 "Many a youth received an onward impulse in his literary career from that work alone. Many a man, now high in station, can date the creation of an ardent thirst for reading and knowledge from his perusal when young of that work." W. Willshire Riley, Sequel to Riley's Narrative, page v.
  • 13 "This (Riley's Narrative) must have greatly impressed Lincoln, and probably was the basis of one of his arguments relating to race superiority." Louis A. Warren, The Slavery Atmosphere of Lincoln's Youth, part III.
  • 14 In January, 1828, the Narrative was revised, and the life of the author continued. The title pages of the different Narrative editions are not identical. In an edition published as late as 1847 the word "desert" throughout the book and on the title page is spelled "Desart."
From this outline, it is easy to see that such a narrative would appeal to the American pioneer. Africa was a continent of which they knew little, and the Arabs, no doubt, proved to be a topic of never-ending conversation among those who read the book because of their few contacts with the outside world.15

Captain James Riley gives a true account in his book of his adventures, enslavement, and travels in Africa. The Narrative begins with the wrecking of the brig Commerce in August 1815 on the western coast of Africa. The crew with all the officers were seized by a company of nomadic Moroccan Arabs, who stripped them of their clothing and carried them into the interior of the "Desert of Zahahrah." From this same continent American and English ships were bringing black slaves to America. This reversal of the process of enslaving men must have brought to the minds of many white men the ignominy of being a slave.

The interesting but sordid account of miserable sufferings while on the desert are described, and Captain Riley very vividly relates how he and his unfortunate companions were sold as slaves to Arab merchants. The book is filled with anti-slavery sentiment, not from the political but the moral side of the question. It is likely that Lincoln was especially impressed with the paragraph which describes the slave market as follows:

They next found fault with my shins, which had been very sore and they examined every bone to see if all was right in its place, with the same circumspection that a jockey would use who was about buying a horse.16

During Lincoln's residence in Indiana, at the age of nineteen, he made a trip to New Orleans and while there he saw the slave markets. It is not known whether he read Riley's Narrative before or after his first New Orleans trip, but it is likely that the wrongs of Aryan slavery contrasted with Negro slavery were brought vividly to his mind after reading the book.

This true anti-slavery sentiment set forth by Riley was not propaganda, because his book was written before slavery

  • 15 A biography in Arabic of Abraham Lincoln was published in Constantinople in 1888.
  • 16 Captain James Riley, Narrative of the Loas of the American Brig Commerce, 1847 Edition, 64.
had reached its critical aspect in American politics. This story undoubtedly convinced Lincoln of the unmistakable wrong of one man enslaving another. The environment of Lincoln's life had always been anti-slavery. The community in which he was born in Kentucky staged the most outstanding controversy over slavery in American history.17 When the Lincolns moved to Indiana the anti-slavery atmosphere continued to be ever present in Lincoln's life. No doubt on many occasions Lincoln listened to slavery arguments, but it is likely that the deciding force which caused him to form definite conclusions regarding the subject, came from newspapers, periodicals, and books. Riley's Narrative was without a doubt one of the greatest forces in developing Lincoln's unfavorable reaction to slavery.

Captain Riley continued his narrative regarding his enslavement after being sold to a cruel slave master:

After some time bartering about me, I was given to an old man whose features showed every sign of the deepest rooted malignity in his disposition. And this is my master? Thought I; Great God; defend me from his cruelty.18

The slave master proved to be as cruel as Riley anticipated, and there must have been few cases in American slavery where the institution existed in a more severe form than in the Empire of Morocco.

Many thrilling and exciting events occurred as the Narrative continues. In time a few members of the crew were able to reach civilization.19 After the release of Captain Riley he traveled extensively in Africa, recording geographical observations and describing the customs, manners, and dress of the inhabitants. It is a reasonable conclusion that his Narrative proved especially instructive to Lincoln because of the advice given seamen regarding the technicalities of navigation, a phase of study which always interested him.20

  • 17 There was no community in America, west of the Alleghany Mountains, where 8 more bitter and consistent controversy had been waged over the slavery question, during the first forty years of the nation's existence, than within the small area comprising a radius of fifteen miles from the home site where the birth of Abraham Lincoln took place, and within which area the three Lincoln homes were located." Louis A. Warren, The Slavery Atmosphere of Lincoln's Youth, Part I.
  • 18 Riley's Narrative, 66.
  • 19 He (Riley) was finally ransomed, with his companion, by W. Willshire, the British Consul at Mogadore, whom the United States government reimbursed during the presidency of James Monroe. Captain Riley returned to the United States on March Youth, 1816.
  • 20 On May 22. 1849, Lincoln received patent No. 6,469 from the United States Patent office for a device to lift vessels over shoals with the use of air filled buoyant chambers.

In one of the last chapters of the Narrative, Captain Riley describes a primitive Arabian plow and the crude methods of cultivation.21 No doubt this fact interested Lincoln who wm mechanically minded. Probably Lincoln had an Arabian plow in mind as contrasted with the little-improved pioneer American plow when he spoke before the Wisconsin State Fair on September 30, 1859:

Our thanks, and something more substantial than thanks are due every man engaged in the efforts to produce a successful steam plow.22

When Captain Riley arrived in America he was naturally an opponent of slavery. In concluding his book he devoted the last few pages to a discussion of the American slave and the ill-effects of slavery. At this early date considerable attention was being given to this subject in some sections of the United States. He had the following to say concerning American slavery:

Strange as it must appear to the philanthropist, my proud-spirited and free countrymen still hold a million and a half, nearly, of the human species, in the most cruel bonds of slavery, many of whom are kept at hard labor and smarting under the savage lash of inhuman mercenary drivers, and in many instances enduring besides the miseries of hunger, thirst, imprisonment, cold, nakedness, and even tortures.23

Riley was one of the first American abolitionists, and his antislavery sentiment reached more than a million readers. The author's appeal for help in abolishing slavery follows:

I will exert all my remaining faculties in endeavors to redeem the enslaved and to shiver in pieces the rod of oppression; and I trust I shall be aided in that holy work by every good and every pious, free, and high-minded citizen in the community, and by the friends of mankind throughout the civilized world.24

Much has been written concerning slavery. During the period of American history when it was the paramount issue, thousands of tracts, books, and magazines were published either for or against the institution. The fact that Abraham Lincoln, the world's greatest emancipator, read Riley's Narrative places this early book among the most important ever published on the subject.

  • 21 A Crude wood cut in the Narrative (opposite p. 204, Edition of 1847) illustrates a primitive Arabian plow.
  • 22 John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works. I, 576.
  • 23 Riley's Narrative (Edition of 1847). 260-261.
  • 24Ibid., 260.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.