When Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky in 1809, formal education was mostly the province of the wealthy in America, and the public education system we know today did not exist. Many cities did have private academies and universities; Kentucky’s first university, Transylvania in Lexington, had been founded in 1780, just six years after the first permanent settlement was established in the state. But the idea of a basic education as a social necessity or an individual right had not yet taken hold in America. (In fact, many people believed that for some groups, too much education was unnecessary or actually dangerous: Girls usually got much less formal education than boys, and many states had laws making it a crime to teach a slave how to read or write.) The first public high school in America would not be founded until 1821, in Boston. As late as 1840, census figures showed that only about half of all American children attended school. And laws requiring them to do so did not start appearing until the 1850s.
Education was even less of a priority in rural areas and on the frontier. Building a new homestead or running a farm required hard work from everyone in the family. Time out for schooling was a luxury many could not afford.
Even if they could afford it, teachers and schools were scarce. During Lincoln’s childhood, America had no teacher training schools, and teaching itself was not regarded as an important or prestigious profession. Any individual could start a school. But with no organized school system to pay him, the schoolmaster would have to depend on whatever compensation his pupils’ families could spare or work at some other job in addition to teaching. So in rural communities at the time, schooling for their children had to wait until there were enough families in the community to support a teacher.