The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln (4 page)

BOOK: The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln
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Now, three-quarters of a century after his death, Lincoln’s memory, which had perhaps for a time become somewhat dimmed by long familiarity, has taken on a new meaning in a world where the things for which he fought are again being threatened. We have seen civil wars and international wars surge around us in the world at large, and the struggle which in his time was sectional for the rights of black men has extended until it has become national and international for the rights of all men regardless of the color of their skins. As a result of this mighty struggle now taking place there has been an amazing revival of interest in the details of Lincoln’s career. Plays, motion pictures, books and stories about him have attained wide popularity. His words are quoted—with varying emphasis—by all parties from right to left. He has become a
guide and a prophet to an even greater extent than he was before. Through the study of his life and his words we can arrive at a better understanding of the problems of our own time. The battle for democracy and freedom to which he devoted his life has not yet been won.

His life is one of remarkable interest not only for its personal and political importance, but for its dramatic values as well; it develops through a rising curve to reach a tremendous tragic climax at the end. It has all the narrative elements, and it should be more interesting to most of us than any tale of kings and battles long ago, for it is the story of a man who rose from lowly origins to high place and yet was so human that he is still remembered in his home town as a friend and neighbor rather than as a figure in a history book.

He was born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin near the village of Hodgenville, Kentucky. His parents came from pioneer stock. His father’s family had settled in Massachusetts in 1637, and moved ever southward and westward in successive waves of migration. In 1786, Lincoln’s own grandfather met the traditional death of the pioneer, shot down by hostile Indians while he was planting a field of corn on ground that he had cleared in the forest. Lincoln’s father, then a small child, was rescued from the marauders by an older brother who killed the kidnapper with a single shot from his long rifle.

An enormous amount of research has been devoted to establishing the facts about Lincoln’s ancestry and early life. As a result of this research, we know a good deal about Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln. We know that he was a carpenter by trade and a farmer by choice, although he was successful at neither vocation. We know that he was legally married to his wife, Nancy Hanks, on June 12, 1806, by one Jesse Head, deacon in the Methodist Episcopal Church. The certificate of marriage is still in existence. Abraham Lincoln would probably have given much to see it, for all his life he was
apparently afraid that he had been born a bastard, son of a mother who had herself been born out of wedlock.

This mother, Nancy Hanks, is a vague and shadowy figure who left no tangible record behind her. She was probably not able even to write her own name, for the few legal documents she signed bear only that shakily drawn cross that is the mark of an illiterate. We do not even know what she looked like, except that she was probably small and dark. After her son became famous, old settlers who had known her tried to remember as much as they could about this woman who had died obscurely many years before. They succeeded only in further confusing our knowledge of her, because they disagreed with one another on almost every point. The woman they described was a protean creature who ranged all the way from a Madonna-like mother to a slut whose casual infidelities would cast doubt on the paternity of her son. She herself was so unimportant that even the few people who knew her at all could not agree as to what sort of person she had been. And she was not only poor and obscure—she was a woman, a pioneer woman who could leave to posterity only one kind of record to indicate that she had lived, breathed consciousness of the world around her, been a part of her generation and her race. Her life work, the sum of her accomplishments, the living memorial of all her qualities, were her children. Whoever and whatever she was, Nancy Hanks Lincoln made her mark upon the world in this one record of her life. Reasoning backward from the kind of son she bore, she must have been a remarkable woman. Certainly her husband shows no trace of greatness in his character. The heritage he gave to his son was the heritage of weakness, of indecision, of slowness and of unceasing inner struggle.

The father, Thomas, a man and a property owner, is as clear to us as the mother is vague. He left a written trail through the records of the counties in which he lived. We can trace his career as a militiaman in 1795; we know to a penny
certain sums that were paid to him for his work; we can follow the intricate legal transfers of properties that he bought, sold or abandoned. He lived until 1851. Many people remembered the father clearly when the son became so celebrated that investigators were trying to find every scrap of interest about his ancestry and the facts of his career. There is nothing unknown about Thomas Lincoln. He was the result that might be expected of his environment, no more and no less. He was uneducated, and inclined to look down upon book learning as useless in the hard battle for existence that had been his life. He worked as hard as he had to—and no harder. He never made much money, but he never starved. He got by in everything and he was content to eat, sleep and remain alive. He had the slow deliberate ways and movements that were to be characteristic of his son. He had dark hair and complexion, and so did his son. Otherwise there was not much in common between them, and the little we know regarding their personal relationship indicates that Lincoln had not too much affection for his father, and no more than a formal respect for him.

Thomas Lincoln took his bride, Nancy Hanks, to Elizabethtown. There their first child was born, a daughter whom they named Sarah. Shortly before their second child was due, they moved to a three-hundred-acre farm which Thomas had bought for two hundred dollars. This place was noted for its fine water supply, and was called Sinking Spring farm. In a cabin near this spring, Abraham was born in mid-winter in surroundings that were typical of the pioneer country, crude and primitive to our eyes, but not unrepresentative of the living conditions under which thousands of others dwelled in that new country.

The family stayed on this farm for three years. The land title proved to be defective, and Thomas Lincoln suddenly withdrew from his holding to take his family to another farm of only thirty acres ten miles away. This was known as the Knob Creek place, and its physical features were among the
earliest memories of Abraham Lincoln. Here he played as a little shirt-tail boy; here he first came to knowledge of a wider world. He remembered the bright waters of the creek that ran through the farm. He remembered some of his first playmates, and he never forgot the names of the teachers whose ABC schools were his first encounter with education.


Title trouble again drove his father onward. He sold his rights to the Knob Creek farm and invested the money in portable merchandise—whisky. Then he built a raft, loaded his whisky and tools on it and went on alone to Indiana in search of new land. He returned for his family, and with them he started out in the late fall of 1816 for the spot he had picked in the forest wilderness to begin his life anew.

Winter was beginning when they arrived there. Thomas Lincoln built a half-faced shelter—a simple structure open on one side to face an outdoor fire that was supposed to heat the interior. Life in Indiana was even more primitive than it had been in Kentucky. Neighbors were few, and the country was in its virgin state, covered by endless forests that had to be cleared by hand labor. Winter came upon them. Somehow they managed to live through it, but the snow must often have drifted into the open-sided cabin. They got food from the forest, shooting the wild animals that were there in great numbers. Water was to be had by melting the snow. Like most wilderness creatures they probably spent much of their time sleeping, for in sleep one could forget the cold and the endless boredom of life under such conditions.

In the spring they were joined by two young men, relatives of Nancy Hanks. A new and more sturdily built cabin was begun with their help. Work on it progressed slowly, so slowly that it was not quite finished when winter was upon them again. Nancy Hanks’ aunt and uncle, Betsy and Thomas Sparrow, came to join them. The newcomers took over the half-faced
cabin, while the Lincoln family moved into their unfinished dwelling to spend another winter in hardship and cold.

During the autumn of the next year (1818) a terrifying epidemic swept through the woods. “Milk sickness,” the pioneer people called it, although most of them had no milk or any way to get it. It carried off Betsy and Thomas Sparrow. They were buried on a little hill not far from the cabin. Thomas Lincoln made their coffins, cutting out boards from a tree with a whipsaw and putting them together with wooden pegs. He had hardly finished burying these two when his own wife fell sick. She lingered for seven days, and then, early in October, just as the woods were turning into the autumnal colors that heralded the approach of another winter, she died. Another coffin was cut from the living wood of the forest. The nine-year-old boy and his sister followed the sledge carrying their mother’s body to the hill that had become a wilderness graveyard. It was months before an itinerant preacher came to conduct a funeral service over the lonely graves. The living had another winter to face, and again they managed somehow to survive it.

During that winter the son and the daughter of Nancy Hanks went to a schoolhouse which had been opened in the neighborhood. People were settling in the new country, and schools and churches were beginning to arise in the woodland. Life at the Lincoln home, however, became even more haphazard than it had been before. There was no woman in the house to keep order, to prepare food and take charge of the growing children. Thomas Lincoln endured this for a year; then, in November, 1819, he went back to the Kentucky hills to find himself a wife. Before he had married Nancy Hanks, he had courted—and been rejected by—a good-natured Elizabethtown woman named Sarah Bush. She had married meanwhile, but her husband had died. Thomas went to see the widow to try his luck again. This time she listened more
favorably to his story, moved perhaps by the plight of his children, for she had three of her own. She promptly consented to become his wife; they were married the next day, December 2, 1819.

Thomas Lincoln returned to Indiana with his second bride, her children and a wagonload of household goods. His new wife probably received a rude shock when she saw the cabin and its squalid surroundings, but she was inclined to make the best of everything, and she quickly brought order and management to Thomas Lincoln’s home. His children were fortunate in their father’s choice of a wife, for she was a kind and sensible person who took the two motherless children to her heart and raised them as her own. Abraham became her favorite. He was bright—far brighter than her own children—and he turned to her for the affection that he had not had since his own mother’s death.

The household things Sarah Bush had brought from Kentucky added some comfort to the sparsely furnished home. The men in the family were persuaded to finish building and flooring the cabin. The children were taken in hand, cleaned, dressed and disciplined. Existence in that Indiana wilderness was never to become easy for the Lincolns, but Sarah Bush Lincoln raised their standards of living and made things easier for them. She did her best, tried to make the men work, tried to cope with odds that would have been overwhelming to anyone not possessed of her calm good nature and indefatigable energy. Lincoln never forgot his substitute mother. He watched out for her interests when he became a lawyer. When he was elected President, one of his last acts in Illinois was to travel across the state by train and carriage to pay a visit to the woman who had raised him as if he had been her own son.

The Indiana years were the years of Lincoln’s growth to adolescence and manhood. In Indiana he acquired an elementary knowledge of reading, writing and ciphering. This
was all that schools ever taught him; his entire contact with formal education lasted for less than a year. Yet there was in him a passion for knowledge that was never to cease throughout his life. There are many accounts of his attempts to learn, of his borrowing books to read, of his efforts to work out problems on the back of a wooden shovel which he then shaved clean so he could use it again. And the young Lincoln had not only to learn about words and figures, he also had to prepare himself for the lot in life that a son of Thomas Lincoln must expect. He became expert with the ax. He worked in the fields and took farm products to the mill. His father hired him out to work for others. Manual labor was all that he could look forward to, for his father was incapable of imagining any other career for him. The son, however, did not take to the kind of life he had inherited. He worked hard with his hands but he never liked such labor; he was more interested in words and ideas.

During this period of his life, Lincoln seems to have been a simple, good-humored farm boy, noted for his kindness, his readiness to oblige others and his love for talking and listening to talk. He lacked the hardness that is so often characteristic of youths raised in such an environment and he sought to better himself and to learn—otherwise there was not much to set him off from thousands of other lads in the new country beyond the Alleghanies. No one seems to have noticed in him at this time any of the moodiness that was to mark his later years. One thing happened to him during this period, though, that may have had some influence upon his development. It was an absurd incident, almost farcical in its occurrence, yet it may have had far-reaching physical and mental effects.

He had to take his father’s grain to the local mill to be ground, riding there on the family’s mare with the grain tied in bags to the saddle. The mare was then hitched to a long pole and driven around in a circle to turn the mill that slowly ground out flour or meal. On one occasion the boy
drove the animal too fast; she rebelled and lashed out with her hoofs, striking him on the forehead and knocking him senseless. The head injury may have been more serious than was suspected at the time. At any rate, the youth who had hitherto been so cheerful and casual grew up to be a man whose major characteristic was melancholy—a melancholy far greater than even the harsh and disappointing circumstances of his early life warranted.

BOOK: The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln
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