The Short and Simple Annals of the Poor

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Today is the 201rst birthday of Abraham Lincoln.  It is a state holiday here in the Land of Lincoln, of course, and in California, Connecticut, Missouri, New Jersey and New York. 

One fact that all Americans know about Lincoln is that he was born in a log cabin.  He was indeed, a one room log cabin on Nolin Creek in Kentucky.  With the passage of time this fact has become picturesque, almost quaint.  This is a grave mistake for anyone wishing to understand Abraham Lincoln.  The log cabin symbolized for Lincoln his entry into the very hard life of a pioneer family.  Unending physical toil aged men and women before their time.  The arduous life of the frontier also made sudden death an often unwelcome guest.  Lincoln’s brother Thomas died in infancy.  His mother Nancy Hanks died when Lincoln was 9.  His sister Sarah died in childbirth at age 20, along with the son she had just brought into this world.  His namesake,  his paternal grandfather Abraham, was killed in 1786 by Indians.  Lincoln was born into a very tough and unforgiving world.

Of Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks we know next to nothing.  Of his father, Thomas Lincoln, the chief fact in regard to him and his famous son is that they did not get along.  Why is a bit of a mystery.  Thomas Lincoln was only semi-literate, but he encouraged his son in his efforts to educate himself.  Thomas Lincoln was not an abusive parent, certainly by the standards of his time.  However, after he left home Abraham Lincoln virtually never spoke about him.  I can only think off-hand of one wry comment he made about Thomas: “My father taught me to work, but not to love it. I never did like to work, and I don’t deny it. I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh — anything but work.”  He visited Thomas when he was ill in 1849, but he did not come to his death bed, writing his stepbrother, John D. Johnston,  “Say to him that if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant; but that if it be his lot to go now, he will soon have a joyous meeting with many loved ones gone before; and where the rest of us, through the help of God, hope ere-long to join them.” 

Lincoln was quite fond of his step-mother Sarah Bush Lincoln, who Thomas Lincoln married a year after the death of Lincoln’s mother.  He always referred to her as mother and would visit her every year or two, the last time just before he went to Washington to be sworn in as President.

In 1860 Lincoln responded to an inquiry about the history of his family by quoting Gray’s Elegy, “the short and simple annals of the poor”.    When it comes to his family and its impact upon him as he grew to manhood, the annals are certainly short and simple.  Lincoln was almost completely close-mouthed about his relationships with his relatives, and historians have been unsuccessful in shedding much light on this area of Lincoln’s life.  In some ways I find this refreshing.  We live in a time when many people feel compelled to tell every intimate aspect of their lives to complete strangers, and privacy is often a purely theoretical right.  Lincoln lived in an age when private family matters were just that.  Distressing for historians, but perhaps a more dignified way to live.

This is the first of a series of posts over the next year or so regarding different aspects of the life and career of Lincoln.  I will be tying them in with similar posts regarding his great adversary Jefferson F. Davis in a parallel life analysis of both men.  I announced this series on the American history blog Almost Chosen People here.  Most of the posts will probably be just at Almost Chosen People, but a few of interest to American Catholic readers will also be posted here.

4 Responses to The Short and Simple Annals of the Poor

  • “We live in a time when many people feel compelled to tell every intimate aspect of their lives to complete strangers, and privacy is often a purely theoretical right. Lincoln lived in an age when private family matters were just that.”

    Very true, however, that doesn’t stop historians from trying to fill in the gaps with their own speculation or selective reading of the evidence. In Lincoln’s case the favorite topics for speculation are his relationships with Ann Rutledge, Mary Todd Lincoln and his male friends. Of course, reading 19th-century letters and actions through politically correct 21st-century eyes doesn’t help matters.

  • True Elaine. The ludicrous assertion that Lincoln was a homosexual is the product of people who do not understand the style of writing of nineteenth century America and that travelers often shared beds with members of the same sex due to miserable lodging conditions, with no thought of anything other than attempting to get some sleep.

  • That’s just the most blatant example. Also it’s interesting to read different historians’ take on Mary Todd Lincoln. All agree she was very difficult to live with at times, however, some (like mega-Lincoln biography author Michael Burlingname, now of UIS and just named winner of the Lincoln Prize) paint her as little more than a “rhymes with witch” whom her husband despised, while others cite equally compelling evidence that despite their difficulties, Lincoln respected her opinions, her education (very advanced for a woman of that era) and her unwavering confidence in him.

    Again, whether this is an attempt to give a fair shake to a woman who may have been unfairly maligned for generations, or a nod to politically correct feminist sensibilities, depends on your point of view. I suppose, however, that people of their era would simply have regarded the question of how well Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln got along as none of their business.

  • Mary could be a bit of a shrew and a spendthrift. However, I have always been sympthetic to her. Lincoln refused to discipline the kids, so Mary was left alone in her efforts to make sure that her boys didn’t act like savages. Lincoln spent a good deal of time away from home riding the circuit or engaged in politics, so Mary often had to act as both mother and father. Under such cicumstances, I am surprised that her temper didn’t fray more often. Billy Herndon, Lincoln’s often drunk law partner, hated Mary and Mary cordially returned the sentiment. Many of the Mary as termagant stories originated from his pen and most of the better Lincoln biographers have pointed out his bias. My personal opinion is that the Lincolns had a happy marriage, filled with the usual ups and downs familiar to anyone who has been in a marriage that has endured the test of time.

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