Open main menu

Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln/Volume 1/The Parents of Abraham Lincoln

< Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln‎ | Volume 1



Among the many wrongs of history—and they are legion—there is none in our American chapter at least which is graver than that which has been done the parents, and particularly the mother, of Abraham Lincoln. Of course, I refer to the widespread tradition that Lincoln was born of that class known in the South as "poor whites," that his father was not Thomas Lincoln, as his biographers insist on declaring, but a rich and cultured planter of another State than Kentucky, and that his mother not only gave a fatherless boy to the world, but herself was a nameless child. The tradition has always lacked particularity. For instance, there has been large difference of opinion about the planter who fathered Abraham, who he was and where he came from. One story calls him Enloe, another Calhoun, another Hardin, and several different States claim him. Only five years ago a book was published in North Carolina to prove that Lincoln's father was a resident of that State. The bulk of the testimony offered in this instance came from men and women who had been born long after Abraham Lincoln, had never seen him, and never heard the tale they repeated until long after his election to the Presidency. Of the truth of these statements as to Lincoln's origin no proof has ever been produced. They were rumors, diligently spread in the first place by those who for political purposes were glad to belittle a political opponent. They grew with telling, and, curiously enough, two of Lincoln's best friends helped perpetuate them—Messrs. Lamon and Herndon —both of whom wrote lives of the President which are of great interest and value. But neither of these men was a student, and they did not take the trouble to look for records of Mr. Lincoln's birth. They accepted rumors and enlarged upon them. Indeed, it was not until perhaps twenty-five years ago that the matter was taken up seriously and an investigation begun. This has been going on at intervals ever since, until I venture to say that few persons born in a pioneer community, as Lincoln was, and as early as 1809, have their lineage on both sides as clearly established as that of Abraham Lincoln. It takes, indeed, a most amazing credulity for any one to believe the stories I have alluded to after having looked at the records of his family. Lincoln himself, backed by the record in the Lincoln family Bible, is the first authority for the time and place of his birth, as well as the names of his father and mother. The father, Thomas Lincoln, far from being a "poor white," was the son of a prosperous Kentucky pioneer, a man of honorable and well-established lineage who had come from Virginia as a friend of Daniel Boone, and had there bought large tracts of land and begun to grow up with the country, where he was killed by the Indians. He left a large family. By the law of Kentucky the estate went mainly to the oldest son, and the youngest, Thomas Lincoln, was left to shift for himself. This youngest son grew to manhood, and on June 10, 1806, was married, at Beechland, Ky., to a young woman of a family well known in the vicinity, Nancy Hanks. There is no doubt whatever about the time and the place of their marriage. All the legal documents required in Kentucky at that period for a marriage are in existence. Not only have we the bond and the certificate, but the marriage is duly entered in a list of marriage returns made by Jesse Head, one of the best-known early Methodist ministers of Kentucky. It is now to be seen in the records of Washington County, Kentucky. There is even in existence a very full and amusing account of the wedding and the infare which followed, by a guest who was present, and who for years after was accustomed to visit Thomas and Nancy. This guest, Christopher Columbus Graham, a unique and perfectly trustworthy man, a prominent citizen of Louisville, died only a few years ago.

But while these documents dispose effectually of the question of the parentage of Lincoln, they do not, of course, clear up the shadow which hangs over the parentage of his mother. Is there anything to show that Nancy Hanks herself was of as clear and clean lineage as her husband? There had been nothing whatever until, a few years ago, through the efforts of Mrs. Caroline Hanks Hitchcock of Cambridge, Mass., who had in preparation the genealogy of the Hanks family in America, a little volume was published, showing what she had established in regard to Nancy Hanks. Mrs. Hitchcock had begun at the far end of the line—the arrival of one Benjamin Hanks in Massachusetts in 1699. She discovered that one of his sons, William, moved to Virginia, and that in the latter part of the eighteenth century his children formed in Amelia County of that State a large settlement. All the records of these families she found in the Hall of Records in Richmond. When the migration into Kentucky began, late in the century, it was joined by many members of the Hanks settlement in Amelia County. Among others to go was Joseph Hanks with his wife, Nancy Shipley Hanks, and their children. Mrs. Hitchcock traced this Joseph Hanks, by means of land records, to Nelson County, Kentucky, where she found that he died in 1793, leaving behind a will, which she discovered in the records of Bardstown, Ky. This will shows that at the time of his death Joseph Hanks had eight living children, to whom he bequeathed property. The youngest of these was "My daughter Nancy," as the will puts it.

Mrs. Hitchcock's first query, on reading this will, was: "Can it be that this little girl—she was but nine years old when her father died—is the Nancy Hanks who sixteen years later became the mother of Abraham Lincoln?" She determined to find out. She learned from relations and friends of the family of Joseph Hanks still living that, soon after her father's death, Nancy went to live with an uncle, Richard Berry, who, the records showed, had come from Virginia to Kentucky at the same time that Joseph Hanks came. A little further research, and Mrs. Hitchcock found that there had been brought to light through the efforts of friends of Abraham Lincoln all the documents to show that in 1806 Nancy Hanks and Thomas Lincoln were married at Beechland, Ky. Now, one of these documents was a marriage bond. It was signed by Richard Berry, the uncle of the little girl recognized in the will of Joseph Hanks. Here, then, was the chain complete. The marriage bond and marriage returns not only showed that Nancy Hanks and Thomas Lincoln were married regularly three years before the birth of Abraham Lincoln, thus forever settling any question as to the parentage of Lincoln, but they showed that this Nancy Hanks was the one named in the will. The suspicion in regard to the origin of Lincoln's mother was removed by this discovery of the will, for the recognition of any one as his child by a man in his will is considered by the law as sufficient proof of paternity.

Now what sort of people were Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks? It has been inferred by those who have made no investigation of Thomas Lincoln's life that Nancy Hanks made a very poor choice of a husband. The facts do not entirely warrant this theory. Thomas Lincoln had been forced from his boyhood to shift for himself in a young and undeveloped country. He is known to have been a man who in spite of this wandering life contracted no bad habits. He was temperate and honest, and his name is recorded in more than one place in the records of Kentucky. He was a church-goer, and, if tradition may be believed, a stout defender of his peculiar religious views. He held advanced ideas of what was already an important public question in Kentucky, the right to hold negroes as slaves. One of his old friends has said of him and his wife, Nancy Hanks, that they were "just steeped full of notions about the wrongs of slavery and the rights of men, as explained by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine" These facts show that he must have been a man of some natural intelligence. He had a trade and owned a farm.

As for Nancy Hanks, less that is definite is known of her. In nature, in education, and in ambition she was, if tradition is to be believed, far above her husband. She was famous for her spinning and her household accomplishments, it is said.

It was to these two people, then, that Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. His birthplace was a farm Thomas Lincoln owned, and near Elizabeth, Ky. The home into which the little chap came was the ordinary one of the poorer Western pioneer—a one-roomed cabin with a huge outside chimney. Although in many ways it was no doubt uncomfortable, there is no reason to believe it was an unhappy or a squalid one. The log house, with its great fireplace and heavy walls, is not such a bad place to live in—some of us are thankful to get away into the country to one now and then even in winter. Its furniture was simple, and no doubt much of it homemade. The very utensils were of home manufacture. The feathers in the beds were plucked from the geese Nancy Lincoln raised. She patched her own quilts, spun her own linsey-woolsey. No doubt Thomas Lincoln made Abraham's cradle and Nancy Lincoln spun the cloth for his first garments. They raised their own corn, dried their own fruit, hunted their own game, raised their own pork and beef. It was the hard life of the pioneer where every man provides for his own needs. It had discomforts, but it had, too, that splendid independence and resourcefulness which comes only from being sufficient to your own needs.

That the two people who endured its hardships and made in spite of them a home where a boy could conceive and nourish such ideals and enthusiasms as inspired Abraham Lincoln from his early years should have their names darkened by unfounded suspicions is a cruel injustice against which every honest and patriotic American ought to set his face.