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Some Reflections on Mr. Lincoln for the Second Meeting of the Lincoln Seminar at Gettysburg College,
January 26, 1995

Lewis E. Lehrman, Visiting Lecturer

It has been said that more has been written of Mr. Lincoln than anyone but Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, if the purpose of biography is to tell the tale of the whole man, then surely there exists enough scholarship from which to extrude the pure Mr. Lincoln from the dense alloy of myth and prejudice out of which, in part, his memory has been fabricated.

I shall not dwell here on the history of the biographical permutations of Mr. Lincoln's life -- from his own laconic and brief autobiographical efforts, through the hagiography and demonology of the post-Civil War period, thence to the revisionist scholarship of the first half of our century; and, finally, to the wide-open appreciation of the man developed in the scholarship of our own generation. Instead, I shall here try to distill from all I have read of Mr. Lincoln, from the original sources themselves, as well as the secondary narratives, the quintessential young man. And it must be emphasized that in Mr. Lincoln's case, before his early twenties, there is little documentary evidence from his own hand. Therefore, I shall not deny that my idea of young Abraham, grounded as it is in the little we know of his first 25 years, originates to some extent in my own imagination, just as I acknowledge that all reality, in part, originates in the ego of the observer; but I shall also insist that I can define an objective Lincoln, the one of flesh and blood, just as I would argue that reason and study enable different scientists, on the basis of available evidence, to agree substantially upon what they have observed.

Muscular and big boy though he became in the frontier territory of Kentucky and Indiana, I believe that Abraham Lincoln actually grew to manhood dwelling much within the territory of his own mind. Very early he seems to have sensed his separateness from others, even from his pious and uneducated mother. Nothing else could so simply account for the near-utter omission of Nancy Lincoln from his written and recorded recollections. Perhaps as early, his painful feeling of a profound difference from his father contended with his natural filial affection. In no other way can one so easily explain the near-contemptuous references to Thomas Lincoln in the written comments we have from Mr. Lincoln's maturity. After plumbing the early period of his life one is perplexed that one can never know exactly why this precocious boy was severed from the root of his family. But we may grope toward an answer based on some historical knowledge of the actual circumstances of his boyhood. Part of the truth is, I think, young Abraham became more attached to his adoring and older sister, Sarah, who seems to have had more time for him than his preoccupied frontier parents. She seems to have embraced his unorthodox ways without reservation. Probably, she was not so distracted by the inexorable maternal toil of their mother, Nancy; nor was Sarah so intimidating as his barrel-chested, garrulous, and coarse father, Thomas. Abraham would not have been the first second-child, a male, to seek the succor and shelter of the first-born, a strong and independent female.

Perhaps the abrupt death and stark burial of baby Thomas, his little brother, gave him, even at age two, that early sense of death and alienation which so few young Americans of our own time experience -- insulated as we are from the harshness of nature by the modern triumph over the high death-rate among babies characteristic of the early 19th Century. Then, too, one cannot ignore the unmitigated severity of back-country life of the early 1800s in western Kentucky. It is true that Thomas Lincoln, farmer and carpenter, provided the necessary means for his growing family, but it was little more than frontier subsistence at the very edge of civilized settlement. And while it must be said that the Thomas Lincoln family was not alone on the periphery of American life, it is even more important to emphasize that only a very small fraction of Americans, even of that day, created their homesteads out of virgin forest, dealt with the threat of Indian hostilities, and endured the austerity of self-sufficiency required by farming adventures on the far borders of western civilization.

In a word, to be born and raised close to poverty on the American frontier in the early 19th century marked a decisive difference in these men and women from their more secure cousins on the Atlantic coast. But, still, one understands that each child of the frontier, depending upon his or her nature and temperament, did respond personally to the unremitting toil and trouble of farming virgin soil. And, of young Lincoln we do have anecdotal evidence that, in his early years, he was markedly different from most frontier boys. He was contemplative, clever, and unconventional. With slight exaggeration one might say he was a boy of ideas at adolescence, encouraged in his thoughts both by his sister and a few months of schooling, as well as by some sympathetic neighbors and itinerant teachers. His inquiring mental characteristics set him slightly apart from family and village, and his physical characteristics -- especially his towering height -- marked him off distinctly, so much so that one may believe that his precocious intellect and awkward size reinforced Abraham's sense of apartness in those primitive communities of western Kentucky and southern Indiana.

But birthmarks of nature were not all of what separated him from his ancestral hearth and the plain people of his boyhood. His earliest experiences of farming with his father seem to have left him empty, forlorn, even desolate. This was so not because Thomas Lincoln was a harsh father, but because young Lincoln learned first-hand doing that the great labor of sowing and reaping was utterly contingent on the harsh, irresistible, and unpredictable forces of climate and nature. His first boyhood crop, seeded along side his father, was inundated by the overpowering flash floods characteristic of the ravines and valleys that surrounded the Lincoln farm on Knob Creek. Even the accomplished skill of the carpenter, his father's professional trade, left him uninspired, so much so that the boy never went far beyond his ancient Anglo-Saxon forbears as a woodsmith, becoming not more than a very accomplished ax man, a mere hewer of wood, surely a lesser calling than that of his carpenter father, who, it seems, was a craftsman much esteemed by the Indiana pioneer community on Little Pigeon Creek.

Do we surmise too much to see in the boy's vocational recalcitrance an adolescent intuition that farming and carpentry required immense amounts of semi-skilled labor, only compensated in that day by meager and unpredictable rewards in a local market? Perhaps he already saw in his teachers, in the itinerant preachers, and in the educated "better sort" who came through town, that specialized laborers of the mind sought much different avenues of fulfillment, even exalted intellectual adventures, both more interesting to him, and perhaps more profitable -- leading especially to the desired esteem of a community.

We also know that Thomas Lincoln grudgingly conceded his stand-offish son the freedom to pursue his intellectual inquiries in the available books of the neighborhood and in aimless speechmaking imitations of local divines and other notables. While father and son did collaborate at the Pigeon Creek homestead, in the necessary labor of timbering and farming, one senses from eyewitness reports that much of this teamwork was grounded in law and custom -- in the irrevocable and unquestioned legal obligations required in that day of an able son, bound over to his father by a patriarchal pre-Victorian social order.

Despite the sustained attempt of Thomas Lincoln to maintain a traditional family for his children, there might still have been that inescapable sense of rootlessness in Abraham, born in Kentucky as he was on an obscure farm at Sinking Spring on Nolin Creek, moved at two years of age into a log cabin on Knob Creek, and again at seven into a lean-to within the uncleared wilderness across the Ohio River in Spencer County, on Little Pigeon Creek in southern Indiana. While the life of a nomadic young boy is often grounded in a tight circle of friends, particularly in the absence of a large and supportive family, in this case the boy, Abraham, to some extent stood aside from the other children of his different neighborhoods. Not only was he a head taller, but he was awkward and reticent, unappealing perhaps to the girls because of these characteristics. While not without many acquaintances, neighbors later suggested that Abraham was separated by size, temperament, even early intellectual preferences from the more conventional, even crude, pastimes of his early boyhood homes.

We know that the Lincoln family moves from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois entailed hard, relentless, and often unrewarded manual work, especially during the vicious winters on the new frontier -- fierce and unforgettable experiences. But that was the easiest part. For, after a rough two years on Little Pigeon Creek, his mother, emaciated and exhausted by the poison of the terrible milkweed, died in Abraham's ninth year, before his eyes. But there remained sister Sarah, who cared for him, embraced his interests, mothered him in that way that gives a child confidence in his own ideas and ambitions -- even if these same ambitions set him apart from his father. Then Sarah married, got with child, and died giving birth. Now in his eighteenth year Sarah, too, was gone -- irrevocably. It seems he mourned her, as we do not know that he mourned his mother or his father.

But there was more than one Sarah, or Sally -- Sally Bush Johnston Lincoln -- the second wife of his father, a stepmother brought by Thomas in a covered wagon to the boy on Pigeon Creek in his eleventh year. She had renovated the Lincoln cabin, taught the boy his few manners, encouraged his intellectual curiosity, managed the primitive household with great success. He never forgot the maternal care of his step-mother, nor her support of his different and bookish ways. But her influence was not enough to stem Abraham's migration from the bosom of the family. It was too late to reground him in the mundane life of his father's farm. For the essential character of the young man had been set -- even perhaps by genetic endowment. He was unemotional, independent, and cerebral -- not especially in need of the customary warmth and conventional security of the home village and close friends.

As he approached the age of legal emancipation, his already fertile imagination had taken him off to new worlds. But bringing him back to earth was the indentured labor he still owed his father, and to others to whom he was hired out by his father -- to commercial ventures down the Mississippi River on flatboats to New Orleans, experiences which led him ever farther from the parochial world of Butternut culture in the Ohio river valley.

The boy had grown to manhood, I think, not primarily in any of his physical neighborhoods but struggling with the inward terrain of his own fertile mind. In young Lincoln's imagination, experience had early on joined itself with literature, for he had read deeply if not widely over the years -- in the King James Bible, Aesop's Fables, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrims Progress, Weems' Life of Washington, the Laws and Statutes of Indiana. From early days, the life of the mind was the domain Abraham Lincoln cared about -- and he cultivated it with the same care with which his father, the carpenter, had crafted a cupboard. In the untrammeled interior of the mind's eye, young Lincoln followed his unrestrained desire to explore new intellectual worlds, even the world of American history, of politics, of law. There in the frictionless world of thought and fantasy young Abraham Lincoln found the freedom, the vocation, the solace he yearned for, unshackled from the irremediable, unrequited, hard labor of farmer and village artisan. There, too, deep in the far reaches of his dreams he could imagine a future where his study, his learning, his ambition might yield the abundant fruit of more specialized labor of the mind -- a spiritual value far beyond the ken of his humble paternity. There, alone, he might even contemplate pure, abstract, even geometric principle, unrestrained by intractable reality. In this evanescent place, private and unbounded, he could conceive of friends who would share his preferences, and there imagine an extended family which would encourage and appreciate his intellectual curiosity and worldly ambition.

Indeed, I finally indulge myself in a conceit of the historical imagination -- that I can actually see young Mr. Lincoln, legally emancipated at twenty-one, following along the rivers of the old Northwest towards his goal, circuitously but purposefully staking his own American dream, somehow headed by fate in the direction of his community of destiny. Let us call this place Springfield, Illinois, one which he could hope might celebrate his independence, reward him in his calling, validate his right to rise and, as he could never have foreseen, ultimately enable him to help all Americans, black and white, to throw off their burdens and rise with him.

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