The Life of Abraham Lincoln
By Henry Ketcham
Public Domain Books
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
16th President of the United States
Chapter II. The Lincoln Family
When one becomes interested in a boy, one is almost certain to ask, Whose son is he? And when we study the character of a great man, it is natural and right that we should be interested in his family. Where did he come from? who were his parents? where did they come from? These questions will engage our attention in this chapter.
But it is well to be on our guard at the outset against the fascinations of any theory of heredity. Every thoughtful observer knows something of the seductions of this subject either from experience or from observation. In every subject of research there is danger of claiming too much in order to magnify the theory. This is emphatically true of this theory. Its devotees note the hits but not the misses. “It took five generations of cultured clergymen to produce an Emerson." Undoubtedly; but what of the sixth and seventh generations? “Darwin’s greatness came from his father and grandfather.” Very true; but are there no more Darwins?
If Abraham Lincoln got his remarkable character from parents or grandparents, from whom did he get his physical stature? His father was a little above medium height, being five feet ten and one-half inches. His mother was a little less than medium height, being five feet five inches. Their son was a giant, being no less than six feet four inches. It is not safe to account too closely for his physical, mental, or moral greatness by his descent. The fact is that there are too many unexplored remainders in the factors of heredity to make it possible to apply the laws definitely.
The writer will therefore give a brief account of the Lincoln family simply as a matter of interest, and not as a means of proving or explaining any natural law.
The future president was descended from people of the middle class. There was nothing either in his family or his surroundings to attract the attention even of the closest observer, or to indicate any material difference between him and scores of other boys in the same general locality.
Lincoln is an old English name, and in 1638 a family of the name settled in Hingham, Mass., near Boston. Many years later we find the ancestors of the president living in Berks County, Pa. It is possible that this family came direct from England; but it is probable that they came from Hingham. Both in Hingham and in Berks County there is a frequent recurrence of certain scriptural names, such as Abraham, Mordecai, and Thomas, which seems to be more than a coincidence.
From Berks County certain of the family, who, by the way, were Quakers, moved to Rockingham County, Va. In 1769 Daniel Boone, the adventurous pioneer, opened up what is now the state of Kentucky, but was then a part of Virginia.
About twelve years later, in 1781, Abraham Lincoln, great-grandfather of the president, emigrated from Virginia into Kentucky. People have asked, in a puzzled manner, why did he leave the beautiful Shenandoah valley? One answer may be given: The Ohio valley also is beautiful. During the major portion of the year, from the budding of the leaves in April until they pass away in the blaze of their autumn glory, the entire region is simply bewitching. No hills curve more gracefully, no atmosphere is more soft, no watercourses are more enticing. Into this region came the Virginian family, consisting, besides the parents, of three sons and two daughters.
A year or two later the head of the family was murdered by a skulking Indian, who proceeded to kidnap the youngest son, Thomas. The oldest son, Mordecai, quickly obtained a gun and killed the Indian, thus avenging his father and rescuing his little brother.
This boy Thomas was father of the president. He has been called by some writers shiftless and densely ignorant. But he seems to have been more a creature of circumstances. There were no schools, and he, consequently, did not go to school. There was no steady employment, and consequently he had no steady employment. It is difficult to see how he could have done better. He could shoot and keep the family supplied with wild game. He did odd jobs as opportunity opened and “just growed.”
But he had force enough to learn to read and write after his marriage. He had the roving disposition which is, and always has been, a trait of pioneers. But this must be interpreted by the fact that he was optimistic rather than pessimistic. He removed to Indiana because, to him, Indiana was the most glorious place in the whole world. He later removed to Illinois because that was more glorious yet.
He certainly showed good taste in the selection of his wives, and what is equally to the purpose, was able to persuade them to share his humble lot. He had an unfailing stock of good nature, was expert in telling a humorous story, was perfectly at home in the woods, a fair carpenter and a good farmer; and in short was as agreeable a companion as one would find in a day’s journey. He would not have been at home in a library, but he was at home in the forest.
In 1806 he married Nancy Hanks, a young woman from Virginia, who became the mother of the president. Doubtless there are many women among the obscure who are as true and loyal as she was, but whose life is not brought into publicity. Still, without either comparing or contrasting her with others, we may attest our admiration of this one as a “woman nobly planned.” In the midst of her household cares, which were neither few nor light, she had the courage to undertake to teach her husband to read and write. She also gave her children a start in learning. Of her the president, nearly half a century after her death, said to Seward, with tears,–"All that I am or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother– blessings on her memory.”
Mr. Lincoln himself never manifested much interest in his genealogy. At one time he did give out a brief statement concerning his ancestors because it seemed to be demanded by the exegencies of the campaign. But at another time, when questioned by Mr. J. L. Scripps, editor of the Chicago Tribune, he answered: “Why, Scripps, it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of me or my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy:
’The short and simple annals of the poor.’
That’s my life, and that’s all you or any one else can make out of it.”
In all this he was neither proud nor depreciative of his people. He was simply modest. Nor did he ever outgrow his sympathy with the common people.