Abraham Lincoln Has Something Shocking to Tell You This Mother’s Day

Abraham Lincoln Has Something Shocking to Tell You This Mother's Day

God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.” So said Abraham Lincoln of his beloved mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, whom he lost to milk sickness—she drank milk from a cow who’d grazed on white snakeroot, it’s poisonous—when she was 34 and her son age nine, old enough to help his father plane pine boards and carve wooden pegs to make the coffin they buried her in. She died two weeks after drinking the blighted milk, as did several others in their village of Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana. It was October 5, 1818. Dennis Hanks, Nancy’s cousin, paints the death scene: Nancy called Abraham and his sister Sarah to her bedside and asked them “to be good and kind to their father, to each other, and to the world.”

I love to read about Lincoln, his genius, his flaws—right now I’m absorbed in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s marvelous Team of Rivals—and my husband is a civil war buff, but we’re not reenactor types starving ourselves to look like hungry Confederate troops dressed in uniforms dyed with butternut squash, since they’d run out of grey dye by the end of the war. (Cool fact, no?) Please not to worry, please to read on.

Anyway, if you’re already interested in Lincoln, you’ve probably come across this “all that I am or ever hope to be” quotation. It justifiably adorns (with some variation in the wording) most of the books and compendiums on this greatest of men. How beautifully kind, I used to think each time I lit upon it. What a statement of indebtedness. How heartbreaking.

But in honor of Mother’s Day—for certainly motherhood is kind and indebted and heartbreaking, but also infinitely, raggedly complex to the mother and mothered—I want to dig a bit deeper here.

Because this quote isn’t what it seems.

To understand why, it’s probably best to start by explaining that much of what we know about Lincoln’s early life shakes out to us through William Herndon, his law partner and confidante in Springfield, Illinois. It was Herndon who told scholars a few years after the president died—Lincoln asked he wait to reveal it posthumously—that Nancy Hanks was an illegitimate child. Nancy’s birthfather, Lincoln told Herndon, was a “Virginia nabob” or “well-bred gentleman” who took advantage of “his poor credulous grandmother.”

To give you some context, realize that the phrase “well-bred gentleman” here packs a substantial punch. Lincoln’s biological grandfather was an educated man, presumably, a cultured man. A man vastly different from Lincoln’s own parents; Nancy and Thomas Lincoln, Lincoln’s father, could barely write. Nancy could read fairly well—just listen to the Gettysburg Address to see how Abraham Lincoln absorbed the Biblical cadences from the passages she continually recited to her children.

But Thomas Lincoln could only read rudimentarily and saw less worth in his son’s love of books; he was known to strike him to get him to stop reading and get back to his chores. Nancy and Thomas came from decidedly humble stock. (There is no known photo of her, the painting above is a composite attempt.) In other words, they were anything but a gentleman and gentlewoman.

Here’s how Herndon describes Nancy Hanks, a bit patronizingly if you ask me. And of course, he’d never met her, so keep that in mind. Consider his description as Lincoln’s own, with Herndon’s prejudices interwoven:

“Nancy Hanks Lincoln was a woman of a very fine mind, an excellent heart, quick in sympathy, a natural lady, a good neighbor, a firm friend; good cheer and hilarity generally accompanied her, and had she been raised at all, she must have flourished anywhere, but as it was, she was rude, tough, breaking and having difficulty through all forms, conditions, customs, habits, etiquette of society. She could not be held to forms and methods of things, and yet she was a fine woman naturally. It is quite probable that a knowledge of her origin made her defiant and desperate; she was very sensitive, sad, sometimes gloomy; who will tell me the amount and influence of her feelings, in this matter, caused by the consciousness of her origin? Let the world forgive her and bless her, is my constant prayer.”

Abraham Lincoln often tried to puzzle out where his own intelligence, ambition, and talent sprang from. He was so different from his parents; why? Over time, it seems he narrowed down the source to his mother’s early devotion to him—and how she encouraged his learning in spite of her own lack—but even more to these alleged noble bloodlines of her father. Her unknown, un-named father. This break in his family tree pained Lincoln and tantalized him. “I can’t bear to think that I don’t know who my grandfather was,” he reportedly told his stepnephew John J. Hall.

In other words, that “all that I am or ever hope to be” part of Lincoln’s touching quote? Not so touching. Rather, it is mostly this: a genealogical gratitude. Hey, thanks for the genes.

What the? It’s hard, as a mother, not to feel deflated here. To put it in modern parenting-speak, Lincoln feels most beholden to his mother for her nature, less her nurture. And that nature (thank you, patriarchal system!) comes from this mystery man. As if his mother was a mere conduit. (See David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, page 23, for confirmation.)

By the way, that mystery man created a minor industry of speculation after Herndon’s revelation of Nancy Hanks’s illegitimacy surfaced. Many tried to track down who this father was. Various names were offered up. The Planter-Grandfather Legend, it was called. The most amazing story came to focus on John C. Calhoun as most likely to be Lincoln’s grandfather. This would’ve been a shocker, the ultimate tabloid story of its day. Remember who Calhoun was? Only one of the South’s greatest proponents of slavery and states’ rights of all time, a U.S. Senator from South Carolina, on a par with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, and our nation’s seventh vice president.

Abraham Lincoln Has Something Shocking to Tell You This Mother's Day

A great man, in other words, certainly a well-bred gentleman—but utterly on the opposite side of Lincoln politically. (That’s him above, glowering.) I thought this was rather a crackpot theory. Until I came across the fact that Nancy Hanks’ mother was a barmaid at a tavern that Calhoun frequented in his early days as a lawyer. You want to go down the rabbit hole of speculation? Be my guest and click here.

But let’s leave aside the grandfather issue for a moment. For if you read even harder between the lines of Lincoln’s homage-to-his-mother quotation, you may just deflate altogether. For let us zero in on the “ALL that I ever am.” This is an insult, conscious or unconscious, to Lincoln’s father. Think about it; how would you, as a father, like to read your son say “All that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her”? Um, all? Didn’t I have anything to do with it? Easy and I suppose obvious to take the oedipal route here. Lincoln rejected his father in favor of his mother. Rejected his alive and troublesome father for his sainted and perfect-in-memory dead mother. Rejected the Lincoln heritage, in favor of the Hanks alleged strain of aristocratic DNA.

Lincoln was not close to his father; he considered him crude, lacking in ambition. According to the eminent Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald, in all of Lincoln’s writings and speech, “he had not one favorable word to say about his father.” Much has been made of the fact that Lincoln didn’t attend his father’s funeral. He did go to Thomas’s sickbed the winter before, and Thomas did die just when Abraham’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln had given birth to their third son, Willie. So maybe that was a legitimate excuse. Or maybe not.

Abraham Lincoln Has Something Shocking to Tell You This Mother's Day

It must be said that Lincoln did name his fourth son Thomas (thenceforth called Tad, pictured with Lincoln at the bottom of this post), presumably in honor of Thomas Lincoln. It took him four sons to get there, but he got there. By the way, Abraham is named for Thomas’s father Abraham, who was killed by Indians in Kentucky in 1786 and basically broke up Thomas’s family. Thomas had great hardship in his own childhood. (That’s him above in the side-by-side photo, next to his second wife, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln.)

You’d think Abraham might have had more sympathy for his father, or honored some of the values he handed down. Thomas Lincoln was an ardent anti-slavery man, a great teller of stories, both qualities that elevated his son. The lack of empathy is even more curious when you consider the man who “now belongs to the ages,” as Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said at the president’s deathbed. See how Doris Kearns Goodwin writes of the Great Emancipator who so empathized with an entire race he set them free. “He possessed extraordinary empathy—the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires… Lincoln’s remarkable empathy was inevitably a source of pain. His sensibilities were not only acute, they were raw.”

But that empathy seemed to short out with his father. Is that so unusual? Well, hardly; how much slack do you cut your own parents? As opposed to your sympathies for those less close to you, with less history entangled with your own…

So. Is the “all that I ever am or hope to be” quote utterly tainted? Utterly lacking in true feeling for his mother as a person unto herself? You know, I don’t think so. But (you’re used to this by now, thanks for staying with me!) you have to dig deeper yet again to come out the other side. One has to wonder if Lincoln was latching on to what Freud called “Family Romance,” the idealizing of one’s “real” origins, rather than the unfortunate or banal circumstances of one’s actual existence. The particulars of Lincoln’s story don’t fit the Family Romance parameters exactly: he’s focused on a grandfather, rather than the father. But I think there’s something here. I’ll quote from the International Dictionary of Pscychoanalysis:

“The family romance is a conscious fantasy, later repressed, in which a child imagines that their birth parents are not actual but adoptive parents, or that their birth was the outcome of maternal infidelity. Typically, the fantasy parents are of noble lineage, or at least of a higher social class than the real parents…The family romance fantasy has several possible aims and sources: revenge against frustrating parents; rivalry with the parent of the same sex…”

Here, I can only feel sympathy for Abraham Lincoln engaging in some “family romance.” He was grief stricken, he was traumatized. The boy lost his mother at age 9—his mother whom he would later refer to as his “angel mother,” not because she was an angel in temperament so much as an angel because she was not of this earth. This, because he got a new mother, a stepmother shortly thereafter. The “angel” was his way of distinguishing the two, for he would call his stepmother (Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln) Mother for the rest of his life.

A little bit more Lincoln family history, just to clarify and broaden: not long after Nancy Hanks died, Thomas went back to Kentucky to procure a new wife and mother for his children, as was the custom in those hard pioneer days. Sarah Bush Johnston, an old acquaintance of his, had not only been recently widowed, but her husband Daniel Johnston had left her with three children of her own and a load of debt. A mutual aid package was presumably put forth. Thomas proposed marriage to Sarah, whom everyone called Sally, and offered to pay off her debts if she’d come back and live with him, Abraham, and his daughter Sarah, in Indiana.

A friend of mine, one who enjoys botany, once said that some children are like a tropism. The word comes from the Greek “to turn” and simply means that a biological organism is wired to turn to the source of stimulus, and thus survival. My favorite tropism is heliotropism, how sunflowers turn their shaggy heads to the sun as it arcs through the sky toward evening.

Abraham Lincoln had the gift of, oh call it emotional heliotropism. He turned to any source of light and warmth he could find. His angel mother, of course. And his much beloved older sister Sarah—who at the age of 12 cared for and protected him alone in their cabin for many months when Thomas left to bring Sally from Kentucky back to Indiana. And even before that, Sarah behaved “as a little mother” to him, as you’ll see from this quotation from the schoolmaster’s daughter from the Kentucky one-room schoolhouse the Lincoln children attended in 1815-1816:

“I remember his big sister bringing him to school the first day. Oh, she was fond of him, she also attended school there; and all day long, whether at lessons or at play, her careful eye was constantly watching him. She was a regular little mother to him. I have seen her on rainy days, or when the roads were muddy, carrying him in her arms to and from the school house. At playtime she would always insist that he play with her and the girls, telling him to keep away from the big boys, as they were likely to hurt him in their rough play.”

Just as Lincoln lost his mother too soon, so he would lose his sister. Sarah Lincoln Grigsby (as was her married name) would die in childbirth at age 19. In Goodwin’s book, she quotes a neighbor who was there when Lincoln got this news: “He sat down on a log and hid his face in his hands while the tears rolled down through his long bony fingers. Those present turned away in pity and left him to his grief.”

So many tragedies. Still, Lincoln had Sally, who came into his life when he was 10—bringing along books to the household such as Robinson Crusoe, which awed him—and by all accounts loved and encouraged Abraham and Sarah as much as her own three children. He was devoted to Sally, and visited her off and on the rest of his life. She would in fact outlive him. David Herbert Donald calls her “one of the most powerful influences in his life.” She herself said Abraham was “a Boy of uncommon natural Talents.” She added that “His mind & mine—what little I had seemed to run together—moved in the same channel.”

Apparently this “same channel” included much humor and practical jokes. There’s a famous story of Sally teasing Lincoln—who at age 18 already stood 6’4″—that he was so tall now he’d soon leave footprints on the ceiling. (Highlights magazine even got mileage out of this story. See the cornball illustration below.) One day, when Sally was out, Lincoln corralled a bunch of younger boys and had them dip their feet in mud outside the house. Then he picked up each boy, one by one, held him upside down, and had each “walk” across the kitchen ceiling, tracking muddy footprints. When Sally Lincoln spied the muddy footprints there above, Lincoln recalled, she “took a broom to my head, but I could tell she was very amused by it.”

Abraham Lincoln Has Something Shocking to Tell You This Mother's Day

As this Sunday, May 9, 2010 nears, let us think about the footprints we leave behind, and read “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her” and come to our own conclusions. Our own ever-thorny, complex conclusions as mothers and daughters, as fathers and sons. I supposed the point is to ever re-realize that our children won’t get “all that they are or ever hope to be” from us. That they become who they are in part from their parents, but only in part. That they must turn to the light where they find it. And that the greatest man our country has ever produced had, really, three mothers, who helped make him what he was. To the memory of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Sarah Lincoln Grigsby, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, and to all the mothers and children out there, now, before, and beyond: Happy Mother’s Day.

Abraham Lincoln Has Something Shocking to Tell You This Mother's Day

Nancy Hanks photo from barstory@blogspot.com

Thomas Lincoln and Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln photos from artintheage.com

John C. Calhoun photo from wpcontent.com

Muddy footprints photo from highlightskids.com


Katharine Whittemore was the features editor at Wondertime magazine, the parenting magazine that didn’t read like a parenting magazine. It won two National Magazine Award nominations in its first two ...read more

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