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David Herbert Donald

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David Herbert Donald

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A masterful work by Pulitzer Prize–winning author David Herbert Donald, Lincoln is a stunning portrait of Abraham Lincoln's life and presidency. Donald brilliantly depicts Lincoln's gradual ascent from humble beginnings in rural Kentucky to the ever-expanding political circles in Illinois, and finally to the presidency of a country divided by civil war. Donald goes beyond biography, illuminating the gradual development of Lincoln's character, chronicling his tremendous capacity for evolution and growth, thus illustrating what made it possible for a man so inexperienced and so unprepared for the presidency to become a great moral leader. In the most troubled of times, here was a man who led the country out of slavery and preserved a shattered Union—in short, one of the greatest presidents this country has ever seen.

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Annals of the Poor
Abraham Lincoln was not interested in his ancestry. In his mind he was a self-made man, who had no need to care about his family tree. In 1859, when friends asked him for autobiographical information to help promote his chances for a presidential nomination, he offered only the barest outline of his family history: “My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families—second families, perhaps I should say.” The next year, when John Locke Scripps of the Chicago Tribune proposed to write his campaign biography, Lincoln told him: “Why Scripps,... it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of 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 of it.”


Lincoln knew almost nothing about his mother’s family, the Hankses, who moved from Virginia to Kentucky about 1780. They were a prolific tribe, for the most part illiterate but respectable farmers of modest means. Their family tree is hard to trace because for generation after generation they tended to name all the males James or John, and the females Polly, Lucy, or Nancy. Abraham Lincoln’s mother was one of at least eight Nancy Hankses born during the 1780s. Abraham Lincoln believed that his mother was illegitimate. It was a subject that he rarely discussed, but in the early 1850s, while driving his one-horse buggy from Springfield over to Petersburg, Illinois, he found himself talking about it. He and his law partner, William H. Herndon, were about to try a case in Menard County Court that involved a question of hereditary traits, and Lincoln observed that illegitimate children were “oftentimes sturdier and brighter than those born in lawful wedlock.” To prove his point he mentioned his mother, who he said was “the illegitimate daughter of Lucy Hanks and a well-bred Virginia farmer or planter.” From “this broad-minded, unknown Virginian” Lincoln believed he inherited the traits that distinguished him from the other members of his family: ambition, mental alertness, and the power of analysis.
Lincoln may well have been correct in reporting that his mother was born out of wedlock. A grand jury in Mercer County, Kentucky, presented a charge of fornication against his grandmother Lucy (or “Lucey,” as it is spelled in the old records), and there were several recorded instances of bastardy among Hanks women of her generation. Since no wedding certificate was ever found for Lucy, there was room for endless speculation about Lincoln’s maternal grandsire.
But Lincoln’s remarks—if Herndon accurately reported them after a lapse of many years—were not based on any research into his Hanks ancestry. Instead they reflected his sense that he was different from the people with whom he grew up. Like other gifted young men, he wondered how he could be the offspring of his ordinary and limited parents. Some in Lincoln’s generation fancied themselves the sons of the dauphin, who allegedly fled to America during the French Revolution. Lincoln imagined a noble Virginia ancestor.
Of his Lincoln ancestors he knew only a little more than he did about the Hankses. From his father he learned that his grandfather Abraham, for whom he was named, had moved from Virginia to Kentucky in the early 1780s. There was a vague family tradition that earlier Lincolns had lived in Pennsylvania, where they had been Quakers, but, as he recorded, the family had long since “fallen away from the peculiar habits of that people.” Apart from that, William Dean Howells reported in his 1860 campaign biography, there was only “incertitude, and absolute darkness” about Abraham Lincoln’s forebears.
Further research would have showed that the Lincolns did come from Virginia and that an earlier generation had indeed belonged to the Society of Friends in Pennsylvania. In turn, these could be traced to the original Samuel Lincoln, who emigrated from the County of Norfolk, England, and settled in Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1637. A weaver in England, Samuel became a prosperous trader and businessman in America, where he was a pillar of the church and begat eleven children who bore names like Daniel, Thomas, Mordecai, and Sarah, which became traditional in the family. Samuel’s grandson Mordecai (1686–1736) was perhaps the most successful member of the family. An ironmaster and wealthy landowner in Pennsylvania, he was a member of the eighteenth-century economic and social elite; he married Hannah Slater, who was at once the daughter, the niece, and the granddaughter of members of the New Jersey assembly and the niece of the acting royal governor of that colony. It was their son, John Lincoln (1716–1788), who moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where he established himself on a large farm in fertile Rockingham County. John was so successful that he could afford to give his son, Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, 210 acres of the best soil in Virginia. In sum, Abraham Lincoln, instead of being the unique blossom on an otherwise barren family tree, belonged to the seventh American generation of a family with competent means, a reputation for integrity, and a modest record of public service.


A closer study of the historical records would also have given Abraham Lincoln a different, and probably a kindlier, view of his father, Thomas. It was Thomas’s father, the senior Abraham Lincoln, who sold his farm in Virginia and led his wife and five children over the mountains to seek their fortune. They had heard much of the rich lands in Kentucky from their distant relative, Daniel Boone, and they found in that vast, largely unsettled territory, which was still part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, all the opportunities Boone had promised. Within a few years the Lincolns owned at least 5,544 acres of land in the richest sections of Kentucky.
But the wilderness was dangerous. In 1786, while Abraham Lincoln and his three boys, Mordecai, Josiah, and Thomas, were planting a cornfield on their new property, Indians attacked them. Abraham was killed instantly. Mordecai, at fifteen the oldest son, sent Josiah running to the settlement half a mile away for help while he raced to a nearby cabin. Peering out of a crack between logs, he saw an Indian sneaking out of the forest toward his eight-year-old brother, Thomas, who was still sitting in the field beside their father’s body. Mordecai picked up a rifle, aimed at a silver pendant on the Indian’s chest, and killed him before he could reach the boy. This story in later years Thomas Lincoln repeated over and over again, so that it became, as Abraham said, “the legend more strongly than all others imprinted upon my mind and memory.”
Both Thomas Lincoln and his son seem to have overlooked the economic consequences of the tragedy. According to Virginia law, which prevailed in the Kentucky region, the ancient rule of primogeniture was still in effect, and Mordecai Lincoln, the oldest son, inherited his father’s entire estate when he came of age. In due course he became a respected citizen of Washington County, Kentucky, a man of considerable property, who was interested in breeding horses. The only Lincoln relative whom Abraham Lincoln ever knew, Mordecai was a man of considerable wit and great natural gifts, and his nephew once remarked that “Uncle Mord had run off with all the talents of the family.” He had also, in effect, run off with all the money. Left without a patrimony, the other two Lincoln boys had to fend for themselves.
Thomas, the youngest, had a difficult time. The tragedy abruptly ended his prospects of being an heir of a well-to-do Kentucky planter; he had to earn his board and keep. Abraham Lincoln never fully understood how hard his father had to struggle during his early years. It required an immense effort for Thomas, who earned three shillings a day for manual labor or made a little more when he did carpentry or cabinetmaking, to accumulate enough money to buy his first farm, a 238-acre tract on Mill Creek, in Hardin County, Kentucky. He became a familiar figure in Elizabethtown and Hogdenville, a stocky, well-built man of no more than average height, with a shock of straight black hair and an unusually large nose. “He was an uneducated man, a plain unpretending plodding man,” a neighbor remembered; one who “attended to his work, peaceable—quiet and good natured.” “Honest” was the adjective most frequently used to describe Thomas Lincoln, and he was respected in his community, where he served in the militia and was called for jury duty. Never wealthy, Thomas owned a respectable amount of property, by 1814 ranking fifteenth (out of ninety-eight listed) in the county.
In 1806 he married Nancy Hanks, and they probably lived at Mill Creek, about five miles north of Elizabethtown, where their first child, Sarah, was born. By 1809, Thomas Lincoln had bought another farm, this time one of three hundred acres, on the south fork of Nolin Creek (not far from Hogdenville). It was called the Sinking Spring Farm, because it had a magnificent spring that bubbled from the bottom of a deep cave. Here, on a little knoll near the spring, he built a one-room log cabin, measuring sixteen by eighteen feet. The sturdy building, which had only a dirt floor and no glass window, was as large as about 90 percent of the pioneer cabins of the region.
Here Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. He had no recollection of the place of his birth, because his parents moved before he was two years old. The land on the Sinking Spring Farm proved very poor, “a barren waste, so to speak,” as one contemporary described it, “save some little patches on the creek bottoms,” and Thomas quickly learned that it would not support his family. He bought a smaller but more fertile farm, some ten miles to the northeast, on Knob Creek.
Here, once again, the family lived, as did most of their neighbors, in a one-room log cabin, but the setting was beautiful. The creek, which ran through the property, was so clear that you could see a pebble in ten feet of water; the bottomland, where Thomas planted corn, was rich and easy to cultivate; and on both sides rose small, steep hills, so clearly defined and separate as to be called “knobs”—after which the creek was named.
It was of this Knob Creek farm that Abraham Lincoln had his earliest memories, but few of them concerned his mother, who remains a shadowy image. It is not even clear what she looked like. No one ever bothered to draw a likeness of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and the age of photography was far in the future. Many years later those who had known her described her variously as being tall or of average height, thin or stout, beautiful or plain. Most agreed that she was “brilliant” or “intellectual.” According to tradition, she was able to read, but, like many other frontier women, she did not know how to write and had to sign legal documents with an X. Abraham must have remembered how his mother set up housekeeping, cooked the family meals, washed and mended the scanty clothing that her husband and children wore, and perhaps helped in the farming. But of her life on Knob Creek he recorded only that she gave birth to a third child, named Thomas, who died in infancy. On the rare occasions in later years when he mentioned her, he referred to his “angel mother,” partly in recognition of her loving affection, but partly to distinguish her from his stepmother, who was very much alive. If he ever said, as Herndon reported, “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her,” it was a tribute not so much to her maternal care as to the genes that she allegedly transmitted from his unnamed grandfather.
Lincoln’s Knob Creek recollections were of working in what he called “the big field,” of seven acres, where his father planted corn and the son followed, dropping two pumpkin seeds in every other hill on every other row. Once, as he remembered, there was a big rain in the hills, though not a drop fell in the valley, and “the water coming down through the gorges washed ground, corn, pumpkin seed and all clear off the field.” He also remembered going for two brief periods to an “A.B.C. school,” some two miles from the Lincolns’ cabin, where he was sent, according to a relative, “more as company for his sister than with the expectation that he would learn much.” It was first taught by one Zachariah Riney, about whom little is known except that he was a Catholic, and then by Caleb Hazel, who, according to a contemporary, “could perhaps teach spelling, reading and indifferent writing and perhaps could cipher to the rule of three, but had no other qualifications of a teacher, except large size and bodily strength to thrash any boy or youth that came to his school.” Abraham probably mastered the alphabet, but he did not yet know how to write when the family left Kentucky.
In general, young Lincoln seems to have been an entirely average little boy, who enjoyed playing, hunting, and fishing. Perhaps he was quieter than his playmates and kept his clothes clean longer, but there was not much to distinguish him. As a relative declared, “Abe exhibited no special traits in K[entuck]y except a good kind—somewhat wild nature.”


In 1816, when Abraham was only seven years old, the Lincolns moved across the Ohio River to Indiana. Many years later he stated, quite accurately, that his father left Kentucky “partly on account of slavery; but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Ky.” In Thomas Lincoln’s mind the two causes were interrelated. He had religious grounds for disliking slavery. He and his wife joined the Separate Baptist Church, whose members accepted traditional Baptist beliefs, like predestination and opposition to infant baptism, but refused to endorse any formal creed. Adhering to a very strict code of morality, which condemned profanity, intoxication, gossip, horse racing, and dancing, most of the Separate Baptists were opposed to slavery. Abraham shared his parents’ views. He was “naturally anti-slavery,” he remarked in 1864, adding, “I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.”
Thomas Lincoln’s hostility to slavery was based on economic as well as religious grounds. He did not want to compete with slave labor. Kentucky had been admitted to the Union in 1792 as a slave state, and in the central, bluegrass region of the state “nabobs” were accumulating vast holdings of the best lands, tilled by gangs of black slaves. Hardin County, just to the west of this region, was not so well suited to large-scale agriculture, but its inhabitants felt threatened. By 1811 the county had 1,007 slaves and only 1,627 white males over the age of sixteen.
Small farmers like Thomas Lincoln also worried about the titles to their land. Kentucky never had a United States land survey; it was settled in a random, chaotic fashion, with settlers fixing their own bounds to the property they claimed: a particular tree here, a rock there, and so on. Soon the map of the state presented a bewildering overlay of conflicting land claims, and nobody could be sure who owned what. So uncertain were land titles that Kentucky became one of the first states to do away with the freehold property qualification for voting—not so much out of devotion to democratic principles as because even the wealthy often had trouble proving they owned clear title to their acres. Naturally the courts were filled with litigation, and the lawyers in Kentucky were busy all the time. To a small farmer like Thomas Lincoln, who was unable to pay the attorneys’ fees, it seemed that they were all working for the rich, slaveholding planters.
He had trouble gaining a clear title to any of the three farms that he purchased in Kentucky. The details were exceedingly complicated, and not particularly important: one had been improperly surveyed, so that it proved to be thirty-eight acres smaller than what he thought he had purchased; another had a lien on it because of a small debt by a previous owner; in the case of the Knob Creek farm, non-Kentucky residents brought suit against Thomas and other occupants of the rich valley, claiming prior title. Having neither the money nor the inclination to fight for his claims in court, he heard with great interest of the opening of Indiana, territory from which slavery had been excluded by the Northwest Ordinance. Here the United States government had surveyed the land and offered purchasers guaranteed titles to their farms.
In the fall of 1816 he made a trip across the Ohio to explore the region and stake out a claim. He found what he wanted in the heavily wooded, almost totally unoccupied wilderness on Little Pigeon Creek, in Perry (later Spencer) County, in southern Indiana. After selecting the site, he constructed what was called a “half-faced camp,” a rough shelter, with no floor, about fourteen feet square, enclosed on three sides but open on the fourth. Then, blazing trees to mark the boundaries and heaping piles of brush on the corners of the tract he expected to occupy, he returned to Kentucky, gathered his small family and his few possessions, and set out for his new home. The Lincolns arrived in Indiana just as the territory was admitted to the Union as a state.
The land Thomas claimed was in an unbroken forest, so remote that for part of the distance from the Ohio there was no trail and he had to hack out a path so that his family could follow. It was a wild region, Abraham remembered, and the forests were filled with bears and other threatening animals. Many years later, when he revisited the region, his childhood fears surfaced in verse:
When first my father settled here,
’Twas then the frontier line:
The panther’s scream, filled night with fear
And bears preyed on the swine.
The Lincolns stayed in the half-faced camp for a few days after they arrived, until Thomas, probably with the assistance of members of the seven other families in the general vicinity, built a proper log cabin. It offered more protection, but because of the freezing weather the men could not work up the usual mixture of clay and grass for chinking between the logs and the winds still swept through.
The family was able to get through the winter because they ate deer and bear meat. “We all hunted pretty much all the time,” one of the party remembered. Young Abraham did his part, too. In February 1817, just before his eighth birthday, he spied a flock of wild turkeys outside the new log cabin. He seized a rifle and, taking advantage of one of the chinks, “shot through a crack, and killed one of them.” But killing was not for him, and he did not try to repeat his exploit. Recalling the incident years later, he said that he had “never since pulled a trigger on any larger game.”
The immediate task before the Lincolns was to clear away enough trees and undergrowth so that they could plant corn. Thomas could only do so much, and he had to enlist the services of his son. Though Abraham was only eight years old, he was, he recalled, “large of his age, and had an axe put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twentythird year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument—less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons.”
That first year in Indiana was a time of backbreaking toil and of desperate loneliness for all the family, but by fall they were fairly settled. Thomas was so satisfied with the site that he had chosen that he undertook the sixty-mile trip to Vincennes in order to make initial payments on two adjoining eighty-acre tracts he had claimed. Nancy also began to feel more at home, because Elizabeth (Hanks) and Thomas Sparrow, her aunt and uncle, who had lost their home in Kentucky through an ejectment suit, came to the Little Pigeon Creek neighborhood. They stayed for a while in the Lincolns’ half-faced camp until they could build their own cabin on a nearby lot. Sarah and Abraham rejoiced because the Sp...

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