One hundred and thirty-eight years
after his death in 1865, Abraham Lincoln is still a
great example for America and the world in many areas of
His honesty and integrity, his complete lack of
pettiness or malice and the leadership qualities that
won the Civil War, ended slavery and held the United
States together are all eminently worth emulating today.
But, as America celebrates Father’s Day 2003, there
is at least one area in which Lincoln can serve not as a
model but as a bad example: his relationship with his
father, Thomas Lincoln. To say that the two did not get
along would be an understatement.
“In all of his published writings, and, indeed, even
in reports of hundreds of stories and conversations,
(Lincoln) had not one favorable word to say about his
father,” David Herbert Donald wrote in his Pulitzer
Prize winning biography, “Lincoln.”
Instead, Donald wrote, Lincoln’s comments about his
father were “scornful statements that his father grew up
‘literally without education,’ that he ‘never did more
in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own
name,’ and that he chose to settle in a region where
‘there was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for
Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis Hanks, doubted whether “Abe
loved his father very well or not,” and concluded “I
don’t think he did,” according to noted historian
Michael Burlingame in his book “The Inner World of
When his father lay dying in Coles County in 1851,
Lincoln was asked by a stepbrother to pay a last visit
to the old man. Lincoln made excuses as to why he could
not find the time to make the trip, then wrote, “Say to
him that if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it
would not be more painful than pleasant.”
When his father did die, Lincoln chose not to attend
The source of the rift between Thomas Lincoln and his
son has been fertile ground for speculation for
historians for years, and a number of theories have been
offered. One thing is clear, however: Despite having a
few things in common, the two men were very different
Thomas Lincoln was born in Virginia in 1778 (some
scholars say 1776) and moved with his family to Kentucky
in the 1780s. His father, also named Abraham, was a
prosperous landowner who held more than 5,000 acres in
one of the richest parts of Kentucky.
But in 1786, while Abraham, Thomas and his two older
brothers, Mordecai and Josiah, were planting corn, they
were attacked by Indians. Abraham was killed instantly,
Josiah ran for help and Mordecai hid in a nearby cabin.
Looking out of a crack between the logs, Mordecai saw
an Indian sneaking up on Thomas, who was sitting beside
his father's body. Mordecai grabbed a rifle and killed
the Indian before he could reach the younger boy.
Mordecai had saved Thomas's life, but that life would
be one of hard work and struggle. Under the laws of the
time, when a father died without a will, the oldest son
inherited his entire estate.
Thus, Mordecai would become a wealthy landowner, and
Thomas would have to live by the sweat of his brow.
Thomas became a "wandering laboring boy," as Abraham
Lincoln would later characterize the situation, and he
never had a chance to get any kind of education. A
farmer and carpenter, Thomas worked hard and saved his
In 1802, he bought a 238-acre farm in Hardin County,
Ky. Four years later, he married Nancy Hanks, and the
couple's first child, a daughter named Sarah, was born
in 1807. Abraham was born in 1809, on a new farm Thomas
bought on Nolan Creek. A third child, a boy, died in
Records indicate that in his early manhood Thomas was
a reasonably respectable citizen, according to Mark
Neely's "Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia." The records
indicate that he was a wage earner, jury member,
petitioner for a road and a guard for a county prison.
Strong and powerfully built, Thomas was average or a
little above average in height with a shock of black
hair and a prominent nose. He was respected in his
community - "honest" was the word most often used to
describe him, Donald wrote.
The land title system in Kentucky was a mess in the
early 1800s, and Thomas continuously had trouble with
the titles to the farms that he owned. He was often
forced to sell property for less than the price he paid
As a result, and because he opposed slavery, which
was legal in Kentucky, Thomas moved his family to
Indiana, where they lived a hard frontier life.
In 1818, Nancy Lincoln died from drinking
contaminated milk from cows that had eaten poisonous
weeds. Thomas quickly realized his household needed a
mother's touch, and within a year he had married a widow
from Kentucky named Sarah Bush Johnston, to whom young
Abe would grow quite close.
At this point the household was a large one. There
was Thomas and his two children, Sarah and her three
children and Dennis Hanks, who was Abe's cousin on his
birth mother's side.
Abe's difficulties with his father had probably
already begun by this time. His mother's death had hit
him hard, and Thomas did little to console him.
Abe craved education and was especially fond of
reading. His father encouraged his education but was
vexed by the boy reading when he was supposed to be
doing chores. Thomas was said to have hidden Abe's books
and even destroyed some to put an end to that problem,
but all that accomplished was to widen the distance
between father and son.
Corporal punishment was the order of the day, and
Thomas was not one to spare the rod. He was said to
sometimes "slash" Abe for reading when he was supposed
to be doing chores, and Thomas also was known to knock
the boy down for speaking before his father could when
strangers rode up to the family farm.
Abe also got slapped in the face for daring to
correct his father's version of a story and was whipped
or beaten for other acts of impropriety. While a common
practice in America at the time, such beatings did
nothing to endear Thomas to his son.
As Abe got older, the situation only got worse. When
Abe was old enough, Thomas hired him out to other
farmers to help them with their work. Abe did the work,
but Thomas claimed all the pay of his minor son.
This aggravated Abe - Burlingame even writes that
Abe's hatred of slavery was strengthened by this
treatment that he felt was his own enslavement. It was
made worse by the fact that the neighbors Abe worked for
sometimes complained to Thomas that Abe was reading or
telling jokes and stories to other workers when he
should be doing chores. For this, again, Thomas punished
Thomas also seems to have given preferential
treatment to his stepson, John Johnston, over Abe, a
fact that would rankle Abe until his father's death.
In 1830, Thomas Lincoln moved his family to Illinois,
first to Macon County and then to Coles. Because Abe had
not yet reached his 21st birthday, he came along, all
the while thinking of the day when he would be free to
strike out on his own.
When the time came, Abe was more than ready to leave.
He headed out with no goal in his mind other than to
avoid winding up like his father.
In later years, when he was a practicing lawyer, Abe
visited his parents at their farm when business brought
him to the area. But it was his affection for his
stepmother that brought him, not any concern for Thomas.
On a couple of occasions he even bailed Thomas out of
financial troubles, although he did so grudgingly and
probably with the suspicion that the troubles were
caused by his ne'er do well stepbrother, John Johnston.
It is not known whether he gave even a moment's
thought to Thomas when he learned that the old man had
died at the age of 73, in 1851.
But Abe did take one last, possibly unconscious shot
at Thomas two years later. Now that it was too late for
the old man to get any satisfaction out of it, the
Lincolns named their fourth son "Thomas."
Abe never spoke that name, however. He always called
the boy Tad.
The Lincoln Log Cabin is an 86-acre historic site
owned and operated by the Illinois Historic Preservation
Agency. It includes a reproduction of Thomas and Sarah
Bush Lincoln's two-room cabin. The site is open
year-round from 8:30 a.m. to dusk, Wednesday through
Sunday. Call 345-1845 or visit www.lincolnlogcabin.org.
Doug Pokorski can be reached at 788-1539 or firstname.lastname@example.org.