Up From Obscurity: The Influence of Lincoln’s Early Life on His Thought and Politics
(The following speech was presented on Feb. 11, 2018 by Michael Lynch, director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.. The venue was a meeting of MOLLUS, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, a patriotic organization founded on the day of Lincoln’s assassination in order to protect the Union, and preserve Lincoln’s memory, which it does to this day. As a member of the audience that evening, I determined that this presentation should be more broadly circulated. Thus, it becomes the first “guest column” of the americansystemnow.blog–hopefully the first of many such educational contributions.–Nancy Spannaus)
Abraham Lincoln was not especially interested in his own family background. When he did refer to his own ancestry and early life, he usually emphasized the humility of his family’s circumstances. In 1860, the same year he ran for the presidency, he told a newspaper editor who was working on a campaign biography, “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 anyone else can make of it.’”
But if Lincoln was dismissive of his own background, his humble origins have been the subject of fascination for those thousands who have studied and commemorated him. In his study of America’s collective memory of Lincoln, historian Merrill Peterson identified the image of the “self-made man” as one the most enduring and significant recurring themes deployed over the years by writers, poets, and artists who have made Lincoln their subject. The image of the log cabin has become a sort of shorthand symbol for Lincoln’s rise from frontier obscurity.
But the notion of Lincoln as a self-made frontiersman of humble origins isn’t merely the stuff of myth. It reflects the actual circumstances of his birth and youth, and his adult life was characterized by a lifelong practice of self-improvement that was essentially a response to these circumstances. What I would like to propose tonight is that Lincoln’s humble frontier origins and his determined effort to rise beyond them shaped both his political allegiances and his deepest convictions about the meaning of America.
“I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky,” he wrote in an autobiographical statement the year he was elected to the presidency. “My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families—second families, perhaps I should say…. My father, at the death of his father, was but six years of age; and he grew up, literally without education.” Friends and neighbors also noted the family’s humble circumstances. John B. Helm, a native of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, who knew the Lincolns when Abraham was young, recalled: “He was born…in an obscure back settlement of Cain [cane] break society in a hunter’s hut not ﬁt to be called a house…[D]escended from parents the most humble and obscure in this humble class of people.”
It’s important not to overstate the Lincoln family’s poverty. Some early biographers made exactly that mistake. The most notable of these was Lincoln’s own law partner William Herndon, who claimed that Lincoln’s father Thomas had been a shiftless ne’er-do-well. All of Abraham Lincoln’s finer qualities, Herndon believed, came from his mother. Perhaps this theory developed out of an exaggerated interpretation of some of the statements Herndon collected from Lincoln’s friends and relatives. As Abraham’s cousin Dennis Hanks said, Thomas Lincoln “was a man who took the world Easy—did not possess much envy.” And another neighbor described Thomas as “a tinker—a piddler—always doing but doing nothing great.”
Later researchers, most notably Louis A. Warren, achieved something of a rehabilitation of Thomas Lincoln’s reputation. The documentary record establishes that he was a respected member of his community and church—certainly not wealthy, but able to purchase the family farms in Kentucky outright. He left the Bluegrass State for Indiana not because of any personal or financial failure, but because the uncertainty of land tenure in Kentucky put small farmers such as himself at a disadvantage, rendering them unable to uphold title to lands they believed they had legitimately purchased. Thomas Lincoln achieved a kind of basic material sufficiency, no small feat in the backwoods of Kentucky.
But Lincoln wanted something more than sufficiency. Herndon referred to Abraham Lincoln’s ambition as “a little engine that knew no rest.” From childhood he developed a lifelong habit of self-improvement, evident in his determination to educate himself by getting his hands on as many books as possible.
Some family members mistook Abraham’s determined cultivation of his own intellect for laziness. Dennis Hanks claimed that “Lincoln was lazy—a very lazy man. He was always reading—scribbling—writing—ciphering—writing Poetry.” His father, Dennis remembered, would sometimes have to “slash him for neglecting his work by reading.” In retrospect, of course, we can see this aversion to manual labor as an early manifestation of his drive to become something more than the farmer and carpenter his father was.
Nor did Lincoln disdain the role of labor in personal advancement. Indeed, it was a lesson he learned at an early age. He later recalled an incident from his Indiana boyhood, in which two passengers with trunks approached his boat and asked him to row them to a passing steamer on the Ohio River. As the steamer prepared to pull out, the two men each tossed him a silver half-dollar. “I could scarcely believe my eyes as I picked up the money,” he remembered. “You may think it was a very little thing, and in these days it seems to me like a triﬂe, but it was a most important incident in my life. I could scarcely credit that I, the poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day: that by honest work I had earned a dollar in less than a day…. I was a more hopeful and thoughtful boy from that time.” Later in life, he would continue to tout the importance of hard work in any effort at self-improvement. In 1855, he told a young man who inquired about preparing to become a lawyer, “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.”
This belief in the possibility of self-advancement meshed well with the emerging political culture in which Lincoln came of age. By the Jacksonian era, being a self-made common man was no longer the liability it had been for those seeking office in the wake of the Revolution. In 1840, not long after Lincoln set out on a career in politics, William Henry Harrison became the first presidential candidate to actively campaign for office, and while Harrison himself actually came from a prosperous family, his supporters invoked the idea of the man of the people from the rough-and-tumble West to tremendous effect.
Humble origins suddenly became a political asset. Lincoln deployed his own modest background when announcing his candidacy for the Illinois legislature in his first political campaign in 1832, telling Sangamon County voters, “I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county, and if elected they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate. But if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”
Nearly thirty years later, during the contest for the presidency in 1860, Lincoln’s supporters continued to play up the idea of the self-made, frontier everyman. At the Republican’s nominating convention in 1860, Lincoln boosters carried in two split rails supposedly cut by Lincoln and John Hanks during the former’s youth, symbols of the candidate’s humble origins as a member of the laboring class. As Lincoln himself left the convention hall, a Democrat from southern Illinois asked if he was Abe Lincoln; Lincoln affirmed that he was. “They say you’re a self-made man,” the inquisitor said. “Well, yes,” Lincoln replied, “what there is of me is self-made.” The Democrat responded that whoever made him did a poor job.
A Devoted Whig
But even as Lincoln drew on the idea of the self-made common man to build his political career, there was a paradox inherent in his emphasis on personal advancement and self-improvement. Lincoln spent most of his adult life as a member of the Whig Party, and he shared that party’s commitment to vigorous financial institutions, its support for tariffs to foster American industries, and above all its desire to see federal support for internal improvements in transportation, such as canals, railroads, and the dredging of rivers. Like other Whigs, he believed the cultivation of an atmosphere in which average people could better themselves was a public responsibility. By funding improvements in transportation, by chartering banks, and by implementing taxes on imported goods, Whigs argued, small-time farmers and manufacturers (like Thomas Lincoln) could gain access to the markets and credit they needed to achieve something more than a mere subsistence.
Lincoln, I believe, came by his Whiggism honestly, partly because the ideology of prosperity meshed well with his own personal ambitions, and partly because his years on the frontier instilled a sense of the need for economic development. The frontiers of Indiana and Illinois were both river-based societies. The settlers Lincoln knew as a youth depended on the rivers that emptied into the Ohio to get their goods to market. As a veteran riverboat man, Lincoln knew both the possibilities and the perils of waterborne trade and transportation networks. As a youth, he made two trips to New Orleans, carrying goods on flatboats down the Mississippi. And in 1832 he helped pilot the steamboat Talisman from Springﬁeld to New Salem, Illinois as part of a test to see how well this relatively new form of travel could travel up the Sangamon River.
When he settled in New Salem and sought political office that same year, the need for improving frontier access to markets by water was the focus of his first newspaper appeal. “Time and experience have verified to a demonstration, the public utility of internal improvements,” he instructed his neighbors. “That the poorest and most thinly populated countries would be greatly benefitted by the opening of good roads, and in the clearing of navigable streams within their limits, is what no person will deny.” Claiming that rail access was too expensive to link the region to wider markets, he called for improvements to navigation of the Sangamon River. “From my peculiar circumstances, it is probable that for the last twelve months I have given as particular attention to the stage of the water in this river, as any other person in the country,” he said, having just spent time navigating the river in a flatboat. “I believe the improvement of the Sangamo river, to be vastly important and highly desirable to the people of this county; and if elected, any measure in the legislature having this for its object, which may appear judicious, will meet my approbation, and shall receive my support.”
He remained a zealous advocate for internal improvements for the rest of his life. As a lawyer, his most substantial fees came from representing steamboat and railroad companies. And even as president, though he had to devote most of his attention to the war, he remained devoted to the same development of infrastructure that he had advocated for as a young Illinois legislator. In 1862 he signed into law an act authorizing land grants and the sale of government bonds to build a railroad linking the Missouri River with the West Coast, referring to the joining of the nation together by rail as a “great enterprise.” Even as a Republican, his Whiggish impulses never left him. In the words of historian Daniel Walker Howe, Lincoln “shared the typical Whig aspiration for humanity to triumph over its physical environment.” His commitment to national development reflected his awareness—dating back to the early years when he saw his frontier neighbors struggle to expand their access to markets—that prosperity required infrastructure.
Furthermore, Lincoln’s commitment to self-improvement and his belief in the possibility of advancement undoubtedly influenced his eventual commitment to the Republican Party, with its emphasis on free labor as the foundation for American prosperity and liberty. What united the first Republicans was a conviction that the spread of slavery not only threatened national unity and development, but also undermined the dignity and vitality of free labor.
Shortly before the outbreak of the war, Lincoln penned a fragment on the contrast between free labor, which offered the promise of advancement, and slavery, which did not:
We know, Southern men declare that their slaves are better off than hired laborers amongst us. How little they know, whereof they speak! There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us. Twenty five years ago, I was a hired laborer. The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow. Advancement — improvement in condition — is the order of things in a society of equals.” He added, “Free labor has the inspiration of hope; pure slavery has no hope.
America, the Exceptional Nation
This emphasis on the relationship between free labor, free institutions, and opportunity goes to the heart of one of Lincoln’s most deeply held convictions—the belief that America was an exceptional nation. He idealized America not only because it was an experiment in popular government, but also because it was one of the few countries where self-improvement and advancement of the kind that marked his entire adulthood was open to anyone, without the artificial restraints that bound people in other countries. Without restraints except, of course, for one. He believed that slavery made a mockery of the American experiment not only because it contradicted the founding promises in the Declaration of Independence, the charter from which he traced all the nation’s basic principles, but also because it denied the enslaved the opportunity for advancement that he saw as an indispensable component of the American promise. In his July 4, 1861 message to Congress, he called the war “a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
He invoked the same themes in an address to soldiers of the 166th Ohio in 1864. “I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House,” he told the troops. “I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright—not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”
For Lincoln, the war was never simply a matter of whether the U.S. would be one nation or two; it was a contest to determine whether common people could achieve the same spectacular rise he himself had devoted much of his life to.
But it’s critical to understand that Lincoln’s lifelong pursuit of self-improvement was never just about material advancement. Among his acquaintances, he was famously indifferent to appearances, to the material trappings of life that accompany wealth. Why, then, did he work so hard to escape his humble frontier origins? Why did he struggle to become something other than what Thomas Lincoln had been?
What Lincoln sought was not so much the opportunity to become wealthy as the opportunity to become significant. He strived for meaning more than money. In the same newspaper piece in which he posted notice of his first political campaign, he wrote that his greatest ambition was “that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” It would be easy to dismiss this as a candidate’s platitude had not Lincoln expressed the same sentiments privately. His close friend Joshua Speed recalled then when Lincoln endured a debilitating bout with depression in 1841, he agonized over the fact that he “had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived – and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day & generation and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for.”
He eventually got his wish. More than two decades later, as president, Lincoln spoke to Speed about his emancipation policy. Speed, himself a member of a slave-owning family, had reservations about the measure. Lincoln reminded him of that long-ago conversation, in which he had expressed a desire to be remembered for great deeds. He believed that emancipation, he told Speed, was the fulfillment of that desire.
Long after Lincoln’s death, Speed reflected on the relationship between his friend’s remarkable rise, his singular character, and the free institutions that enabled and sustained him:
Now for me to have lived to see such a man rise from point to point, and from place to place, filling all the places to which he was called, with honor and distinction, until he reached the presidency, filling the presidential chair in the most trying times that any ruler ever had, seems to me more like fiction than fact. None but a genius like his could have accomplished so much, and none but a government like ours could produce such a man. It gave the young eagle scope for his wing. He tried it and soared to the top!