Much has been written about Abraham Lincoln’s humble beginnings. In actuality, his English ancestors came from relatively aristocratic origins.
It is well-documented fact that Abraham Lincoln was born poor in a log cabin in Kentucky. The fact of the matter is that the Lincoln family was very prominent in its native Great Britain. When the first Lincolns to come to America arrived in Virginia in the 1700s, they became wealthy planters.
A series of misfortunes would lead subsequent generations of the family to become impoverished. When the future sixteenth president ran for public office, he used his own humble origins to his advantage. In fact, Lincoln was unimpressed by his ancestors’ aristocratic roots.
The Original Abraham Lincoln
In the late 18th century, the future president’s paternal grandfather and namesake immigrated to Virginia from Lincolnshire, England, which was located in a prosperous region of Britain known as East Anglia. The original Abraham Lincoln became a successful planter, who owned more than 5,000 acres of land. Lincoln sold his fine Virginia plantation in search of adventure and settled in the Kentucky frontier.
In 1786, he was killed by Indians. Abe’s oldest son, Mordecai, inherited his father’s land through an English custom known as primogeniture, whereby property is awarded to a man’s first-born son upon the father’s death. The middle Lincoln brother, Josiah, and the youngest, Thomas, then 8, were left to fend for themselves.
Relegated to a Life of Toil
This reversal of fortune led young Thomas to become a lowly carpenter; however, he eventually scraped together enough money to buy a farm that was located near Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Thomas was also able to woo and marry Nancy Hanks, the daughter of a local farming family. Thomas and Nancy married in 1806. They were 28 and 22 years old, respectively. It is a widely accepted belief amongst historians that Nancy had been born out of wedlock.
Thomas and Nancy’s first child, a daughter named Sarah, was born in 1807. Shortly thereafter the family of three moved to a larger homestead called Sinking Spring Farm. Here, they became a family of four, when Nancy gave birth to a son on February 12, 1809. He was named Abraham in honor of Thomas’ father. The family eventually settled in Knob Creek, Kentucky, where the land was more fertile.
How the Second Abe Lincoln Used His Humble Beginnings to His Advantage
As he grew older, the younger Abe Lincoln came to realize that his father was rather unambitious. Abe grew restless and decided he wanted more out of life. Most importantly, Abe discovered he had little in common with his father’s side of the family. He believed that he inherited his inquisitive nature, sharp mind, and ambition from his unknown maternal grandfather. This is ascertained by Lincoln biographer William Herndon, who wrote:
“On the subject of his ancestry and origin I only remember one time when Mr. Lincoln ever referred to it… He said, among other things, that [his mother] was the illegitimate daughter of Lucy Hanks and a well-bred Virginia farmer or planter; and he argued that from this last source came his power of analysis, his logic, his mental activity, his ambition, and all the qualities that distinguished him from the other members and descendants of the Hanks family.” When Abe began his political career in the 1840s, he would capitalize on his family’s “humble” origins. Doing so would help Abe win the presidency in 1860.
- Various Authors. “From Virginia Planters to Hard-Scrabble Settlers,” exerpted from Abraham Lincoln: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times, p. 12. New York: TIME Books, Time, Inc., 2009.