Lincolns Two Mothers
Abraham Lincoln had both a biological mother and a stepmother. Nancy Hanks was Lincolns biological mother. Nancy was born in Hampshire County in what is now West Virginia on February 5, 1784. She may have been born out of wedlock. Shortly after her mother was married, Nancy was sent off to live with an aunt and uncle. At that time, it was a common practice for children of single mothers to be raised by their relatives.
In or around 1806, Abrahams father, Thomas Lincoln, proposed to Sarah Bush. At that time, Thomas was working as a slave catcher. Sarah was the daughter of Thomass patrol captain. She rejected Thomass proposal, so Thomas then proposed to Nancy Hanks. They were married on June 12, 1806, when she was twenty-two and Thomas was twenty-eight.
Thomas and Nancy had three children, their second child, Abraham, was named after Thomass deceased father. Lincoln biographers describe Nancy as a kind, religious and intelligent women. She was a talented seamstress, and Abraham spoke very highly of her. He once said: “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.”
Nancy understood Abraham in a way his father never did. She quickly recognized his thirst for knowledge and love of learning and reading. She saw that he had no little love or aptitude for farm chores and manual labor. She gave him books from her private collection which included Aesops Fables, Robinson Crusoe and Websters Speller.
Nancy died when Abraham was nine years old. The family was living near Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana at that time. She was fatally stricken by a disease known as “milk sickness”. Homesteaders in that area knew the disease was spread by drinking milk from their cows, but there was no known cure at that time. It was later discovered that it was caused by cows eating the poisonous white snakeroot plant and passing the poison on in their milk.
Nancy had called Abraham: “The best boy I ever saw,” and added: “He never gave me a cross word or look and never refused in fact or even in appearance, to do anything I requested him.”
About a year after Nancys death, Thomas remarried. Sarah Bush Johnston was a widower with three children. According to Lincoln biographer, Phillip B. Kunhardt, Thomas proposed by saying: “Miss Johnston, I have no wife and you have no husband. I came a-purpose to marry you.” Lincoln was fond of his stepmother, but he called Nancy his “angel mother” and called Sarah his mother.
Lincoln provided for Sarah after Thomas died, but he never introduced her to his wife and children. When he married Mary Todd, Thomas and Sarah were not invited to his wedding.
Lincolns father, Thomas was born in Rockingham County, Virginia in 1788. He didnt share his famous sons love of books and learning, but he never had opportunities to receive a formal education. Thomas had to grow up fast. When he was six, he was an eyewitness to his fathers murder. An Indian fatally shot his father (also named Abraham) while he clearing a field. He spent his childhood and teen years living with various relatives.
While growing up,Thomas learned the trades of carpentry and cabinet making. When he was around sixteen years old, he set off on his own. At various times, he worked as a laborer and also found jobs guarding prisoners, fighting Indians, cutting wood and patrolling for runaway slaves.
Thomas grew up believing that a man made a living by the sweat of his brow. You worked for everything you had by hunting for or growing your own food. You owned and cleared the land you lived on and built the home you lived in. Thomas provided for his family, but he wasnt known for being particularly ambitious or enterprising. Lincoln biographer, Richard N. Current, summed up Thomass life by writing: “both mentally and physically he was slow, dull, careless, inert. He liked his liquor though he drank no more than the average Kentuckian of his time … Roving and shiftless, he moved from farm to farm in Kentucky and then migrated to Indiana and finally to Illinois, repeating in each place a tedious pattern of compulsive failure.”
Thomas thought that Abraham would share his values and attitudes. He came to grudgingly accept his sons fondness for intellectual pursuits, but never really understood Abrahams aversion to performing manual labor. Abraham said that his father taught him to work, but he never taught him to love it. Thomas would hire Abraham out to perform chores for other settlers and the son had to give all of his earnings to his father. That was a completely legal and accepted practice at that time, but it was something that Abraham came to resent.
Theres also evidence that Thomas was a physically abusive father, even though Abraham was a dutiful son. Abrahams cousin, Dennis Hanks said: “… his father would sometimes knock him over.”
Sometime in 1831, Abraham left his home to settle in New Salem, Illinois. About five years later, he became licensed to practice law in Illinois.
The estrangement lasted for the rest of his fathers life
After he left home, Abraham had little contact with his father. Sometimes he would send him small sums of money after he was paid for his legal services. He never invited his father to visit him or his family.
In the winter of 1850-51, Thomas became seriously ill. He wrote his son a series of letters which went unanswered. Finally, Abraham answered him by writing to a third party. In a January 12, 1851 letter to John D. Johnston, he wrote: “Say to him (Thomas) that if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant; but that if it is to be his lot to go now, he will soon have a joyous meeting with many loved ones gone before…”.
McGovern, George. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Times Books, 2009.
Thornton, Brian. 101 Things You didnt Know about Abraham Lincoln. Avon, Ma.: Adams Media, 2006.
Young, Jeff C. The Fathers of American Presidents. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland& Company, Inc. Publishers, 1997.