On becoming Abraham Lincoln

On Feb. 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Ky, in a one-room, one-window, dirt floor log cabin, an unschooled frontier woman named Nancy Hanks Lincoln gave birth to an American immortal. She named him Abraham after his grandfather, who had been killed by Indians, and called him Abe. He had an older sister, Sarah, and a brother who died as an infant.

Abraham's father, Thomas, an unlettered but conscientious farmer and odds-and-ends-carpenter, lost his Kentucky land to litigation, so in 1816 he moved the family to the "unbroken forest" of southern Indiana, where they wintered in a wilderness lean-to.

Nancy could read some, but could barely write her name. Yet she was gifted with a fathomless memory. She would recite Bible verses, songs and poetry and spice her speech with phrases like "Be ye comforted," and "Peace, be still." It was from her that Abe caught a touch of the poet that would animate his most casual conversation. At the age of 34, when Abe was only 9, his "angel mother" died of "milk sick." It was from this loss he contracted a lifelong melancholia as he helped Thomas fashion her coffin by whittling pine log pegs for nailing it shut over Nancy Hanks' body.

Perhaps they sang one of her favorite songs at her patch-of-ground grave nearby:

You may bury me in the east,

You may bury me in the west,

And we'll all rise together in that morning.

Thomas soon remarried. Sarah Bush Johnston became close to stepson Abe and encouraged him to better things including reading, and in time he called her Mother. Then sweet sister Sarah married a neighbor only to die in childbirth, In 1830 Thomas moved the surviving family to Illinois.

Asked to describe his early life, Lincoln said, quoting Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, " ' The short and simple annals of the poor.' That's my life, and that's all you or anyone else can make of it."

Young Lincoln struggled to get free of his father and the hard physical labor of frontier life. Despite only one year at a pioneer school, he stole an education by reading everything that came to hand, like Aesop's Fables, Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, the King James Bible and Shakespeare. He would read at night in the dark of their cabin so close to the fire he would singe his hair. Sometimes he would prop a book on a plow or lean his legs up a tree, lying on his back, turning around with the sun to see the pages. Many thought him mad.

Later, as a surveyor, he learned higher math and finally enough law to become one of the most successful attorneys in Illinois. He mastered English and learned something of poetry, literature, history and the lives of famous men. Abraham Lincoln was clearly a rough genius.

He hungered so for greatness that his law partner, Billy Herndon, later said ambition was always there, running like "a little engine that knew no rest."

A turning point came from two flatboat trips down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Here, for the first time, he saw a large sophisticated city, but he also saw something else: deep South slavery. Indelibly planted was the sight of a young girl auctioned like an animal. He concluded that "if slavery isn't wrong, nothing is," and "if I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I'll hit it hard." It was there, too, that a soothsayer prophesied he would be president.

Restless as a backwoodsman, rail-splitter and river boatman, he became a merchant and postmaster, till these all finally "winked out." But this dissatisfaction led to the more satisfying twins of law and politics.

Painfully pavid around women, Lincoln was fond of saying "a woman is the only thing I'm scared of that I know can't hurt me." In 1835 at the age of 26, he fell in love with 22-year-old Ann Rutledge. She accepted him in July and died from drinking bad well water in August.

The melancholia took control. Lincoln refused to speak. It was said he would lie upon her grave and weep or wander in the woods mumbling, "Vain man, thy fond pursuits forbear."

Yet recover he did, his ambition being the balm that always defeated despair; that and a ready humor laced with stories would stanch his tears. He was homely, humble, awkwardly athletic at 6'4", thin, sallow, friendly, clownish, morose, shy, diligent, determined, compassionate, honest to a fault, strangely outward-inward and quietly very clever.

He made a rebound in marrying Mary Todd, a Kentucky belle. It was a step up. The Todds were prominent slave owners from Lexington, and Mary was pretty in her youth--vivacious, sophisticated, ambitious, with a hint of manic depression. The marriage was fraught with ambivalence; neither could ever quite exorcise the ghost of Ann or shake the specter of tragedy that plagued Lincoln like some primal curse.

They moved to Springfield, prospered, and had four boys, Robert, Edward, Willie and Tad. But Eddie died at 4 from tuberculosis, and later Willie, age 11, was lost to typhoid fever from the ever-pathogenic Potomac while residing at the White House.

Inevitably, Lincoln struggled his way forward, elected to the state legislature and then to one term in Congress. In 1858, he became the cynosure of national attention when, as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, he debated the incumbent, Democratic senator Stephen Douglas, over the accommodation of slavery in the new territories. For Lincoln, nothing should permit slavery's spread; it must be strangled by isolation.

He lost the battle for the Senate to Douglas but won the war for the presidency in 1860. Yet he found he had fought his way up to the edge of a precipice. Before his inauguration in March 1861, the deep South seceded.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln pleaded for the Union: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

But the secessionists weren't listening, and the fires of civil war were lit. Constantly balancing the abolitionists, like his friend Frederick Douglass, the former slave ever pressing Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and arm black soldiers, against the contrary pull of border state Unionists resistant to abolition, he managed to free the slaves, arm black troops and keep Kentucky and Missouri in. Then 700,000 dead later, on April 3, 1865, General Robert E. Lee abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond with General Ulysses S. Grant in hot pursuit.

Lincoln left Washington and was taken by the Navy up the James River, where he landed and walked with a small escort of sailors and Marines through the ruins of Richmond. He was greeted by amazement from whites and jubilation by blacks. Lincoln made the two miles to the Confederate White House, went into Jefferson Davis' office, and sat wearily at the Confederate president's desk.

"Pale and utterly worn out," his eyes with "a dreaminess about them," said a witness, he asked for a glass of water and drank deeply.

Did he doze off? Did he dream? Lincoln, a great believer in dreams, was haunted by two that were painfully recurrent.

One was seeing himself in a mirror with two heads. Mary said it meant he would be re-elected but would not survive the second term. The other related to water, as he floated in a vessel to a dark shore. This dream would visit him before some great event or battle. He sat for a time, then arose and returned to Washington.

On April 9, Palm Sunday, Lee, who had opposed secession and disapproved of slavery but could not fight against Virginia, surrendered. On April 13, Lincoln dreamed the water dream again, and on Good Friday, April 14, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a charismatic half-mad actor from a charismatic half-mad family of actors. Breaking a leg leaping out of the presidential box at Ford's Theater, Booth hopped downstage while brandishing a dagger and shouted, "Sic Semper Tyrannis! The South has been avenged!"

Twelve days later, Booth was shot and killed while hopping around in a burning tobacco barn.

With the death of Abraham Lincoln, the task of national unification was left to lesser men and remains with us still.

Phillip H. McMath is a lawyer and writer whose play Lincoln's Dream will premiere at The Weekend Theater of Little Rock in April.

Editorial on 02/17/2019

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