By Don Radebaugh – Ever wonder where Abraham Lincoln got his amazing mind? Evidence suggests it came from the maternal side of the equation.
Meet Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the parents of the 16th President. The image of Thomas is from an actual photo whereas the image of Nancy is an artist’s rendition of what she may have looked like.
No photo of Nancy exists because she, at the age of 34, died on Oct. 5, 1818, before photography was invented. Lincoln was just nine years old when she passed…the beginning of a lifelong affliction with “melancholy” or “hypochondria” as Lincoln himself described it. She was buried at their homestead in southwest Indiana, which is now the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Spencer County.
I can clearly see where Lincoln gets his rough-hewn, rugged appearance from looking at his father’s face, and I can certainly see the overall similarities. While we cannot know what Lincoln’s mother actually looked like, we can certainly imagine. I don’t know about you, but this would be exactly how I would imagine her…a much softer, pleasant side so apparent in her son.
It’s generally understood that Lincoln did not see eye-to-eye with his father. The back-breaking, manual labor on the farmstead held no appeal for Lincoln, who looked to books for his inspiration. This did not sit well with his father who thought his son was lazy. Little did he understand that the words his son read by the firelight late into the evenings would one day produce a President.
Lincoln’s father was illiterate; an education beyond the farm was of no interest to him, nor did education serve any useful purpose. The intellectual similarities between father and son were so few that they grew continually apart, especially after Lincoln finally broke free from his father’s grip in the spring of 1831. In fact, when Thomas died in 1851, Lincoln, by now an established and successful lawyer/politician in Springfield, Illinois, did not attend his funeral.
If Lincoln was so different from his father, he must have been exceptionally similar in intellect to his mother. Nancy was just 24 years old when she died of the “milk sickness”. She wasn’t the only one as settlers by the dozens were dying all around from the same illness. The early pioneers contracted the disease by drinking tainted milk from cows who were eating the poisonous white snakeroot plant. Somehow, Thomas, Abraham and his sister Sarah, who drank the same milk, were spared. Unfortunately, Sarah died in childbirth 10 years later, further adding to Lincoln’s depression.
What we know about Nancy we have learned through the people who knew her. John Hanks, Lincoln’s cousin, described Nancy this way.
“She had dark hair, was 5 ft., 7 in. high with a spare, delicate frame…had a clear, intellectual mind, was amiable, kind, charitable and affectionate, and was loved and revered by everyone that knew her.”
Beyond the “5 ft., 7 in.” part – Lincoln was 6 ft., 4 in. (still out tallest President) – Hanks’ description of Nancy could easily be one that could describe her son.
Lincoln, as it turned out, was pretty smart too. Another cousin, Dennis Hanks, who lived with the Lincoln’s in Indiana, said that Nancy was “affectionate, the most affectionate I ever saw – never knew her to be out of temper. She was keen, shrewd, smart, and I do say highly intellectual by nature. Her memory was strong…her perception was quick…her judgment was acute. She was spiritually and ideally inclined…not dull…not material.”
Again, this sounds a lot like Lincoln.
The following description comes from Nathaniel Grigsby, whose brother Aaron Grigsby married Lincoln’s sister Sarah.
Nancy “was a woman known for her extraordinary strength of her mind among the family and all who knew her. She was superior to her husband in every way. She was a brilliant woman…a woman of great good sense and modesty.”
Grigsby also offered descriptions of Lincoln’s father and sister Sarah, also strikingly telling and revealing.
“Thomas Lincoln was not a lazy man, but a tinker, a piddler…always doing but doing nothing great.
“Sarah was a quick minded woman and of extraordinary mind. She was industrious, more so than Abraham. Abe worked almost alone from the head, whilst she labored both. Her good humored laugh I can see now, as fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday. She could, like her brother Abe, meet and greet a person with the very kindest greeting in the world…was an intellectual and intelligent woman, however not so much as her mother.”
Dennis Hanks also said about Lincoln’s mother, “She was beyond all doubt an intellectual woman, rather extraordinary if anything. Her nature was kindness, mildness, tenderness, sadness.”
Now that’s the Lincoln that I have come to know.
“Abraham was like his mother very much,” Hanks said.
According to Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon, the two had an intimate discussion about Lincoln’s real mother during a buggy ride in “about 1850” on the way to the courthouse in Petersburg, Illinois.
The conversation “called up the recollection of his mother, and, as the buggy jolted over the road, he (Lincoln) added ruefully, ‘God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her,’ and immediately lapsed into silence.”
Herndon’s Informants, Copyright 1998 by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis
Lincoln’s Photographs, A Complete Album, Copyright 1998 by Lloyd Ostendorf