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The sad tale of THOMAS LINCOLN
There was no love lost between this father and his famous son

One hundred and thirty-eight years after his death in 1865, Abraham Lincoln is still a great example for America and the world in many areas of human activity.

His honesty and integrity, his complete lack of pettiness or malice and the leadership qualities that won the Civil War, ended slavery and held the United States together are all eminently worth emulating today.

But, as America celebrates Father’s Day 2003, there is at least one area in which Lincoln can serve not as a model but as a bad example: his relationship with his father, Thomas Lincoln. To say that the two did not get along would be an understatement.

“In all of his published writings, and, indeed, even in reports of hundreds of stories and conversations, (Lincoln) had not one favorable word to say about his father,” David Herbert Donald wrote in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography, “Lincoln.”

Instead, Donald wrote, Lincoln’s comments about his father were “scornful statements that his father grew up ‘literally without education,’ that he ‘never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name,’ and that he chose to settle in a region where ‘there was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education.’”

Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis Hanks, doubted whether “Abe loved his father very well or not,” and concluded “I don’t think he did,” according to noted historian Michael Burlingame in his book “The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln.”

When his father lay dying in Coles County in 1851, Lincoln was asked by a stepbrother to pay a last visit to the old man. Lincoln made excuses as to why he could not find the time to make the trip, then wrote, “Say to him that if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant.”

When his father did die, Lincoln chose not to attend the funeral.

The source of the rift between Thomas Lincoln and his son has been fertile ground for speculation for historians for years, and a number of theories have been offered. One thing is clear, however: Despite having a few things in common, the two men were very different personalities.

Thomas Lincoln was born in Virginia in 1778 (some scholars say 1776) and moved with his family to Kentucky in the 1780s. His father, also named Abraham, was a prosperous landowner who held more than 5,000 acres in one of the richest parts of Kentucky.

But in 1786, while Abraham, Thomas and his two older brothers, Mordecai and Josiah, were planting corn, they were attacked by Indians. Abraham was killed instantly, Josiah ran for help and Mordecai hid in a nearby cabin.

Looking out of a crack between the logs, Mordecai saw an Indian sneaking up on Thomas, who was sitting beside his father's body. Mordecai grabbed a rifle and killed the Indian before he could reach the younger boy.

Mordecai had saved Thomas's life, but that life would be one of hard work and struggle. Under the laws of the time, when a father died without a will, the oldest son inherited his entire estate.

Thus, Mordecai would become a wealthy landowner, and Thomas would have to live by the sweat of his brow.

Thomas became a "wandering laboring boy," as Abraham Lincoln would later characterize the situation, and he never had a chance to get any kind of education. A farmer and carpenter, Thomas worked hard and saved his money.

In 1802, he bought a 238-acre farm in Hardin County, Ky. Four years later, he married Nancy Hanks, and the couple's first child, a daughter named Sarah, was born in 1807. Abraham was born in 1809, on a new farm Thomas bought on Nolan Creek. A third child, a boy, died in infancy.

Records indicate that in his early manhood Thomas was a reasonably respectable citizen, according to Mark Neely's "Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia." The records indicate that he was a wage earner, jury member, petitioner for a road and a guard for a county prison.

Strong and powerfully built, Thomas was average or a little above average in height with a shock of black hair and a prominent nose. He was respected in his community - "honest" was the word most often used to describe him, Donald wrote.

The land title system in Kentucky was a mess in the early 1800s, and Thomas continuously had trouble with the titles to the farms that he owned. He was often forced to sell property for less than the price he paid for it.

As a result, and because he opposed slavery, which was legal in Kentucky, Thomas moved his family to Indiana, where they lived a hard frontier life.

In 1818, Nancy Lincoln died from drinking contaminated milk from cows that had eaten poisonous weeds. Thomas quickly realized his household needed a mother's touch, and within a year he had married a widow from Kentucky named Sarah Bush Johnston, to whom young Abe would grow quite close.

At this point the household was a large one. There was Thomas and his two children, Sarah and her three children and Dennis Hanks, who was Abe's cousin on his birth mother's side.

Abe's difficulties with his father had probably already begun by this time. His mother's death had hit him hard, and Thomas did little to console him.

Abe craved education and was especially fond of reading. His father encouraged his education but was vexed by the boy reading when he was supposed to be doing chores. Thomas was said to have hidden Abe's books and even destroyed some to put an end to that problem, but all that accomplished was to widen the distance between father and son.

Corporal punishment was the order of the day, and Thomas was not one to spare the rod. He was said to sometimes "slash" Abe for reading when he was supposed to be doing chores, and Thomas also was known to knock the boy down for speaking before his father could when strangers rode up to the family farm.

Abe also got slapped in the face for daring to correct his father's version of a story and was whipped or beaten for other acts of impropriety. While a common practice in America at the time, such beatings did nothing to endear Thomas to his son.

As Abe got older, the situation only got worse. When Abe was old enough, Thomas hired him out to other farmers to help them with their work. Abe did the work, but Thomas claimed all the pay of his minor son.

This aggravated Abe - Burlingame even writes that Abe's hatred of slavery was strengthened by this treatment that he felt was his own enslavement. It was made worse by the fact that the neighbors Abe worked for sometimes complained to Thomas that Abe was reading or telling jokes and stories to other workers when he should be doing chores. For this, again, Thomas punished Abe.

Thomas also seems to have given preferential treatment to his stepson, John Johnston, over Abe, a fact that would rankle Abe until his father's death.

In 1830, Thomas Lincoln moved his family to Illinois, first to Macon County and then to Coles. Because Abe had not yet reached his 21st birthday, he came along, all the while thinking of the day when he would be free to strike out on his own.

When the time came, Abe was more than ready to leave. He headed out with no goal in his mind other than to avoid winding up like his father.

In later years, when he was a practicing lawyer, Abe visited his parents at their farm when business brought him to the area. But it was his affection for his stepmother that brought him, not any concern for Thomas.

On a couple of occasions he even bailed Thomas out of financial troubles, although he did so grudgingly and probably with the suspicion that the troubles were caused by his ne'er do well stepbrother, John Johnston.

It is not known whether he gave even a moment's thought to Thomas when he learned that the old man had died at the age of 73, in 1851.

But Abe did take one last, possibly unconscious shot at Thomas two years later. Now that it was too late for the old man to get any satisfaction out of it, the Lincolns named their fourth son "Thomas."

Abe never spoke that name, however. He always called the boy Tad.

The Lincoln Log Cabin is an 86-acre historic site owned and operated by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. It includes a reproduction of Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln's two-room cabin. The site is open year-round from 8:30 a.m. to dusk, Wednesday through Sunday. Call 345-1845 or visit

Doug Pokorski can be reached at 788-1539 or

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