Abraham Lincoln frankly alluded to his humble beginnings, but he never included his kinfolk in his life.
Abraham Lincoln: The Humble Birthright
In 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky, to Thomas Lincoln and the former Nancy Hanks. His sister Sarah had been born two years earlier.
The family moved to Indiana when Lincoln was around seven. They were joined by Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrow, Nancy’s uncle and aunt, and a teen aged boy, Dennis Hanks, a cousin of Nancy’s. Not long after, the Sparrows died, followed by Nancy Lincoln. Dennis moved in with Thomas and the two children.
Left with motherless young children, Tom Lincoln did what most men did in those days. He left Sarah and Abe care/of Dennis Hanks, now eighteen or nineteen, and set out to find a new wife. His choice was fortuitous for all involved.
Sarah Bush Johnston, recently widowed with three children of her own, had been a childhood friend of Tom Lincoln. More an arrangement for their mutual convenience than a romantic courtship, it was a good match. When the new Mrs. Lincoln arrived with her children and a wagon with real furniture, she discovered two Lincoln children badly in need of mothering and bathing.
Abraham Lincoln: The New Step-Family
Sarah Johnston had two daughters: Matilda and Sarah Elizabeth, called Betsy, since there were now three Sarahs in the family). John was about Abe’s age. The boys shared the loft with Dennis Hanks, and got on well, although as adults, their paths, as well as their characters, diverged.
The happy circumstances of the new family dynamic brought a lasting affection between Abe and his stepmother. For the rest of his life, he provided for her care and spoke of her with warmth. In turn, Thomas Lincoln bonded very well with his stepson John, who was a good ol’ boy by nature, and the two became hunting and fishing companions. Dennis Hanks would marry Betsy Johnston three years after the families merged.
Lincoln remained with the family until he was twenty-one. From that time forward, the distance between him and his kin grew. Always introspective and inclined toward book learning, which his stepmother encouraged and his father considered a waste of time, Lincoln knew his future depended entirely on his own efforts. His family would only detract.
Abraham Lincoln and Cousin Harriet Hanks
Abraham Lincoln married Mary Todd when he was thirty-two, struggling to earn a living as a circuit lawyer. Within a year, they had a son and a small house in Springfield, Illinois. When Dennis Hanks’ daughter Harriet contacted her second cousin a few times removed, it seemed the perfect solution. Harriet was in her late teens, and desired an education. She could attend school in Springfield and board with the Lincolns. In return, she could help Mary with the house and baby.
It was not a successful arrangement, even though Harriet stayed for about a year. The problem was Mary. Harriet was the only Lincoln relative Mary would ever meet. She was not only “poor,” but she had limited breeding, something vital to the social-minded Mrs. L. Harriet expected to be treated like family; Mary treated her like hired help.
Abraham Lincoln and His Elderly Parents
Thomas and Sarah Lincoln lived about an hour and a half (in today’s drive-time) from Springfield. It was a fair stretch in the 1840s, since the area was isolated. Lincoln managed an occasional visit – alone, when he was “riding the circuit.”
Nevertheless, even at a time when money was tight for his family, Lincoln provided whatever he could for their advancing years. He purchased forty acres to give them a home and insure against their want. His Johnston half-kin, particularly John Johnston, would contact him from time to time, usually asking for money, couching it as a request for their parents. Abraham Lincoln had no animosity toward him, and certainly did not wish to see his aging parents in need, but he also had no regard for his step-brother. He considered him one of the laziest men he had ever known. He advised Johnston more than once to find work, believing it to be the answer to his financial problems.
Most historians have determined that the relationship between Lincoln and his father was cool. The future President had outgrown his homespun roots. He never brought Mary to visit his family. None of his children would know their Lincoln grandparents. When his father was dying, Lincoln did not rush to his bedside.
Mary Lincoln and Her Mother-in-Law
Mary Lincoln never met her step-mother-in-law, although her husband spoke of Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln with affection and regard.
After Lincoln’s assassination, and after the Lincolns had been married for more than twenty years, Mary contacted the senior Mrs. Lincoln, now well past-eighty. (Sarah being unable to read or write may have been the main impediment for prior correspondence.) Mary wrote the elderly woman a very graceful letter of mutual condolence. She also sent Sarah Lincoln some personal mementos of her illustrious stepson, and even a bolt of cloth for a new dress.
Berry, Stephen – House of Abraham – Houghton Mifflin, 2007
Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage – Ballantine Books, 2008
Sandburg, Carl – Lincoln Collector – Harcourt Brace & Co., 1950