Abraham Lincoln, Father Abraham

There is no question that Abraham Lincoln loved his wife and children dearly, but was he a “family man” by nature?

Lincoln: The Family Child

thomas and sarah lincoln

Abraham Lincoln’s father and stepmother, Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln. He was remote, she was encouraging.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was born to a hard-working, but essentially poor family. By his own admission, his youth was “the annals of the poor.”   His mother died when he was nine. His older-by-two-years sister Sarah died in childbirth when she was still in her twenties.

Like many widowed men with small children, his father, Thomas Lincoln, planned to remarry not long after his wife’s funeral. Life was hard; spouses needed spouses. Recalling a childhood friend from years earlier, and knowing she was a widow with small children herself, he sought her out. They agreed to marry, a fortuitous event, at least in the eyes of Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah Bush Johnston came into the family with three children in fair proximity to the Lincolns. Her son, John Johnston, would bond easily and pleasantly with Thomas Lincoln. They hunted, they fished, they were two of a kind – and it was a kind that Abraham never was. He, on the other hand, would bond with his new stepmother. She would later recall that “they understood each other.” It would be Sarah Lincoln who encouraged her stepson to read and learn.

If there was love in that family, it might better be described as “affectionate distance.”

Lincoln: The Non-Family Young Man

When Abraham Lincoln reached maturity (age 21), he set out on his own. He had nothing save the clothes on his back. Once he left the Lincoln household, he never returned, except for brief visits, although he kept in general touch – and was solicitous for the family’s welfare. He would eventually purchase the land for their homestead, so they would not be in want.

By sheer dint of his own efforts, he made his way in the world, and it was a struggle. Parlaying slight encouragement from casual mentors, and a disposition that always gained him friends and regard, he educated himself. He “read law” – alone, and managed to pass the Illinois bar.


Mary Owens was one of the few documented “romantic” episodes in Lincoln’s early life. She was a heavy woman, and Lincoln was not attracted to her.

His “romantic” experiences were few and unsatisfactory. According to Mary Owen his one “potential” romance, he “lacked those little links which make up the great chain of woman’s happiness.” Lincoln was not attracted to her, but even so…

As it was, it would not be until he was thirty and Mary Todd had entered his life, that Lincoln’s tender private feelings would be uncovered. It was a somewhat rocky romance, and historians have teetered back and forth for a hundred and fifty years to try to determine its true nature.

But they married; Mary became pregnant immediately. Lincoln, still poor and in debt, needed to earn a living. They had precious little time to devote to each other.

Lincoln: The Family Man

Abraham and Mary Lincoln would have four sons. Robert, Edward, Willie and Tad. Their second son, Eddie had always been sickly and died before his fourth birthday.

Lincoln family3

An idealized etching of the Lincoln family. Abraham, Willie, Tad, Robert and Mary. Their second son, Eddie, had died in early childhood.

Robert Lincoln, the couple’s eldest son, would claim that he barely knew his father. During his early years, the elder Lincoln was “riding the circuit” for weeks and even months at a time. Robert’s earliest memories centered around his mother, and some spotty recollections of his sick brother. By the time Willie and Tad were old enough to be his playmates, Robert was in prep school, preparing for college.

The “playful” Lincoln, the one that Willie and Tad knew better, was a Lincoln well past forty. While he was never wealthy, he had become comfortably middle-class, and could devote himself to his Springfield law office, rather than making a continual round-robin of Illinois court houses.

But even then, politics had far more allure to Father Lincoln than did home-and-family life. Having had little enjoyment of family when he was a boy himself, perhaps he had no point of reference.

It is also well known (and well commented) that Mary was a difficult woman, and perhaps Lincoln preferred the male camaraderie or even his solitude to the noise of the parlor atmosphere.

Finding the Time for the Family

Lincoln Family

An etching of The Lincoln family after Willie had died. Abraham and Mary, Tad and Robert.

Tad and Dad

Abraham Lincoln and Tad. The President was devoted to his youngest son, particularly after Willie had died.

President Lincoln was unquestionably beset with care, problems and a heavy workload during the four years of Civil War. He had even less time than before to devote to family matters. Even when his 11-year-old son Willie died, he had precious little time to mourn. He had little left in him to comfort his deeply troubled wife, whose intense mourning worried him. Robert was away at college, most of the time. The only thing that gave the President “family” comfort was his son Tad, who at eight, was still somewhat babyish.

Finally the Civil War ended. The bleeding had stopped. If the President urged the nation to bandage its wounds, so must the President. The morning of April 14, Robert Lincoln was home on leave from the Army, and had a chance to discuss his future with his father: he wanted to return to Harvard and go to law school. Lincoln agreed. Later that afternoon, in a rare drive with his wife – just the two of them – he began the binding of his own wounds, and discussed their future, once he retired from the Presidency. Mary would claim she had never seen her husband so cheerful.

He was finally making time for his family. But there wasn’t any time.



Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life – Harper Collins, 2009

Donald, David H. – Lincoln – Simon & Schuster, 1995

Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage – Ballantine Books, 2008

Lachman, Charles – The Last Lincolns – Union Square Press, 2008



About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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1 Response to Abraham Lincoln, Father Abraham

  1. awax1217 says:

    It was rumored that Lincoln had a disease which gave him long fingers and a caved in chest. Marfan’s disease. It attacks organs. Most men of this time period were not family men in the sense of today’s family men. In fact they spent most time working, especially in the fields. They tended to be isolated in their behavior. Hugs were not in the style of the day. Distance was.

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