A recent discovery that Thomas Lincoln, the father of Abraham, held the fairly important rank of Ensign in the Kentucky militia in 1805 leads us to consider yet again how the son viewed the father’s station in life. Jim Siberell is the Ohio native who turned up the document in a Kentucky archive concerning the state’s early militia. He published the full story in The Lincoln Herald (v. 112, no. 4, for Winter 2010, pp. 234-245). He explains that an Ensign was the rank higher than ordinary militia member, and that above Ensign were the ranks Captain, Major, and Colonel. Thomas’s older brother Mordecai had advanced to the rank of Major. Other evidence suggests that Tom Lincoln’s purchase of a second sword in 1814 speaks of continued Ensign duty.
As an Ensign, Tom Lincoln needed to show the ability to muster a company of Hardin County men 4 times a year, drill them, and, should the need arise, lead them in battle. Having seen his own father killed by Indians while plowing in 1786, Tom probably had a firmer resolve against a return of such depredations to the frontier than did some others; though no one on any western frontier until almost 1900 was unaware of the possible threat. Keeping an eye on the arrival of newcomers to the county was another responsibility, in order to get those men signed on for the required militia service.
These skills were inherited and/or continued by Abraham Lincoln in New Salem, Illinois, in 1832. New to Sangamon County himself, he was nevertheless elected captain of a small troop when the Black Hawk War broke out. He mustered the men, drilled them, and led them north toward the arena of battle, though never actually saw any fighting. He did see scalped white victims of an attack, and helped bury them.
In 1860, then, 9 years after his father’s death, Lincoln wrote an autobiography for use in his presidential campaign. Part of the goal for the well-known and successful attorney was to associate himself with the hardscrabble pioneer folk. Lincoln described his deceased father as one who “never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name.” Based upon the surviving record today, this was nearly accurate, though we may question anew the reasons for that situation.
We might expect an Ensign to be a social and military cut above the ruck of common settlers. Comparing signatures from the ALPLM, we may now surmise that something had physically altered Thomas’s ability to or habit of handling a pen. The learned lawyer in Springfield very likely never saw anything in his father’s hand but later-in-life court documents, and assumed that the crabbed or inept marks reflected Tom’s lifelong style. But in this, Abraham would have been wrong.
Had a lifetime of carpentry work and farming so crippled Tom Lincoln’s hands that his ability to write was fading by the 1820s? That is the period when his son would have been old enough to grow cognizant of his father’s script, without having the maturity to understand the consequences of overwork, arthritis, perhaps even a mild stroke. (It is also a period for which the ALPLM owns none of the rare Tom Lincoln signatures, so my speculation here cannot be fully illustrated.)
Modern science provides us with another possible explanation. SCA5 is one form of ataxia, a muscular disorder that usually attacks between the ages of about 30 and 50. It leaves muscles weak and can cause oddities of gait. A heavy incidence of this malady, which can lead to somewhat premature death, has been found by a team of geneticists (working in Minnesota and Florida) in descendants today of Tom’s parents Abraham and Bathsheba Lincoln, who had 3 sons and 2 daughters. The chance of inheriting the malady from a parent was and is 50%. We are quite certain that the 16th president, who thus stood a 25% chance of having it, did not; the evidence is simply not found in his writing or his movements. But did 50-50 Thomas have it? (If Tom did, the President’s resulting 50-50 chance is not born out by the evidence, either.)
Candidate Lincoln would have had no way to know about ataxia, nor can we prove what afflicted Tom. But for a man who at age 27 in 1805 was a leader of other men and a strong signer in ink a year later on his marriage bond, the future held a worse fate physically than a son who went his own, self-educated way: inability on an 1836 document even to sign a simple Christian ‘X.’
In sum, Tom Lincoln had many deficiencies of training and luck, and the frontier taught him that reading and writing were hardly necessary to make a living on good soil. Abraham fairly described his father’s later script, from the point of view of a city lawyer, but that did not sum up the worth of the man. Abraham and Mary’s youngest son Thomas, called Tad, bearing his grandpa’s name, did not learn to read or write till his teenage years — after his father’s death — and died at 18, though not from ataxia. There is a poignant comment on inheritance.
Episode 6, An interview with Richard Hellesen: On this episode of Stories from the Vault, we sit down with playwright Richard Hellesen. We discuss his writing process, the play One Destiny and his newest work Necessary Sacrifices.
In the mid-19th century the mass production of prints and images allowed average citizens to own scenes and portraits that might serve as sources of inspiration. One such example is the Alexander H. Ritchie print of Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s painting of First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet. The print was wildly popular. Although sales figures are lacking for this period, the number of prints that can be found today online and at flea markets shows that it was widely disseminated.
One individual who purchased a copy was Herbert Hoover’s grandfather Eli. The following narrative was written by the 31st President (who served from 1929 to 1933) and attached to the back of the framed print that now hangs in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum in West Branch, Iowa. The reader should note that duringHoover’s term as president, the print hung above the very fireplace depicted within the print.
“This print is from the Carpenter painting which hangs in the House of Representatives in Washington. The painting was made from life. The scene is Lincoln’s study in the White House. The fireplace in the background is the same today and is easily identified. The figures in the painting were sketched in by Carpenter in the study but he did the detailed portrait work in the East Room. The prints were a part of every Midwest household for years after the Civil War.
“This copy was given to my father Jessie Hoover by his father Eli Hoover soon after my father was married and set up housekeeping in the little cottage at West Branch in about 1871. Thereafter this picture was probably there when I was born. After my mother’s death in 1879, the print was kept by an uncle Allan Hoover until his death in about 1922 when it went to his brother Davis Hoover. Uncle Davis gave it to me with the above history in 1927. It hung in my study at 2300 S Street, Washington, D.C., until 1929, when Mrs. Hoover removed it to the White House where it hung over the same mantel which appears in the picture. It remained there for four years until 1933. It was then removed to Palo Alto, and was brought back to my apartment in Waldorf Towers [on Park Avenue in New York] in 1945. Thus its history seems clear for about 75 years!”
Long before Jackie Kennedy refurbished the White House in the early 1960s, First Lady Lou Henry Hoover extensively documented the White House rooms and furnishings in photographs. She and President Hoover also converted the Lincoln Bedroom back into the original study and cabinet room as depicted in Ritchie’s print. Hoover used this as his private study and spent numerous hours in it conducting the affairs of state. In a search for the original furnishings, a number of items turned up, only to be eliminated after careful research. Four side chairs were the only items that could be reasonably ascertained as coming from the Lincoln presidency. Undoubtedly, Abraham Lincoln remained Hoover’s inspiration for presidential leadership.
When Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861, formally starting a Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was 52 years and 2 months old. I am now 52 years and 2 months old. Though I am not president, perhaps some perspective on the many questions about his physical and mental health during the exigent days of his presidency can be gained by a comparison.
He loved his wife, though men and women become gradually less compatible as they age. I love my wife, and yes, that gap in activities and cares is felt in our home, too. Despite the occasional yelling, he and Mary were fine; so are my wife and I. Thanks for asking.
He worked too hard. He lost weight as a result. He did not sleep all that much. Ditto.
He did not drink, and his stories were much admired by friend and even foe alike, and these traits undoubtedly kept him youthful. I fail to meet his standard on both counts.
His feet bothered him a fair bit, and he did not own a pair of boots that fit him comfortably until the last year of his life. We are luckier today: our shoes fit fine, and very few of us suffer from saddle sores. No mercury in our pills, either.
His beard was thinning, and graying just a bit, like the hair at his temples. Mary used a little hair dye to stay ‘young,’ and some have wondered if Abraham borrowed it, but we have no real evidence to support that view. I am not growing a beard or using that stuff.
His two living children by spring 1862 marched to the beat of very different drums. Same choreography in my house. Both of our olders: hard-working, popular, destined for greatness of some sort. Our youngers: rambunctious, not that interested in l’arnin’ or settin’ still – just spunky to beat the band. As they age, they need less parental minding, and that phenomenon suited the presidential schedule.
No one is interested in my DNA. Lincoln’s is sought by people in a half-dozen professions. We probably would learn nothing by sequencing his 150-year-old protein strands. From mine, well, we already know that color-blindness is heritable. This mad pursuit for Lincoln’s DNA is probably fruitless. He did not have Marfan’s Syndrome, and any other maladies he might have had evidently did not lead him to or prevent him from saving the Union or freeing the slaves. Or visiting Gettysburg, as depicted in the artwork here.
The matter far larger than molecules was his daily effort to save the great institutions around him and rectify the ills. Me too, but without his power and grace. Advancing his Presidential Library within so parlous a budgetary environment may kill me yet, and both of us can get ‘voted’ out by our peers. But we fight on with the help of most around us, as would most people in our chairs, “for a vast future also.” There was nothing wrong with Lincoln that an hour with Burns’s poems or a stroll across the park couldn’t cure. Mary forced him to take carriage rides with her to calm him down and keep them close. It worked. It’s the outlook that keeps you healthy.
No, Lincoln’s health as a question should fade to nothingness under the glaring July 4th sun of a separate question: the health of the “republican example” he wished the United States to set for the world. He would not “abandon that position,” as he told Congress on July 4, 1861 (150 years ago today). And his health did not abandon him. Lincoln was ever the doctor, and never the patient in his own lifetime.