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.