Stepmothers get a bad rap in fiction and in real life, but one of our most revered presidents cherished his. Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having said, “All I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel Mother.” According to his law partner, William Herndon, Abe was referring to his stepmother, Sarah, who raised him after his mother, Nancy Hanks, died when Abe was only nine years old.
I learned this after stumbling across an old book my husband inherited from his Curtis grandparents. As the fifth generation of only sons, Dan inherited books ranging from a McGuffey’s Reader to a 1975 issue of the Hoosier Caravan, in which I discovered a wonderful biography of Abraham Lincoln, written by Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana.
According to Beveridge, Lincoln, though born in Kentucky, lived his most formative years, ages seven to twenty- one, in Indiana. His mother, Nancy, was respected as a good woman, who most likely, was killed by her own kindness. Always a helpful neighbor, she caught a fatal disease while caring for other people already stricken with it. From Nancy, Abe inherited empathy for others. He was known for his opposition to cruelty to animals, which other boys his age engaged in far too often. His soft heart was clearly not from his father, Tom Lincoln, who, according to Abe’s cousin, Dennis Hanks, did not like his own son. He preferred his stepson, John Johnston.
After Nancy died, Tom heard that his first love, Sarah Bush Johnston, was now a widow with three children, so Tom returned to Kentucky to convince her to marry him. Sarah’s brother, who would otherwise be responsible for his sister and her children, urged her to accept Tom’s proposal and apparently, also gave Tom some money to help make the transition easier.
Sarah was a blessing in more ways than one. Tom brought her to a rough, log cabin with no windows or a door, and dirt for a floor. In this small cabin, Sarah would cook and clean for her own three children and Tom’s two children and their cousin, Dennis Hanks. She brought Tom her own household goods, including bedding, utensils and furniture. She asked Tom to improve the cabin, and to also treat his son more compassionately. She and Abe had more in common than Tom, who admired physical labor but had little interest in book learning.
Sarah had also brought books with her, but Dennis Hanks said that if Tom caught Abe reading a book when he should have been working, he would knock the boy clear across the room. Heavily built, Tom was like a block of wood compared to Abe, who looked more like a bean pole. Abe’s trousers always seemed too short, showing about six inches of his ankles. Being skinny and dark skinned, Abe did not fare well when compared to his better-looking step brother.
Abe was different, not just different from Tom but from most people. He had an amazing mind. He could sit through a sermon, then afterwards, quote verbatim every word of the sermon and even mimic the minister’s voice. He could spell down every other pupil in a classroom, give riveting speeches and write articles that were published while he still in his teens.
Singing was a popular form of recreation among those pioneer families, but Abe was no singer either. He compensated for what he lacked by being entertaining. He learned early to joke, hoping to keep his father from hitting him. When, Abe at the age of seven, killed his first turkey, he told his father that there were so many turkeys flying around that turkey hunting would be hard only if he was trying to miss hitting one.
When Sarah saved paper for him, he made himself a copy book by sewing the sheets together, then labeled it with the words: “Abraham Lincoln, his hand and pen. He will be good, but God knows when.” Sarah recognized and appreciated Abe’s hunger for knowledge and his love of writing. Paper was scarce, so he would do his arithmetic on a piece of wood, which he would shave to be used again. Sarah also intervened when Tom punished Abe for reading and managed to convince Tom that Abe’s future would be more prosperous if his son were better educated.
In those days, children worked at whatever jobs they could find and until they were eighteen, the law required them to turn their earnings over to their parents. The prospect of having a son who might become prosperous appealed to Tom, who became more supportive of Abe’s efforts to improve his knowledge. Other people in the small community also helped by loaning Abe their books. The myth that Abe studied at night in front of a log fire was nonsense, according to his cousin, Dennis, who said that it was early to bed and early to rise in that household. Besides, a smoldering fire in a dark cabin would have provided almost no light.
Abe tended to be forgetful, though, and once left a neighbor’s book out in the rain. He was then required to repay the loss through hard labor. Though farming, plowing, fence building and log splitting held no interest for him, Abe did what was required of him anyhow and became stronger from it. A neighbor, William Wood, remembered him, saying, “Abe could sink an axe deeper into wood…. and hit it with a mall harder than any man I ever saw.”
Abe loved books but was also thrilled when people gave or loaned him their newspapers. Newspapers introduced him to the world of politics, which he found deeply interesting. He said that when he needed to know something, he would look for a book on the subject, but newspapers told him what he didn’t know he needed to know. History books and law books taught him to love his country, its laws and its Constitution, but newspapers gave him the first hint of how he could serve his country by using the knowledge he had acquired.