August 21, 2003
Im not Abe Lincolns most
sympathetic critic. In fact former Congressman Jack Kemp has numbered
me among assassins of Lincolns character. My
character assassination consisted in quoting Lincolns own words
and citing his actual record on the subject of race, which were not at all
what we were taught in school; but let that ride for the moment.
For all my reservations about
Lincoln, and especially for the mythology that has grown up around him,
there is one side of his life that provokes only compassion.
Lincoln evidently didnt
care much for his own father. He rarely spoke of him at all, and never, as
far as we know, affectionately. Abe never even introduced his wife and
children to his father. He declined to visit Thomas Lincoln on his deathbed,
didnt attend his funeral, and didnt buy a headstone for his
Thomas was known as a
roving and shiftless man, poor white trash
with no ambition. He was barely literate, able to sign his own name only
bunglingly, as Abraham later put it. The elder Lincoln
sounds very much like Huck Finns Pap.
The few accounts we have tell us
that Thomas sometimes struck his son on slight provocation, ridiculed his
love of reading, and compared him unfavorably to his stepbrothers. Thomas
disparaged eddication, and is said to have thrown some of
Abes books away out of spite. When Abe was big enough to earn
money at labor, Thomas took every penny of his earnings. No wonder Abe
later said he knew what it was to be a slave. As far as we
know, Abe received only humiliation from his father.
But to me the most shocking
detail is this. Abe was a tender-hearted boy who loved animals; even as an
adult he was known for his mercy to beasts, once soiling his clothes by
rescuing a squealing pig that was stuck in the mud. As a boy he had a pet
pig he was devoted to. One day Thomas slaughtered the pig.
There are worse things you can do to a child, but
killing his pet ranks pretty high for sheer cruelty. After doing a thing like
that, you shouldnt be amazed if your son doesnt drop by to
pay his respects when youre breathing your last. Abe had known
other griefs, chiefly his mothers early death, but this was one
Thomas deliberately inflicted.
Abraham Lincolns whole
life looks like an attempt to make himself the very opposite of Thomas
Lincoln. He painfully educated himself, worked hard, became a lawyer.
When his business failed and his partner left him with a large debt, he
refused to declare bankruptcy and took years paying off every penny.
As a father, Lincoln doted on his
children. He spoiled them and couldnt bear to discipline them, often
to the great annoyance of other adults.
According to Lincolns
junior law partner, Billy Herndon (who knew only what he heard from
Lincoln), Thomas Lincoln had no marked aversion for the
bottle a hint that the old man was a drunkard. This may
help explain why Lincoln was a teetotaler and joined a temperance society
as an adult. It may also explain the old mans ugly bursts of temper.
Thomas did learn to read well
enough to stumble through the Bible, but his Baptist piety didnt rub
off on Abe. To the contrary. As a young man, Abe became a militant
free-thinker. He read Voltaire, Tom Paine, and other free-thinkers and
wrote a book attacking Christianity. His employer burned the only
manuscript so it wouldnt get him into trouble.
Even so, Lincolns
hostility to religion became notorious, causing the local clergy to oppose
him when he entered politics. He had to deny that he was an open
scoffer against religion. In time he made brilliant use of Scripture
in his speeches, but he seems to have remained a skeptic at heart all his
life. He never joined a church, and he was attending the theater on Good
Friday when he was shot.
Such was the son of Thomas
Lincoln, who would have been astonished if hed lived to see his son
become president of the United States. I cant help thinking that the
pig who died at Thomass hands was a key to the rest of
Lincolns life his Rosebud, as it were.