A World in Miniature
Like all Americans of European descent, Abraham Lincoln's ancestors were immigrants. Most of Lincoln's distant forebears are lost to history, with the notable exception of one great-great-great-great-grandfather: Samuel Lincoln. In 1637, the teenage weaver's apprentice left the East Anglian village of Hingham in the county of Norfolk, England, and headed across the sea to America.
We cannot know for certain why Samuel emigrated, but a number of his Puritan neighbors, as well as his brother Thomas, had preceded him to the New World earlier in the decade in search of economic opportunity or religious freedom, or both. Samuel's father had been disinherited, reducing the family's circumstances, so the young man most likely set out for the colonies to escape poverty.
No hard evidence exists to support periodic speculation that earlier ancestors, perhaps named Linkhorn, may have been Melungeon Jews who had earlier fled thirteenth-century antisemitic persecution in the English village of Lincoln, in the East Midlands. Yet, after Lincoln's death, the prominent Cincinnati rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise stoked this legend by claiming that the President "supposed himself to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage . . . bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh," adding, "He said so in my presence." Other legends trace the family roots to Lindum Colonia, a Roman outpost established near the western coast of England in A.D. 58, or to a Thomas de Lingcole who lived in Norfolk in the thirteenth century during the reign of King Edward I.
We can be sure only that Samuel Lincoln, then barely fifteen years old, set sail from the port of Yarmouth aboard the ship John & Dorothy, along with the weaver to whom he was indentured, and arrived at Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony after a perilous three-thousand-mile journey that lasted more than two months. Eventually, Samuel moved to a tiny Massachusetts village whose settlers named it New Hingham after the English hamlet many of them had left behind.
It is worth noting that Samuel Lincoln's 1637 ocean crossing commenced only a few decades after the first slave ships from Africa deposited their abducted human cargo on North American soil. Unlike Samuel, these Black "immigrants" neither consented to their passage nor harbored hope for opportunity in the Western Hemisphere. They did not flee oppression at home; they found it here. They enjoyed no liberty of movement once in America, because slave traders sold them as property to white "owners" who kept their children in bondage, too, while Samuel Lincoln's descendants would migrate freely, south to Virginia, into Pennsylvania, then west to Kentucky.
Abraham Lincoln knew next to nothing about his origin story: only that he had come from a line of what he self-consciously termed "undistinguished families-second families, perhaps I should say." In an autobiographical sketch submitted to the Chicago Tribune in 1860, he said little at all about his maternal ancestry, mapping his paternal side only as far as Berks County, Pennsylvania, a few generations earlier. "His lineage has been traced no farther back than this," he wrote (in the third person), even though several correspondents had recently alerted him to a "vague tradition" that earlier Lincolns might have lived elsewhere. "Further back than this," he nonetheless reiterated to a distant relative, "I have never heard any thing." He did admit that some of his forebears "were originally quakers," but hastened to add that "in later times they have fallen away from the peculiar habits of that people."
He did know that in 1786, Native Americans had ambushed and killed his paternal grandfather and namesake, an earlier Abraham Lincoln, on the farm the pioneer was hewing out of the thick Kentucky forest. "The story of his death by the Indians," he later recalled, ". . . is the legend more strongly than all others imprinted upon my mind and memory." The "stealth" murder left Lincoln's six-year-old father orphaned-"in poverty, and in a new country," Lincoln noted-and thus "he became a wholly uneducated man; which I suppose is the reason why I know so little of our family history."
Of his mother's roots, Lincoln knew even less, and historians have learned little since. Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who gave birth to Abraham on February 12, 1809, died when the boy was nine, and the truth of her ancestry died with her. Rumors abounded-then and now-that she had been born to unmarried parents, complicating Lincoln's family history even more. The future president's law partner and biographer, William H. Herndon, claimed that Lincoln had revealed the alleged truth about his mother's background just once, during an 1850 buggy ride, supposedly confiding that Nancy's father was "a well-bred Virginia farmer or planter." He consoled himself by theorizing that "illegitimate children are oftentimes sturdier and brighter than those born in lawful wedlock; and in his case, he believed that his better nature and finer qualities came from" this "unknown" Virginian. Not that he did not credit the mother he had lost in early boyhood. According to Herndon, Lincoln believed that "all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her."
Of course, had he been more curious about his ancestry, Lincoln might have investigated his family tree more thoroughly, especially once various cousins began corresponding with him after he became a presidential contender. As a general rule, however, Lincoln preferred not to look back. From an early age, he focused exclusively on the future. "I don't know who my grandfather was," he once remarked, "and I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be."
It apparently never occurred to him that Grandfather Lincoln had died at the hands of Indigenous people whose own forebears had been forced away or killed off by settlers of European descent. The otherwise inspiring story of American immigration typically omits the parallel displacement and enslavement of nonwhites. European Americans of Lincoln's generation seldom viewed these phenomena as part of an interconnected ethnic and national realignment with ugly human consequences. The overlooked and inescapable impact of displacement, containment, and deportation deserves to be considered alongside European settlement in American history, even if Lincoln himself disregarded the ironies and inequities baked into the legacy of which he was a product.
Lincoln's own interactions with the foreign-born did not begin until he was nineteen years old, and only after a childhood spent in rural isolation on the prairies of Kentucky and Indiana. In his early youth, his closest exposure to this new breed of Americans came from his first teacher, an "old Irish schoolmaster" named Zachariah Riney. The middle-aged settler, who actually hailed from Maryland, was described by Lincoln's future law associate Henry Clay Whitney as "a man of excellent character, deep piety, and a fair education. He had been born a Catholic," added Whitney, "but made no attempt to proselyte." Apparently, Catholic educators of the day were all but expected to try to convert innocent students, and exceptions earned praise. (Riney would spend his final years of life as a Trappist monk at the Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky.)
Lincoln first came face-to-face with actual Europeans and other foreigners during his now-fabled flatboat voyages down the Mississippi River to New Orleans in 1828 and 1831. There, in the most cosmopolitan of antebellum American cities, the wide-eyed visitor first heard the sounds of French and Spanish, two of the languages its diverse residents, tourists, and tradesmen routinely spoke on the streets and in the marketplaces. Visiting this "patch-work of peoples" at around the same time, even the more worldly Basil Hall of the British Royal Navy marveled, "my ears were struck with the curious mixture of languages." As a recently issued multilingual city directory boasted: "The population is much mixed. [T]here is a great 'confusion of tongues,' and on the Levée, during a busy day, can be seen people of every grade, colour, and condition: in short it is a world in miniature." Lincoln's milestone experience vastly widened his horizons-New Orleans was as close as Lincoln would ever get to a foreign destination (except for a brief visit to Niagara Falls, Canada)-but unlike Captain Hall, he recorded no impressions of his exposure there to alien cultures and tongues.
Only in 1860 did he approve a description of the metropolis as he had seen it, as drafted by writer William Dean Howells for an authorized campaign biography. In Howells's ornate, un-Lincolnesque retelling, the young man had discovered in New Orleans a port "where the French voyageur and the rude hunter that trapped the beaver on the Osage and the Missouri, met the polished old-world exile, and the tongues of France, Spain, and England made babel in the streets." In truth, what struck Lincoln most indelibly in the Crescent City was the repulsive omnipresence of slavery-"Negroes Chained-maltreated-whipt & scourged," remembered his cousin and traveling companion, John Hanks. "Lincoln Saw it-his heart bled."
Lincoln also encountered free Blacks of Creole extraction on his visit to New Orleans. As historian Jason H. Silverman has speculated, that eye-opening experience likely laid the foundation for his future friendship with Springfield, Illinois, barber William Florville (originally de Fleurville), a Haitian immigrant who had lived in New Orleans for a time and had also observed slaves there "bought whipped, and sold." Years later, Lincoln would become both a customer of and an attorney for the Black entrepreneur, and the two developed a cordial relationship. After Lincoln moved to the White House, "Billy the Barber" sent the President one of the few letters he ever received from his hometown unencumbered by pleas for money, favors, or government jobs. "May God grant you health, and strength," Florville wrote in late 1863 to the "truly great Man" who by then had broken the "Shackels" [sic] of slavery. "Tell Taddy"-Lincoln's youngest son-"that his (and Willys) Dog is alive and Kicking. . . . Your Residence here is Kept in good order. . . . Please accept my best wishes for yourself and family."
Only after returning from his second journey to New Orleans did Lincoln strike out on his own in life. In July 1831, the twenty-two-year-old emigrated from his father's newly built log cabin in Coles County, Illinois, to a small mill town he had encountered on his most recent flatboat adventure: New Salem. To call New Salem a village amounted to a civic exaggeration; more accurately, it was a pioneer settlement, a cluster of two dozen small log buildings above a barely navigable stream known optimistically as the Sangamon River.
No one could have described the area as multicultural. Its residents or their parents had moved there from the South and the East, but not from other countries. Still, New Salem was more diverse than any place Lincoln had ever lived. The rowdy community included Baptists, Methodists, and a few freethinkers; the different religious beliefs led to many heated arguments about Sabbath observance and Bible reading, among other issues. His neighbors later recalled that at one point Lincoln ventured into the religion debate by preparing "a pamphlet attacking the divinity of christ." Admirers who quickly saw it as a threat to the already ambitious Lincoln's political future threw the text into a hot stove so that no one else would ever read it.
Standing out from the crowd in New Salem, Lincoln made friends, read books, honed his natural leadership skills, and cemented his Whig political leanings. Above all, he fervently embraced the party's core belief in "internal improvements"-infrastructure investments vital to transforming New Salem into an accessible destination. In his maiden political message to voters, the twenty-three-year-old enumerated these goals in terms any villager could understand: "good roads," "the clearing of navigable streams," and the introduction of the "rail road."
Lincoln actually secured his first government position not from the Whigs but from the rival Democrats. He became town postmaster, a federal job so insignificant that no local Democrat asked the Jackson administration for the position. The assignment paid next to nothing but did afford Lincoln access to a regular flow of incoming newspapers from other regions. These he habitually perused before their subscribers came to call for them. On their pages he likely first read about the initial influx of Europeans seeking fortune and freedom, and stirring early resentments, in the still-young American nation.
A highlight of his New Salem years came in April 1832. Flush with war fever, Lincoln and several of his neighbors joined the Illinois Volunteers to fend off an Indian incursion led by the Sauk chief Black Hawk in violation of a harsh treaty banning the tribe from the state. Lincoln's company promptly elected him captain, and three decades later he asserted that "he has not since had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction." Lincoln would later make sport of his brief experience in uniform, declaring that the only blood he shed had been drawn by "musquetoes." Whether he was accepting or shunning military glory, it apparently never struck Lincoln that Black Hawk and his followers regarded white soldiers as the real invaders, or at the very least as unwelcome "immigrants" occupying Native land.
Military service was considered a prerequisite for political success, but ironically, because he reenlisted (as a private) and remained largely unavailable to campaign for office, Lincoln lost his first bid for the Illinois state legislature in August 1832. Two years later, he did win a seat, after which he began to study law. By this time, he had outgrown his surroundings. Like the village dry goods store in which he had invested and lost money, New Salem itself seemed destined to "wink out," so Lincoln moved on. In 1837, he packed his meager belongings into saddlebags and relocated to the newly minted state capital of Springfield-exactly two hundred years after his ancestor Samuel had abandoned England for America. In an even greater numerological coincidence, Lincoln arrived in Springfield on April 15; he was twenty-eight years old and had twenty-eight more years to live-to the day.
Foreign immigration was not quite yet a contentious issue in the American West. But enough foreign-born settlers had migrated to Illinois to fuel the newcomer's already renowned gift for storytelling. "Abraham Lincoln was the drollest man I ever saw," remembered his Illinois acquaintance Clark E. Carr. "He could make a cat laugh." Lincoln's fellow Black Hawk War veteran Joseph Gillespie added, "No man could tell a story as well as he could[.] He never missed the nib on an anecdote." By now the increasingly mesmerizing public speaker had armed himself with a seemingly endless supply of on-point stories. Although many of the yarns he spun to friends tended to the sexual or scatological, for a time he also told ethnic jokes in both public and private. No bigot, the Lincoln of this period can best be described as an equal-opportunity comedian. His jibes spared none and offended few.
Copyright © 2024 by Harold Holzer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.