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The American System
The American Revolution was a revolt against restraint. And one of the first restraints to collapse was the one that had been imposed by British imperial authorities, in the decade before the Revolution, on new colonial settlements beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Once the stiff hand of British confinement was removed, curious American adventurers began pushing through the mountain gaps to spill out into the vast Ohio River valley, unlicensed land companies sprang up to sell title to tracts of land they had hardly bothered to investigate themselves, and, in 1780, a Shenandoah Valley farmer named Abraham Lincoln sold off the 210 acres of valley farmland he owned in Virginia and bought 1,200 new acres in the wilderness of what was already known as Kentucky.
The Lincoln family had actually been on the move ever since the first of the Lincolns arrived in Hingham, Massachusetts, in the 1630s, as part of the out-migration of disaffected Puritans fleeing an English church and an English government they had lost all hope of purifying. One of these Lincolns, Samuel, set up as a weaver in Hingham and died there in 1690; one of his sons, Mordecai, promptly began moving again, first to Hull, then to Cohasset; and then his sons, Abraham and another Mordecai, left New England entirely for northern New Jersey in the 1720s and Berks County in eastern Pennsylvania in 1730. This second Mordecai died prematurely in 1735, leaving land amounting to over a thousand acres in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania to be divided among his four sons, John Lincoln(from a first marriage in New Jersey), Thomas, and the by-now-predictable Mordecai and Abraham. As the oldest son, John Lincoln had been singled out in his father's will to inherit the family's 300-acre tract in New Jersey. But the Lincolns seem to have had a notorious reluctance to backtrack from ground they had already covered, and so John Lincoln remained in Pennsylvania, and then in 1758 followed a new stream of Pennsylvania emigrants south to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where he bought a 600-acre tract north of Harrisonburg, in the valley's center.
For all their rootlessness, the Lincoln clan had not done badly. The Lincolns who were left behind in Hingham prospered, and one of them, Levi Lincoln (a distant cousin of "Virginia John"), helped write Massachusetts's revolutionary constitution, and served as Thomas Jefferson's attorney general. John Lincoln's youngest brother, Abraham, married into the family of Daniel Boone, and John's father had actually held a number of minor public offices before his death. John's 600 acres in the Shenandoah was land enough to boost him into the ranks of the Virginia squireage, and when the Revolution came, one of his sons went into the Revolutionary army as an officer, while another, Abraham, married into one of the première families of the county and served in the Virginia militia as an ensign during Lord Dunmore's War (1774) and as a captain in the 1778 expedition to Ft. Laurens. Still, even 600 acres was not a great deal when it would come to be divided after John's death among his five sons. And so, even though John deeded a tract of 210 acres to his son Abraham in 1773, this newest Abraham took the first opportunity the Revolution presented, and in 1780 bolted over the Appalachians into Kentucky.
No Lincoln move looked less likely than this one. In the absence of British control during the Revolution, Virginia claimed Kentucky as its western province, and it was from Virginia's hastily contrived land offices that Abraham Lincoln bought his Kentucky domain. Virginia was still fighting the Revolution, and so Abraham Lincoln entered into what was, for the most part, an almost uncleared forest where many of the main routes of travel were controlled by British-allied Indians. It was a raiding party of one of these Indian tribes which caught Abraham in the open in 1786 while he was clearing ground with his three sons, and killed him. They might have killed the boys, too, and it appears that one of the raiders picked up the youngest, eight-year-old Thomas, to carry him off as a captive. But the oldest, Mordecai, snatched up a rifle and shot the raider dead, leaving his dazed younger brother miraculously safe.
The death of Abraham Lincoln was, remarkably, the first violent blow the Lincolns had received in their long march from Massachusetts. Its greatest weight was felt by young Thomas, since his father had died without a will, and control of the family's property seems to have fallen to his oldest brother Mordecai. "I have often said that Uncle Mord ran off with all the talents of the family," his presidential nephew said ruefully, and Mordecai Lincoln was often admired in later years as a man of "great good Common sense" and "Entitled to genius." But Mordecai was evidently not quite that selfish with either the talents or the family property. Mordecai Lincoln was "quite a story-teller ... and, to the last degree charitable and benevolent." Although Thomas Lincoln left for Tennessee to work as "a wandering laboring boy" for an uncle in 1798 and was then apprenticed as a cabinetmaker and carpenter in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, he came up with enough money in 1803 to buy 238 acres of land just north of Elizabethtown on Mill Creek and two forty-dollar lots in Elizabethtown; and it is likely that the money came from his older brother.
Three years later, at age 26, Thomas Lincoln married Nancy Hanks, a relative (possibly a niece) of the Elizabethtown carpenter from whom he had learned his trade. They lived briefly in Elizabethtown, where their first child, Sarah, was born in February, 1807, and then in 1808, they moved to a 300-acre farm on Nolin Creek, in Hardin County, Kentucky. There, on February 12, 1809, yet another Lincoln was born to the name of Abraham.
Abraham Lincoln remembered nothing of the place of his birth. The tillage was meager, and, what was worse, Thomas Lincoln's title to the property proved embarrassingly defective. To Thomas Lincoln's surprise, the farm turned out to have a lien against it from an earlier owner, and in 1813 that owner sued the subsequent owners (including Thomas Lincoln) for recovery of the property. A year later, Lincoln was forced to sell his other property on Mill Creek at a loss because, once again, there were problems with the title. Neither of these losses was entirely Thomas Lincoln's fault. Having been first settled under Virginia law, Kentucky land boundaries were laid out under the old English system of "metes and bounds," which reckoned boundaries from prominent landmarks and physical features. But in Kentucky, where an uncleared forest had yet to be leveled and where careful mapping of the ground was still unfinished, what was a prominent physical feature one day might disappear by the next. In the case of the Mill Creek property, the original survey line "would not close" (would not create a continuous boundary) and so Thomas Lincoln lost thirty-eight acres and a good deal of money.
Giving up on both the Nolin Creek and Mill Creek farms, Thomas Lincoln purchased a new farm of only thirty acres on Knob Creek, still in Hardin County. This farm was the stuff of Abraham Lincoln's "earliest recollection," although what he remembered in 1864 was not particularly encouraging: "it lay in a valley surrounded by high hills and deep gorges" where flash floods "coming down through the gorges washed ground, corn, pumpkin seeds and all clear off the field." It could not have been much sunnier for Thomas or Nancy Lincoln, either. A third child was born to them there, named Thomas, but the infant "did not live three days." And then, in September, 1815, Kentucky's unstable land titles struck again. "Mr. Thomas Lincoln, tenant in possession," was sued by the heirs of a wealthy land speculator, Thomas Middleton, whose ten-thousand-acre tract was suddenly discovered to include the Lincolns' thirty acres.
It would take until 1818 for this suit to be resolved, and Lincoln would actually win this one. But even before that point, Thomas Lincoln had decided he was sick of the uncertainties of Kentucky land titles, and uprooted his family yet again, this time to cross the Ohio River into the Indiana Territory. Crossing the Ohio brought the Lincolns into what amounted to a new world, since the Indiana Territory had been established, not by state authorities in Virginia, but under the aegis of the new national government as part of the great land ordinances of 1785 and 1787. Starting in Ohio and working westward by 1804 to Illinois, the federal government had undertaken a comprehensive land survey, which divided the geography of the Northwest into neat one-square-mile sections of 640 acres, with the price of these government lands pegged by the federal Land Law of 1800 at two dollars an acre.
Because Congress regarded land sales as a revenue device, initial sales were limited to the 640-acre sections, which meant that only the wealthiest speculators could hope to buy them. But in 1804 public pressure forced Congress gradually to reduce the minimum acreage to quarter-sections of 160 acres, and then to 80 acres. Even then, cashless squatters often took up occupation on their own, and it proved so difficult to evict them that Congress finally granted "pre-emption" to longtime squatters who had "improved" their lands and could pay the original "Congress price."
The genius of the system from the point of view of settlers like Thomas Lincoln was that the federal government guaranteed both clean surveys and indisputable title. What was more, territorial governor William Henry Harrison had successfully cleared Indiana of the dangerous Tecumseh Indian confederation in 1811, and the great chief Tecumseh himself had been killed in Canada at the battle of the Thames in 1813. Neither the Indians who had killed his father nor the speculators who had subverted his titles need threaten Thomas Lincoln in Indiana, and so in December, 1816, just as Indiana was being admitted as a full-fledged state in the Federal Union, Thomas Lincoln crossed over into southern Indiana and led his family to a site Thomas had selected on Little Pigeon Creek, in what was then Perry County near what became the crossroads hamlet of Gentryville. "This contry at that time was a perfect wilderness with out roads or bridges," remembered one neighbor of the Lincolns, "so that Thomas Lincoln and his little family had to cut a road throu heavy forrests of timber." Within a year he had made his first payment of sixteen dollars on a quarter-section of 160 acres of land.
But even in Indiana, Thomas Lincoln could not find shelter from one more dreadful reckoning. In the autumn of 1817, Nancy Lincoln's aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow, arrived on Pigeon Creek, trailing Nancy's illegitimate cousin, Dennis Hanks, with them. Thomas Lincoln hospitably put them up in a small cabin on his property until spring came when they could set about clearing their own land. But the following summer, southern Indiana broke out with what was known simply as "the milk sickness," which the settlers understood dimly as a poison that contaminated cows' milk. Actually, it came from the poisonous white snake-root plant, which cows often grazed upon; but it was passed through the cows' milk to whoever drank it, and the results were a slow paralysis, nausea, and death. The Sparrows came down with the milk sickness first, and both died of it; Nancy Lincoln, who may have drunk the Sparrows' cows' milk while nursing them in their death throes, collapsed and then died on October 5, 1818. Thomas Lincoln buried her less than a mile from their cabin, leaving him with two motherless children of his own and the now-twice-abandoned Dennis Hanks.
There seems to have been a streak of dogged persistence in Thomas Lincoln, because rather than reeling under these setbacks, Lincoln waited only until the next year's crop was in before he returned to Kentucky and proposed marriage to Sarah Bush Johnston, the widow of Daniel Johnston, another Hardin County farmer who had died in 1816. Thomas Lincoln was not a man of subtleties: he briskly proposed marriage "right off," and after paying several of Sally Johnston's debts, married her before a local Methodist minister on December 2, 1819. He then crated up Sally's belongings a bureau, a table, a clothes chest, a spinning wheel, "2 Beds & Bedding & other articles" and along with her three Johnston children (Elizabeth, John, and Matilda), brought her back over the Ohio River and the rutted roads that led to Little Pigeon Creek.
The arrival of Sarah Lincoln was a minor watershed in young Abraham Lincoln's life. "Mr. Lincoln had erected a good log cabin, tolerably comfortable," but subsistence agriculture was deeply committed to a rigidly patriarchal division of labor between men and women, and with the death of his wife, Thomas Lincoln evidently had no idea of how to fill the vacuum of "womens work" left by Nancy Hanks. Sally Bush Lincoln was "astonished to find that there was no floor or Door to the House of her Husband, no furniture of any Kind, no Beds or Bedding," while the Lincoln children "were Sufring greatly for clothes," young Abraham and Dennis Hanks being "Dressed mostly in Buck Skins." She "at once had a floor Laid in the House, Doors & Windows put in," and "Dressed the children up out of the Large supply she had brought with her."
But more than simply making things "snug and comfortable," Sally Bush Lincoln "Knew exactly how to Manage children," and brought genuine maternal affection into young Abraham's life. Lincoln, almost from the first, reciprocated her kindness with an affection he never extended to another woman. "She had been his best friend in the world," he later told one of the Johnston children. "No man could have loved a mother more than he loved her." After his father's death, Abraham stepped in to protect her financial interests from his opportunistic step-relatives; and his last personal visit before leaving Illinois forever in 1861 would be to Sarah Bush Lincoln. "Abe was a good boy," she told William Henry Herndon after Lincoln's death, "and I can say what scarcely one woman a mother can say in a thousand: Abe never gave me a cross word or look, and never refused, in fact or appearance, to do anything I requested him.... His mind and mine what little I had seemed to run together."
This inverts the Grimm-fairy-tale version of what stepmother relationships were expected to be, but it parallels an even greater inversion of the relationship that ought to have prevailed between Abraham and his father, Thomas. Some of this was clearly Thomas's fault. "Thos. Lincoln never showed by his actions that he thought much of his son Abraham when a Boy," recalled one Lincoln relative in 1865. "He treated him rather unkindly than otherwise, always appeared to think much more of his stepson John D. Johnston than he did of his own son, Abraham." Thick-set and "low-slung," Thomas was touchy and uncomfortable ruling over "a Boy" who was already showing signs of "uncommon natural Talents," and he "treated him with habitual cruelty." Thomas liked to think of himself as a jokester, but neighbors remembered how easily irritated and sometimes physically abusive Thomas became when his son began displaying the same gift for mimicry, and trying it out in public. "When strangers would ride along & up to his fathers fence," recalled Dennis Hanks, "Abe always, through pride & to tease his father, would be sure to ask the stranger the first question." Enraged by this "rude and forward" challenge to his own status as patriarch of the family, Thomas "would sometimes knock him a rod" or lay on with a whip.
This eventually became more than a simple clash of personalities. Although Thomas Lincoln was hardly the "ne'er-do-well" or "poor white trash" that Lincoln's first biographers painted the father as being in order to greater magnify his son's achievements, what is true is that he was a classic subsistence farmer who was, on the model of Jefferson's ideal "husbandman," "a piddler" who was ambitious mostly to produce by himself no more than what his household required. One of his neighbors remarked simply that Thomas Lincoln "was satisfied to live in the good old fashioned way; his shack kept out the rain; there was plenty of wood to burn ... the old ways were good enough for him." He "was happy lived Easy & contented" and "had but few wants and Supplied these ... Easily." The Lincoln farm "was well Stocked with Hogs, Horses & cattle," and once Sally Bush Lincoln had taken charge of the homestead, Thomas "raised a fine crop of Wheat, corn & vegetables." The Lincolns even "taned there own Leather," and young Dennis Hanks "made them Shoes out of their rude Leather." Even the "clothing was all made at home ... from cotton & Flax of there own raising." From a small store in Gentryville "they obtained many necessaries in life," but even then the "Legal tender" was really only barter, "Hogs and Venison hams ... and Coon skins all so." Overall, Thomas Lincoln "Jest Raised a Nuf for his own use" and "Did Not Send any produce to any other place Mor than Bought his Shugar and Coffee and Such Like."
Thomas Lincoln saw no reason why his son would not follow him in these classic agrarian patterns. "I was raised to farm work," Lincoln remembered in 1859, which meant (as he explained to John Locke Scripps a year later) that "A. though very young ... had an axe put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twentythird year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons." It also meant that as Lincoln grew into adolescence, Thomas loaned his son out to neighboring farmers as part of the incessant borrowing-and-swapping of rural subsistence networks of exchange, and kept for family use whatever goods and kind were offered as barter-style pay for the boy's labor. At least as early as thirteen, Abraham was cutting and pitching hay, felling and splitting logs for fences and firewood, working at the Ohio River ferries, and mostly for "pay ... in Store goods."
Instead of inuring the boy to the traditional patterns of Jeffersonian yeoman agriculture, the experience only embittered young Abraham. Lincoln often remarked in later years that "his father taught him to work but never learned him to love it" or at least not the kind of work his father intended for him. What he did cherish was a memory of a very different sort of work, of two men hurrying down to the ferry-landing on the Ohio River where Lincoln kept a small cock-boat, dragooning him into rowing them out mid-stream to intercept an oncoming steamboat, and each rewarding him with "a silver half-dollar" which they "threw ... on the floor of my boat."
Gentleman, you may think it was a very little thing, and in these days it seems to me a trifle; but it was a most important incident in my life. I could scarcely credit that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day.... The world seemed wider and fairer before me.
Abraham Lincoln had met the cash economy.
The tensions he experienced with his father surfaced in other ways as Abraham Lincoln grew toward manhood. The demands of farm work left little time for schooling, and Lincoln never ceased to lament the fact that his own education was "defective." He remembered that he and his sister had briefly attended "some schools, so called," but he estimated in 1860 that "the agregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year" (which is echoed by one neighbor's estimate that Lincoln "went to school ... about four winters"). The blame for this has usually been bestowed upon Thomas Lincoln, who his son disparagingly claimed "never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name," and who had the reputation for being frankly contemptuous of "eddication." (Sally Bush Lincoln agreed that "Mr. Lincoln could read a little & could scarcely write his name....")
But Lincoln conceded to Leonard Swett in 1853 that "my father ... determined at an early day that I should be well educated," and it is worth noticing that, since neither Kentucky nor Indiana had any publicly funded school systems while the Lincolns lived there, even the "A.B.C. schools" the Lincoln children attended had to be paid for by subscription, which was a sacrificial proposition for a less-than-wealthy farmer like Thomas Lincoln. And by all accounts, it was not a bad schooling either, to judge by the textbooks: Asa Rhoads's An American Spelling Book, Designed for the Use of Our Common Schools (1802) and possibly Noah Webster's The American Spelling Book (1783) for spelling; Nicholas Pike's A New and Complete System of Arithmetic, Composed for the Use of the Citizens of the United States (1788) for arithmetic; William Grimshaw's History of the United States (1820), David Ramsay's Life of George Washington (1807), and the more famous Life of Washington (1800) by "Parson" Mason Weems for history; The Kentucky Preceptor, Containing a Number of Useful Lessons for Reading and Speaking (1812), The American Speaker (1811) and William Scott's Lessons in Elocution, or a Selection of Pieces in Prose and Verse (1779) for "Speeches & pieces to recite" from Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Milton, William Cowper, and Thomas Gray; along with Americanized reprints (and bowdlerizations) of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, The Oriental Moralist (an American version of "The Arabian Nights"), and even "Aesop's Fables" (although apparently "No geography -- nor grammar").
It was not so much on education itself that the two Lincolns differed as on what purpose education should serve. Thomas Lincoln's "idea of a thorough education ... was to have me cipher through the rule of three." And much as he tried as "a rule never to aske him to lay down his book," Thomas Lincoln was easily irritated when Abraham began to bestow on reading time that his father might have better wanted to see him spend on hire-out labor, "his father having Sometimes to slash him for neglecting his work by reading." For Abraham, however, reading meant a catalyst for "Improvement," for self-transformation, for joining the ranks of the revolutionary soldiers on the pages of Parson Weems or of Henry V's bowmen at Agincourt (from Scott's Elocution), both of which "fixed themselves on my memory." He was "not Energetic Except in one thing," remembered his stepsister, Matilda Johnston, but "he was active & persistant in learning read Everything he Could." Obstinately, he would rather work to obtain books than "Store goods," and he was "so attatched to reading" that eventually his father allowed him to hire himself out in order to get copies of Caleb Bingham's The American Preceptor (1794) and Columbian Orator (1797), which promised to "improve youth and Others in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence."
Nor was it that Lincoln's education was so bad, as that it could have easily been so much better, which fueled his later disappointment. Only fifty miles away to the west, Robert Owen opened the experimental colony of New Harmony where a cadre of a thousand intellectuals, free-thinkers, and education reformers a "boatload of knowledge" headed by William Maclure, Charles Lesueur, Marie Fretageot, and Joseph Neef planned to preside over the establishment of a new society of "universal charity, benevolence, and kindness." Owen, the quondam industrialist and bankroller of New Harmony, bought the colony's property from a hermitage of religious recluses in 1825, and then took Washington by storm with his blueprint for an avant-garde community where "PRIVATE, OR INDIVIDUAL PROPERTY" and "ABSURD AND IRRATIONAL SYSTEMS OF RELIGION" would be abolished. The project survived for only two years after Owen's flatboat, the Philanthropist, dumped its collection of professors on the lower Wabash, as New Harmony broke up into the usual old disharmony over who was giving the orders. But the Lincolns could hardly have been ignorant of New Harmony Thomas Lincoln, in fact, briefly owned a small parcel of land close to New Harmony and Dennis Hanks years later claimed that Abraham Lincoln had wangled copies of New Harmony's short-lived newspaper, the New Harmony Gazette, to study.
He certainly developed more in common with New Harmony's religious skepticism than with his father's religion; in fact, on no other point did Abraham Lincoln come closer to an outright repudiation of his father than on religion. Thomas and Nancy Lincoln had been members in Kentucky of the Little Mount Separate Baptist Church, a congregation linked to one of a plethora of rigidly predestinarian Calvinist Baptist congregations scattered throughout central Kentucky and Tennessee, and once in Indiana they associated with the Little Pigeon Creek Baptist Church, which was organized in 1816. Although these churches and their county-based associations found enough differences among themselves to split into Separate, Regular, and even "Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit" factions, they were all (according to James Ross) "staunch Predestinarians, and gloried in the doctrine they preached."
Predestination, in this case, meant "that long before the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy at the glories of the new creation, the Almighty looked down upon the ages yet unborn, as it were, in review before him, and selected one here and another there to enjoy eternal life and left the rest to the blackness of darkness forever." Hence, the condition of one "not elected from the foundation of the world was as changeless and as hopeless as if he were already in the bottomless pit." This also meant, in practical terms, that if an individual "were not of the elect, all the preaching in the world would do [him] no good, so far as salvation was concerned, since they believed Christ died for the elect only." Hence, many of the Calvinist Baptist groups had no use for social reform movements, especially temperance and abolition. The Primitive Baptists in particular would, as the Primitive Baptist Gilbert Beebe declared in 1832, support "no Mission Boards for converting the heathen, or for evangelizing the world; no Sunday Schools as nurseries to the church; no schools of any kind for teaching theology and divinity, or for preparing young men for the ministry."
The attraction this ultra-predestination had for Calvinist Baptists lay in the confidence it gave that, "if he were of the elect, neither his wrong doings nor all the powers of darkness could prevent his salvation," and James Ross remembered how one of the veteran ministers of the Bethel Association (in central Tennessee) would "beam with delight and ... say `Glorious day for my soul'" whenever another "would preach one of their powerful discourses advocating" predestination. On the other hand, Ross remembered, "there was one dread thought that often brought these old Christians low even unto the dust."
"Am I, after all, one of the elect? May I not after all, be mistaken? And if so, then all my hope is gone!" The storm-tossed mariner, when his boat goes down, may find a plank or broken spar, and on it may reach the friendly shore; but for him who is not of the elect there is no plank or spar or friendly shore; he must sink in the deep, deep waters. There is ground for believing that by this dread apprehension the reason of many has been dethroned....
Predestination set the threshold of acceptability with God exceptionally high, and for those who could get over it, and be somehow certain that they were of the elect for whom Christ died, it gave "the most exalted ideas, and no doubt many of them considered themselves as much superior, in these respects, to the surrounding Christian denominations as did the ancient Jews in comparing themselves with the heathen nations around them." But for those lacking the spiritual athleticism to vault over that bar, it could trigger a killing despair, "gloomy apprehensions ... that they would ultimately be lost after all their fond hopes to the contrary," and a deep-seated and persistent melancholy.
This did nothing to stop the growth of Calvinist Baptist sects along the frontier, and by the 1840s, the Primitives (who were also known as the "Anti-Mission" or "Hardshell" Baptists) alone accounted for nearly 20 percent of all the Baptist congregations listed in the annual Almanac and Baptist Register. And although the Little Pigeon Creek congregation affiliated with the somewhat more moderate Separate Baptists, their articles of belief nevertheless affirmed that "we belive in Election by grace given in Christ Jesus Before the world began & that God Cawls regenerates & Sanctifies all who are made meat for Glory by his special grace." Sarah Bush Lincoln was particularly identified as a "hardshell Baptist." But even though he was "Raised under the predesternarin school," there is no evidence that Abraham Lincoln ever joined the rest of his family in the Separates' fellowship. Sarah Bush Lincoln conceded that Abraham "had no particular religion didnt think of that question at that time, if he ever did He never talked about it."
It was not that Lincoln was ignorant of his parents' ultra-Calvinism: "he went to meeting sometimes and was well-behaved," one neighbor remembered, and the first recorded scribblings of Lincoln's pen, four lines written in a copybook and preserved lovingly by Sarah Bush Lincoln, are some verses from the well-known Calvinist hymn-writer, Isaac Watts:
Time what an emty vaper tis and days how swift they are swift as an indian arr[ow] fly or like a shooting star.
But Lincoln showed no flicker of interest in joining his father's church. "He Never would Sing any Religious Songs," Dennis Hanks remembered, but he would amuse his sister and half-siblings with parody performances "on a stump or log" of the previous Sunday's sermons, "and almost repeat it word for word" and "mimacing the Style & tone of the old Baptist Preachers," until Thomas Lincoln would "come and make him quit send him to work." Matilda Johnston recalled that "When father & Mother would go to Church," the children would often stay home and "Abe would take down the bible, read a verse give out a hymn and we would sing." But otherwise, according to Nathaniel Grigsby, Lincoln "never made any profession while in Ind[iana] that I know of."
As Lincoln grew toward adulthood, the ties uniting Lincoln to his father and the rest of his awkwardly spliced family began to snap. In 1826, his sister Sarah married Aaron Grigsby, but within a year and a half, she died in childbirth. In the same year, 1828, Lincoln was hired by the local storekeeper, James Gentry, to help take a flatboat full of salted meat and produce down the Ohio River, and from the Ohio down the Mississippi to the great seaport of New Orleans. His wages, which amounted to the princely sum of eight dollars a month in cash, had to be dutifully turned over to Thomas. Old enough by now to earn his own living, and ever more determined to keep what he earned, Lincoln began looking for an opportunity to get away on his own, even trying to hire himself out to an Ohio River steamboat.
Thomas Lincoln, however, had one more job for his son. Tiring of Indiana and nearing fifty years old, the elder Lincoln decided to move once more, to the newer lands being thrown open for sale to the west, in Illinois.
The great weakness of Jefferson's dream of a nation of self-sustaining yeoman farmers was not in what it produced but what it reproduced. Large farm families were a necessity, not for the emotional values that a later middle-class urban culture would invest in them, but for carrying out the multitude of basic tasks that household production required. The difficulty with this was that it would never stand still: sons grew to adulthood and needed land of their own, daughters married sons-in-law with the same need, and the numbers overflowed the capacity of settled agricultural areas to accommodate them. By 1819 settlers from Indiana were venturing westward across the Wabash, and other adventurers from Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky were spilling across the Ohio River, into what had once been the old French settlements of Illinois.
Once upon a time, France had ruled the Mississippi River valley. But French Illinois had never been thickly settled, and most of the French colonial settlements had clustered around Kaskaskia on the Mississippi or at Port Vincennes on the Wabash. All of this had passed to the British after the Seven Years' War, and Virginia had taken quick advantage of the Revolution to wrest the Illinois territory for herself, only to grudgingly cede it to Congress in 1784 so that it could be included under the organizational rubric of the post-revolutionary congressional land ordinances. Every layer of new ownership, however, had left unchallenged the slaves the French had first brought into the territory in the late 1600s, and even though the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 officially prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, both the British and the Virginians had given explicit legal recognition to French slave ownership, and Congress actually granted the crucial saltworks at Salines, near Shawneetown, an exemption from the Northwest Ordinance so that slaves could continue to be used there.
None of this much bothered the new immigrants into Illinois, since so many of them came from the upper South or the Carolinas, where slavery was taken for granted. "Our influential men, and all who held office, from the governor to the constable, were from slave-states," wrote one early immigrant. "Every sheriff and every clerk of the county were pro-slavery men." Most of these migrants were younger sons, seeking room for the farms that could no longer accommodate them; some were older farmers who had sold their lands in order to buy larger tracts at cheaper rates and thus provide for their sons and their own support in old age at the same time. Few of them came to Illinois out of any moral repugnance for slavery. And among this tide of yeoman immigrants was one of Thomas Lincoln's former in-laws, John Hanks.
John Hanks was a cousin of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and he was very nearly the only member of the Hanks family that Abraham Lincoln would later rate as "beautiful, honest, and noble." He had followed the Lincolns to southern Indiana in 1822, lived briefly with his Lincoln in-laws, and then in 1826 returned to Kentucky. Two years later, he was on the move again, this time into Macon County in central Illinois, at the upward edge of Kentucky migration into Illinois; and at some point, Hanks wrote to Thomas Lincoln and urged the Lincolns to join him there. There is no way of telling what made John Hanks so persuasive, or even if it was Hanks's letters alone that turned the trick, since Mordecai Lincoln had also migrated to Illinois, establishing yet another piece of the Lincolns' westward itch. Also Congress had granted broad preemption rights to Illinois squatters in 1813, and after 1820, a mere hundred dollars in cash could get a farmer clear title to half a quarter-section in Illinois. What was more, Illinois levied no land taxes on occupied property for the first five years of ownership.
Whatever the reason, in the fall of 1829, Thomas Lincoln sold off the last few bits of Kentucky property he still owned, plus the eighty acres of Congress land he had finally paid off in Indiana, obtained a letter of dismissal from the Little Pigeon Creek Separate Baptists, and on March 1, 1830, set off with his own family (including twenty-one-year-old Abraham) and an extended collection of Johnstons, Hankses, and their new families a party of thirteen in all. Coming out of the southwestern corner of Indiana, they moved northwards in a long arc that crossed the Wabash River into Illinois at Vincennes and then headed up into central Illinois and the Sangamon River country.
As they did so, the thick bower of forest that surrounded them in southern Indiana fell away and revealed the broad parti-colored carpet of prairie-land and prairie grasses of Illinois. It was "land of the richest soil, and of the most beautiful waving shape and smooth surface," according to the well-born Scot, James Stuart, who traveled through Illinois at about the same time as the Lincolns were arriving, "all laid out by the hand of Nature, as English parks are." Another Scot, Patrick Shirreff, was so amazed by "the beauty and sublimity of the prairies ... interspersed with flowering plants of every hue ... appearing like a sea," that it all offered a standing refutation to "Mr. Malthus's doctrine," that humanity's capacity for procreation was bound to exceed the earth's capacity to feed it. "If a considerable portion of mankind ever are in want of food, the cause will be found to arise from human agency, and not from nature refusing to do her part" or at least not in Illinois.
Even the people teemed with both talk and trade. The Englishman Morris Birkbeck dismissed the pioneers he found in the first Illinois settlements in 1817 as "in a low state of civilization, about half-Indian in their way of life," but much of Birkbeck's distaste for the Illinois settlers was influenced by his aversion to slavery. One of Birkbeck's associates, John Woods, noticed more sharply that "most of them are well acquainted with law ... a most determined set of republicans, well-versed in politics, and thoroughly independent ... far from ignorant and much better informed than could be expected from their appearance."
It is not likely, though, that Thomas Lincoln had much of an eye for the prairies or the people. Years later, in retrospect, Abraham Lincoln explained his father's restless urges to move from Kentucky to Indiana and then to Illinois as "partly on account of slavery; but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles." Actually, the two causes were identical for Thomas Lincoln. The older Lincoln never demonstrated much feeling over what slavery did to slaves; if so, both southern Indiana and Illinois were strange places to take that feeling. George Flower, another of Birkbeck's associates, noticed that both southern Indiana and southern Illinois were "chiefly peopled by Southerners, who hold property in higher esteem than liberty," and that included (to Flowers's chagrin) slave property. (Whatever the Northwest Ordinance had said about slavery, small-scale slavery had been actively condoned throughout Illinois's years as a federal territory, and in 1823, an effort to formally legalize slavery by rewriting the new state constitution came within an ace of succeeding.) What is more probable is that Thomas Lincoln disliked the prospect of competing with great slaveholding planters, and in fact slavery was turned down in Illinois in 1823 mostly by the votes of immigrant upper South yeomen (like Thomas Lincoln) who had no objection to slavery itself and no love for blacks, but who minded very much the idea of an influx of big plantations.
Thomas Lincoln was even less moved by the beauties of the unplowed prairie. The federal land surveys of Illinois evaluated the fertility of land by the variety of its vegetation, and by those standards, the immense expanses of prairie held little promise of worth for farmers. Time and experience would eventually prove this false, but even if time and experience had proven quicker in their testimony, many early Illinois farmers still found that the prairie grass, with its twisty root systems as much as three feet deep, could not be broken by anything but heavy prairie plows, pulled by five to ten yoke of oxen. This led most emigrants, including the Lincolns, to the easier, richer, timbered bottom-lands of Illinois's rivers, including the Sangamon River, where hogs and cattle could be let graze freely and where enough wood for firewood and fences was available.
John Hanks selected a site in Macon county, ten miles west of Decatur, "on the North side of the Sangamon river, at the junction of the timber-land and prairie," and there, Thomas and Abraham Lincoln "built a log cabin, into which they removed, and made sufficient of rails to fence ten acres of ground, fenced and broke the ground, and raised a crop of sow[n] corn upon it the same year." In the shade of the slow-moving Sangamon River's overhanging trees, the Lincolns found what must have seemed like the subsistence farmer's heaven. "We raised cotton sufficient to supply ... us with most of our wearing apparel," recalled an early Sangamon settler, and sixty acres could easily yield a thousand bushels of corn and two hundred of wheat, oats, and potatoes, while livestock fattened on the cool, unfenced riverbanks.