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LINCOLN'S BATTLE WITH GODA PRESIDENT'S STRUGGLE WITH FAITH AND WHAT IT MEANT FOR AMERICA
By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Stephen Mansfield
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA MOTHER'S LEGACY
It was on a day early in the 1850s when Abraham Lincoln, then a rising Springfield lawyer, was traveling with his partner, William Herndon, to try a case in a county nearby. The matter to be decided before the court had in part to do with inherited traits, with what a man received from his ancestors and what was uniquely his own. Something about this theme stirred Lincoln and, while his buggy rattled and jerked over rutted roads, he began to speak of his childhood.
Herndon would never forget the moment. Lincoln seldom revealed much of himself and certainly never spoke of his early life. A friend had called him the most "shut-mouthed" man he ever knew. It was true, and it frustrated journalists and biographers no end. When J. L. Scripps of the Chicago Tribune proposed to write Lincoln's story, he found his subject mystified at the thought of it. "Why, Scripps," Lincoln said, "it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of me or my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray's Elegy: 'The short and simple annals of the poor.' That's my life, and that's all you or anyone else can make out of it."
The subject of the trial had bored into him, though, and in time he decided to open his soul to his friend. "Billy, I'll tell you something, but keep it a secret while I live. My mother was a bastard, was the daughter of a nobleman, so called of Virginia. My mother's mother was poor and credulous, and she was shamefully taken advantage of by the man. My mother inherited his qualities and I hers."
It was not the kind of thing a man disclosed casually, and Herndon listened silently, struck by the sadness in his friend's voice. After a long pause, Lincoln continued. He believed, he said, that from his Virginia grandfather and thus from his mother he received "his power of analysis, his logic, his mental activity, his ambition, and all the qualities that distinguished him" from the other members of his family. But he was wrestling with how these traits had come to him. Almost pleadingly, he turned to Herndon and asked, "Did you never notice that bastards are generally smarter, shrewder and more intellectual than others? Is it because it is stolen?"
Finally, and in a melancholy tone that would stay with Herndon all his life, Lincoln ruefully said, "All that I am or hope ever to be I get from my mother. God bless her."
We can forgive Lincoln his view of heredity. It now seems primitive, almost bigoted, but it was typical of his age. Of greater importance is what these words reveal of him and his early world—the grinding lot of the poor, their misuse by the powerful, their ignorance and shame, their uncertainty about past and future. These images are far from the Disneyesque, Americana versions of Lincoln's life now so familiar, but they are consistent with the grief and tormenting loneliness that had filled his childhood years. He was haunted by these memories, as he was by much else, and it is revealing that amid so much agony in remembrance he was certain of one thing: his mother made him who he was.
Nancy Hanks Lincoln likely evoked such tender memories in her son because though hers was a hard and toilsome life—she died withered and toothless at the age of thirty-four—she lived her years with exceptional grace. She was taller than most females of her age, but she was thin—some guessed 120 pounds—and gave the impression that she "inclined to consumption," meaning that she had the cough and raspy breathing associated with tuberculosis. She had dark skin, brown hair, and gray eyes that were long remembered. Her prominent forehead and sharp facial features are reflected in the later pictures of her son.
It adds texture to the traditional portrait of Nancy Lincoln to learn that she was one of the best wrestlers in Kentucky. It also helps to remind us how far removed frontier life was from our own. Apparently, in rural regions of early nineteenth-century Kentucky, wrestling was not a sport for males only. Usher Linder, a Lincoln family friend, recalled in his memoirs that Nancy Lincoln
was said to be a very strong-minded woman, and one of the most athletic women in Kentucky. In a fair wrestle, she could throw most of the men who ever put her powers to the test. A reliable gentleman told me he heard the late Jack Thomas, clerk of the Grayson Court, say he had frequently wrestled with her, and she invariably laid him on his back.
She was also known for her fine singing and gift for reciting verse. We can imagine how her melodic voice must have filled the Lincolns' rude cabin in the wilderness, wrapping her children in love. While the family worked, she recounted Bible stories and recited bits of poetry. This, surely, was the beginning of her son's literary sense. And he adored her. She was "highly intellectual by nature, had a strong memory, acute judgment, and was cool and heroic," he recalled. She left his life and this world when he was nine, but it is a testament to the depth of her love that he attributed all the good that came afterward to her care.
Among the legacies that Nancy Hanks left the world in her son, there are three that are important to us in pondering his faith. They will seem, initially, disparate and unrelated, but each coalesces with the others to form the early framework of what would become Abraham Lincoln's religious life. Fortunately, they are also among the more fascinating elements of his personality and character.
* * *
It is odd, perhaps, that Abraham would describe his mother, Nancy, as "highly intellectual." She could not read, or at best could not read well. She had learned to make out sentences in the Bible, and this awed illiterate neighbors, but it was nothing like knowing an alphabet and thus having the key to language and literature. Still, Lincoln knew what he was saying. Nancy was smart, insightful, and quick to learn, and she retained what she knew. She lived in a world of hearing rather than reading, of the oral transmission of knowledge. Listeners were expected to memorize. Nancy could recite long passages of the Bible, speeches from Shakespeare, tales from Aesop's Fables, and haunting accounts of burning Protestants from Foxe's Book of Martyrs. She had also mastered favorite passages from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and these likely informed Abraham's earliest political sensibilities. He saw her as intellectual because she skillfully and wisely articulated the world to him. She explained the ways of men and the meaning of moss on a certain side of a tree and the purposes of providence in terms that gave him an enduring map of the world.
Her intellectual legacy is best found in her son's magnificent intellectual achievements. It was Nancy who first instilled a love of learning in young Abraham and she who insisted he go to school when he could. He had already briefly attended two schools by the time he left Kentucky at the age of seven. One was run by Zachariah Riney, the other by Caleb Hazel, surely names that ought to live long in American educational history. When the family moved to Indiana in 1816, Nancy again sent young Abe off to school as often as possible, first under the tutelage of Azel Dorsey, whose school was a mile and a half from the Lincoln farm. He attended Dorsey's off and on until he was ten, then occasionally the school of an Andrew Crawford until he was fourteen, before studying under a Mr. Swaney in his seventeenth year.
None of this schooling was consistent or in any way thorough. Lincoln himself said,
There were some schools, so called; but no qualification ever required of a teacher, beyond "readin', writin', and cipherin'" to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn into the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard.
Carl Sandburg, the most poetic of Lincoln historians, has written,
The Schoolmasters were paid by the parents in venison, hams, corn, animals skins, and other produce. Four miles from home to school and four miles to home again Abe walked for his learning, saying later that "all his schooling did not amount to one year."
It was, nonetheless, beneficial, and it kept a love of knowledge burning brightly in Abraham's mind. It was also a monument to Nancy's insistence that her son achieve what she could not.
That young Abe attended school at all is confirmation that Nancy won her running battles with her husband. Thomas Lincoln was a hulking, demanding, dis approving man who valued his son's physical strength but cared little for his mind. He interpreted Abe's literary bent as laziness. Little infuriated him as much as seeing the boy under a tree with a book while chores waited. He feared that neighbors would notice and conclude that Abe was slothful and not worth hiring. This was a threat to the family's well-being. By law Abe owed the fruit of his labors to his father until he was twenty-one. Thomas intended to see that the boy produced and was not beyond using beatings to make his wishes known. After 1818, when Nancy died of the dreaded milk sickness, she was no longer there to protect her son from his father's rage.
By then, though, it was nearly too late to stop what was coming. Abe's mind awakened; he quickly learned to read. He then learned to write. This delighted him so much that he not only practiced with a piece of coal on a shovel by firelight, as the popular and true story goes, but he wrote on the entire Lincoln home. Thomas often returned in the evenings to find words written in chalk on the log walls of his cabin, on the family's plates, on tools, and on any stone surface flat enough to use. Then came books. Once Abraham Lincoln learned their power, he began the journey toward becoming an exceptional man.
His early literary life has become legend, and yet what has been recounted is largely true. Though books were few on the frontier, they were cherished, owned, and traded even by those who couldn't read them but who understood their worth. Abe read the Bible and then borrowed Aesop's Fables, Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Grimshaw's History of the United States, and Weems's The Life of George Washington. He also devoured The Kentucky Preceptor, William Scott's Lessons in Elocution, and Caleb Bingham's The American Speaker and Columbian Orator, these last two promising to "improve youth and Others in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence." These books we know he read for certain. There were dozens of others whose titles are lost to us. What we can know is their effect. Sandburg wrote that for Lincoln, "books lighted lamps in the dark rooms of his gloomy hours." They also introduced him to the world beyond his father's farm.
Reading began to make young Abe a man of reason and reflection. He began to suspect the superstitions he was taught, to question the myths handed down. Like many devoted readers, he felt more at home in that otherworld of thought and ideas, of history and epic lives, than he did in the world defined by the cabin, the barn, the sickle, and the ax. He was more enamored of Weems's Washington than he could ever be of his father, more delighted in the invisible presence of Shakespeare's Puck than he was with the characters at the general store. But books were beyond just an escape. They charted a path. They taught that thought, reason, and rational processes were doors to—what?—achievement, perhaps. Or at the least deliverance from Thomas's home. Maybe even to some form of power and fame.
It is important to mention here that with his mother's gift of intellect and love of knowledge came a poetic sense as well. He lived in a world of slang, twangy speech, bad grammar, and odd dialects. When he discovered reading, and thus vocabulary, he grew fascinated with the meaning and euphony of words. He rolled new terms around his mouth, meditated on dictionary definitions, and tried out these new tools, sometimes clumsily, on townspeople who stared at him blankly. To this love of the meaning of words he wed a gift for their grace and beauty. This came more naturally—from his people's English roots and the poetry, storytelling, and song of the early American experience. It would take time to mature in him, but when it did he would write poetry of impressive beauty and would give the world some of its most enduring phrases: "mystic chords of memory," "the better angels of our nature," "to bind up the nation's wounds." If it is true, as we are told by experts, that authors write guided by a voice in their minds, a narrative voice that first awakens when a child is read to early in life, then it is to Nancy Hanks that much of the credit is due for the literary legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Truly, there is a line to be drawn from a rugged cabin in the Indiana woods filled with the music of a mother's voice and the hallowed words of the Gettysburg Address.
What came of all of this also was a mastery of the skills of self-education. He gained early the confidence that he could learn what he needed to know on his own: through books, by observation, and by enlisting mentors. It served him well. In time, he would become a lawyer, ascend in politics, and reach the presidency informed by an aggressive program of self-education, all having never set foot in a classroom beyond his eighteenth year. Even when he was commander in chief during the tactically complicated Civil War, he masterfully counseled his generals based on what he had learned from a few military texts—texts he had usually read only a short time before. He became his own university. In this, he joined Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington—among dozens of other eminent Americans—in achieving greatness by first mastering the art of self-education. This, too, was Nancy Lincoln's gift to her son, and it would have a defining effect not only on his rise to power but also upon the religious seasons that came to define his life.
* * *
A second legacy from Nancy might seem more a curse than a gift, but it may have helped to give us the Lincoln our nation reveres. She would pass on to him her own struggle with depression, with that enveloping darkness that lurks, for some, ever at the soul's door. This would merge with a Lincoln family heritage of mental illness to become a force in Abraham that he fought to subdue all his days. It would leave him scarred, and it would even deform parts of his personality, but by striving to master it and by remembering what he had experienced in those hours of suffocating gloom, he emerged a man of greater wisdom, wit, and humanity.
It was said by those who knew Nancy that her life was "beclouded by a spirit of sadness." Herndon, Lincoln's friend, law partner, and biographer, wrote that her face "was marked with an expression of melancholy which fixed itself in the memory of everyone who ever saw or knew her." It is tempting to believe that this was simply fruit of the life she led. It was true she passed most of her days in bleak frontier settlements, the wife of an unsympathetic man and chained to mindless, soul-numbing work. Sandburg wrote that when she died, she had only "memories of monotonous, endless everyday chores." Then, too, there was the lifelong cloud of her illegitimacy. Lesser burdens were known to drive some frontier women insane. But something darker, more ominous, tortured her, and it was more than what we now call "the blues." A resident despondency, a permanent grief, dwelled in her; it is not going too far to believe that this reached what would now be termed depression, and that Abraham absorbed this same "spirit of sadness" into his soul.
If he did, that spirit intermingled in him with the Lincoln family heritage of mental instability. The Lincoln men were nearly all considered melancholy, but some had problems far more extreme. A great-uncle once told a court of law that he was troubled by "a deranged mind." Mood swings, drinking, and even violence troubled others in the family. Onlookers spoke of "Lincoln characteristics." They meant vast mood swings and a desperate, almost forced sense of humor. Abraham's first cousin had a daughter who was committed to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane. The jury who sent her there reported that her disease had already tortured her for thirteen years by the time she appeared before them. At that hospital, a worker noted, "Her father was cousin to Abraham Lincoln, and she has features much like his." A historian writing late in the 1800s reported that the Lincolns "suffered from all the nervous disorders known. Some were on the ragged edge." A family member described these mental dysfunctions as "the Lincoln horrors."
Excerpted from LINCOLN'S BATTLE WITH GOD by STEPHEN MANSFIELD Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Mansfield. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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