Did Abraham Lincoln have “family values”?

This blog has looked at young Abraham Lincoln’s origins and his years growing up on the subsistence farms of his father.  He is now 22 years old.  He’s reached his majority and he’s itching to leave home, probably for good.  All he needs is the opportunity to do that.

Lincoln and his father were never close.  The main things he’s eager to escape are not just his father and the farm, but also his father’s lifestyle, environment and values.  I suspect this was a crucial relationship in Lincoln’s young life.  Escaping it freed him to grow into the man he eventually became.

A tradition has emerged that pegs Tom Lincoln as “shiftless” and “singularly unsuccessful” (as Herndon described him), uneducated and a ne’er-do-well.  Another tradition has grown up painting Abraham Lincoln as an uncaring and ungrateful son.  Neither tradition seems fair to either man.  My hunch is that what really divided the two men was a difference in values.  Tom’s economic situation forced on him the communal values of a subsistence farmer.  These stressed teamwork and cooperation.  They meant that the needs of the family or the farm took precedence over those of the individual.  Because of the way a new era was reshaping middle America, Abe’s economic situation allowed him to embrace individual values: personal growth, personal strivings.

Succeeding in either of these environments involved risks.  And in terms of their values each man succeeded.  Before young Abe takes a canoe into a new life, this blog will devote one post to how the two men resembled one another and a second to how they were different.  Then: off he goes!  But first…

Social historians contend that the United States underwent a significant transition following the War of 1812.  The Treaty of Ghent permitted American expansion into the Northwest Territory, previously constrained by Britain.  This transition undercut the traditional economic model of the family farm or family firm and the “strategic” or work-mate marriages that helped sustain that system.  The transition moved Americans toward a system where individuals worked to advance themselves and their personal priorities, not their families.  The marriages of these Americans became “companionate.”  Emotional ties had more importance than economic ones.

Lincoln’s situation perfectly embodies this transition.  Thomas Lincoln made a strategic marriage for economic rather than emotional reasons and lived the traditional family farm existence of his forebears.  Once Abraham Lincoln broke with that tradition, family meant little to him.

Kenneth Winkle writes: “Nothing better reveals [Lincoln’s and his stepbrother John Johnston’s] differing conceptions of family than an episode [in which]…  Johnston asked his stepbrother to take his son…, who was about thirteen years old, so he could get an education.” This request was part of a tradition whereby rural youths received education in towns.  Lincoln agreed, somewhat reluctantly.  “In fact,” continues Winkle, “Lincoln never took [the boy] in and he never came to Springfield…  From [Lincoln’s] perspective and in his experience, family was simply unimportant, indeed unnecessary, in the struggle to succeed in the new, urban world.”

This judgment seems harsh, but it’s hard to argue with it.  Lincoln left home in 1831 at 22 and did not visit his family again until 18 years later when his father appeared to be dying.  Then he did not visit again until after his election to the Presidency; he did not attend his father’s funeral.

It’s also interesting to note that at a time when family approval was customary for marriages as was the blessing of the woman’s father or guardian that Lincoln and Mary Todd married in spite of her family’s disapproval.  It demonstrates that the traditional hold of the family in terms of economic connections and marital choice had lessened in favor of personal interests and preferences.  A vast web of Todd family connections existed in Springfield and southern Illinois.  Lincoln and Mary Todd did not become outcasts for marrying despite opposition.  In fact, Lincoln undoubtedly bettered his position socially through this alliance.

Scholars and Lincolnistas have often remarked on the fact that, contrary to the practice of some of his colleagues, Lincoln sometimes did not return home for breaks when he was riding circuit, that is trying cases in county courts before an itinerant judge.  They have wondered if this reflected strains in his marriage or suggested that he did not love his wife.  It may simply reflect the fact that family life was not one of his priorities.  His example of family life growing up was not congenial.  The distances to travel back and forth in that day were often long and the journeys difficult.  Lincoln may have wanted/needed time to analyze and prepare cases and by all accounts he reveled in the camaraderie of tale-swapping with fellow lawyers on the circuit.  He was a man’s man, probably more at home in the world of men than in the world of family.

Notes:  Para 3: Herndon (HLL), p. 12; para 7: Winkle (YE), p. 146-7.

Frederic Hunter is author of ABE AND MOLLY: The Lincoln Courtship, www.AbeandMolly.com.

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