Lincoln’s Personal Life

Author: Nathaniel Wright Stephenson

I. The Child of the Forest

Of first importance in the making of the American people is that great forest which once extended its mysterious labyrinth from tide-water to the prairies when the earliest colonists entered warily its sea-worn edges a portion of the European race came again under a spell it had forgotten centuries before, the spell of that untamed nature which created primitive man. All the dim memories that lay deep in subconsciousness; all the vague shadows hovering at the back of the civilized mind; the sense of encompassing natural power, the need to struggle single-handed against it; the danger lurking in the darkness of the forest; the brilliant treachery of the forest sunshine glinted through leafy secrecies; the Strange voices in its illimitable murmur; the ghostly shimmer of its glades at night; the lovely beauty of the great gold moon; all the thousand wondering dreams that evolved the elder gods, Pan, Cybele, Thor; all this waked again in the soul of the Anglo-Saxon penetrating the great forest. And it was intensified by the way he came,—singly, or with but wife and child, or at best in very small company, a mere handful. And the surrounding presences were not only of the spiritual world. Human enemies who were soon as well armed as he, quicker of foot and eye, more perfectly noiseless in their tread even than the wild beasts of the shadowy coverts, the ruthless Indians whom he came to expel, these invisible presences were watching him, in a fierce silence he knew not whence. Like as not the first signs of that menace which was everywhere would be the hiss of the Indian arrow, or the crack of the Indian rifle, and sharp and sudden death.

Under these conditions he learned much and forgot much. His deadly need made him both more and less individual than he had been, released him from the dictation of his fellows in daily life while it enforced relentlessly a uniform method of self-preservation. Though the unseen world became more and more real, the understanding of it faded. It became chiefly a matter of emotional perception, scarcely at all a matter of philosophy. The morals of the forest Americans were those of audacious, visionary beings loosely hound together by a comradeship in peril. Courage, cautiousness, swiftness, endurance, faithfulness, secrecy,—these were the forest virtues. Dreaming, companionship, humor,—these were the forest luxuries.

From the first, all sorts and conditions were ensnared by that silent land, where the trails they followed, their rifles in their hands, had been trodden hard generation after generation by the feet of the Indian warriors. The best and the worst of England went into that illimitable resolvent, lost themselves, found themselves, and issued from its shadows, or their children did, changed both for good and ill, Americans. Meanwhile the great forest, during two hundred years, was slowly vanishing. This parent of a new people gave its life to its offspring and passed away. In the early nineteenth century it had withered backward far from the coast; had lost its identity all along the north end of the eastern mountains; had frayed out toward the sunset into lingering tentacles, into broken minor forests, into shreds and patches.

Curiously, by a queer sort of natural selection, its people had congregated into life communities not all of one pattern. There were places as early as the beginning of the century where distinction had appeared. At other places life was as rude and rough as could be imagined. There were innumerable farms that were still mere "clearings," walled by the forest. But there were other regions where for many a mile the timber had been hewn away, had given place to a ragged continuity of farmland. In such regions especially if the poorer elements of the forest, spiritually speaking, had drifted thither—the straggling villages which had appeared were but groups of log cabins huddled along a few neglected lanes. In central Kentucky, a poor new village was Elizabethtown, unkempt, chokingly dusty in the dry weather, with muddy streams instead of streets during the rains, a stench of pig-sties at the back of its cabins, but everywhere looking outward glimpses of a lovely meadow land.

At Elizabethtown in 1806 lived Joseph Hanks, a carpenter, also his niece Nancy Hanks. Poor people they were, of the sort that had been sucked into the forest in their weakness, or had been pushed into it by a social pressure they could not resist; not the sort that had grimly adventured its perils or gaily courted its lure. Their source was Virginia. They were of a thriftless, unstable class; that vagrant peasantry which had drifted westward to avoid competition with slave labor. The niece, Nancy, has been reputed illegitimate. And though tradition derives her from the predatory amour of an aristocrat, there is nothing to sustain the tale except her own appearance. She had a bearing, a cast of feature, a tone, that seemed to hint at higher social origins than those of her Hanks relatives. She had a little schooling; was of a pious and emotional turn of mind; enjoyed those amazing "revivals" which now and then gave an outlet to the pent-up religiosity of the village; and she was almost handsome.[1]

History has preserved no clue why this girl who was rather the best of her sort chose to marry an illiterate apprentice of her uncle’s, Thomas Lincoln, whose name in the forest was spelled "Linkhorn." He was a shiftless fellow, never succeeding at anything, who could neither read nor write. At the time of his birth, twenty-eight years before, his parents—drifting, roaming people, struggling with poverty—were dwellers in the Virginia mountains. As a mere lad, he had shot an Indian—one of the few positive acts attributed to him—and his father had been killed by Indians. There was a "vague tradition" that his grandfather had been a Pennsylvania Quaker who had wandered southward through the forest mountains. The tradition angered him. Though he appears to have had little enough—at least in later years—of the fierce independence of the forest, he resented a Quaker ancestry as an insult. He had no suspicion that in after years the zeal of genealogists would track his descent until they had linked him with a lost member of a distinguished Puritan family, a certain Mordecai Lincoln who removed to New Jersey, whose descendants became wanderers of the forest and sank speedily to the bottom of the social scale, retaining not the slightest memory of their New England origin.[2] Even in the worst of the forest villages, few couples started married life in less auspicious circumstances than did Nancy and Thomas. Their home in one of the alleys of Elizabethtown was a shanty fourteen feet square.[3] Very soon after marriage, shiftless Thomas gave up carpentering and took to farming. Land could be had almost anywhere for almost nothing those days, and Thomas got a farm on credit near where now stands Hodgenville. Today, it is a famous place, for there, February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln, second child, but first son of Nancy and Thomas, was born.[4]

During most of eight years, Abraham lived in Kentucky. His father, always adrift in heart, tried two farms before abandoning Kentucky altogether. A shadowy figure, this Thomas; the few memories of him suggest a superstitious nature in a superstitious community. He used to see visions in the forest. Once, it is said, he came home, all excitement, to tell his wife he had seen a giant riding on a lion, tearing up trees by the roots; and thereupon, he took to his bed and kept it for several days.

His son Abraham told this story of the giant on the lion to a playmate of his, and the two boys gravely discussed the existence of ghosts. Abraham thought his father "didn’t exactly believe in them," and seems to have been in about the same state of mind himself. He was quite sure he was "not much" afraid of the dark. This was due chiefly to the simple wisdom of a good woman, a neighbor, who had taught him to think of the night as a great room that God had darkened even as his friend darkened a room in her house by hanging something over the window.[5]

The eight years of his childhood in Kentucky had few incidents. A hard, patient, uncomplaining life both for old and young. The men found their one deep joy in the hunt. In lesser degree, they enjoyed the revivals which gave to the women their one escape out of themselves. A strange, almost terrible recovery of the primitive, were those religious furies of the days before the great forest had disappeared. What other figures in our history are quite so remarkable as the itinerant frontier priests, the circuit-riders as they are now called, who lived as Elijah did, whose temper was very much the temper of Elijah, in whose exalted narrowness of devotion, all that was stern, dark, foreboding—the very brood of the forest’s innermost heart—had found a voice. Their religion was ecstasy in homespun, a glory of violent singing, the release of a frantic emotion, formless but immeasurable, which at all other times, in the severity of the forest routine, gave no sign of its existence.

A visitor remembered long afterward a handsome young woman who he thought was Nancy Hanks, singing wildly, whirling about as may once have done the ecstatic women of the woods of Thrace, making her way among equally passionate worshipers, to the foot of the rude altar, and there casting herself into the arms of the man she was to marry.[6] So did thousands of forest women in those seasons when their communion with a mystic loneliness was confessed, when they gave tongue as simply as wild creatures to the nameless stirrings and promptings of that secret woodland where Pan was still the lord. And the day following the revival, they were again the silent, expressionless, much enduring, long-suffering forest wives, mothers of many children, toilers of the cabins, who cooked and swept and carried fuel by sunlight, and by firelight sewed and spun.

It can easily be understood how these women, as a rule, exerted little influence on their sons. Their imaginative side was too deeply hidden, the nature of their pleasures too secret, too mysterious. Male youth, following its obvious pleasure, went with the men to the hunt The women remained outsiders. The boy who chose to do likewise, was the incredible exception. In him had come to a head the deepest things in the forest life: the darkly feminine things, its silence, its mysticism, its secretiveness, its tragic patience. Abraham was such a boy. It is said that he astounded his father by refusing to own a gun. He earned terrible whippings by releasing animals caught in traps. Though he had in fullest measure the forest passion for listening to stories, the ever-popular tales of Indian warfare disgusted him. But let the tale take on any glint of the mystery of the human soul—as of Robinson Crusoe alone on his island, or of the lordliness of action, as in Columbus or Washington—and he was quick with interest. The stories of talking animals out of Aesop fascinated him.

In this thrilled curiosity about the animals was the side of him least intelligible to men like his father. It lives in many anecdotes: of his friendship with a poor dog he had which he called "Honey"; of pursuing a snake through difficult thickets to prevent its swallowing a frog; of loitering on errands at the risk of whippings to watch the squirrels in the tree-tops; of the crowning offense of his childhood, which earned him a mighty beating, the saving of a fawn’s life by scaring it off just as a hunter’s gun was leveled. And by way of comment on all this, there is the remark preserved in the memory of another boy to whom at the time it appeared most singular, "God might think as much of that little fawn as of some people." Of him as of another gentle soul it might have been said that all the animals were his brothers and sisters.[7]

One might easily imagine this peculiar boy who chose to remain at home while the men went out to slay, as the mere translation into masculinity of his mother, and of her mothers, of all the converging processions of forest women, who had passed from one to another the secret of their mysticism, coloring it many ways in the dark vessels of their suppressed lives, till it reached at last their concluding child. But this would only in part explain him. Their mysticism, as after-time was to show, he had undoubtedly inherited. So, too, from them, it may be, came another characteristic—that instinct to endure, to wait, to abide the issue of circumstance, which in the days of his power made him to the politicians as unintelligible as once he had been to the forest huntsmen. Nevertheless, the most distinctive part of those primitive women, the sealed passionateness of their spirits, he never from childhood to the end revealed. In the grown man appeared a quietude, a sort of tranced calm, that was appalling. From what part of his heredity did this derive? Was it the male gift of the forest? Did progenitors worthier than Thomas somehow cast through him to his alien son that peace they had found in the utter heart of danger, that apparent selflessness which is born of being ever unfailingly on guard?

It is plain that from the first he was a natural stoic, taking his whippings, of which there appear to have been plenty, in silence, without anger. It was all in the day’s round. Whippings, like other things, came and went. What did it matter? And the daily round, though monotonous, had even for the child a complement of labor. Especially there was much patient journeying back and forth with meal bags between his father’s cabin and the local mill. There was a little schooling, very little, partly from Nancy Lincoln, partly from another good woman, the miller’s kind old mother, partly at the crudest of wayside schools maintained very briefly by a wandering teacher who soon wandered on; but out of this schooling very little result beyond the mastery of the A B C.[8] And even at this age, a pathetic eagerness to learn, to invade the wonder of the printed book! Also a marked keenness of observation. He observed things which his elders overlooked. He had a better sense of direction, as when he corrected his father and others who were taking the wrong short-cut to a burning house. Cool, unexcitable, he was capable of presence of mind. Once at night when the door of the cabin was suddenly thrown open and a monster appeared on the threshold, a spectral thing in the darkness, furry, with the head of an ox, Thomas Lincoln shrank back aghast; little Abraham, quicker-sighted and quicker-witted, slipped behind the creature, pulled at its furry mantle, and revealed a forest Diana, a bold girl who amused herself playing demon among the shadows of the moon.

Seven years passed and his eighth birthday approached. All this while Thomas Lincoln had somehow kept his family in food, but never had he money in his pocket. His successive farms, bought on credit, were never paid for. An incurable vagrant, he came at last to the psychological moment when he could no longer impose himself on his community. He must take to the road in a hazard of new fortune. Indiana appeared to him the land of promise. Most of his property—such as it was—except his carpenter’s tools, he traded for whisky, four hundred gallons. Somehow he obtained a rattletrap wagon and two horses.

The family appear to have been loath to go. Nancy Lincoln had long been ailing and in low spirits, thinking much of what might happen to her children after her death. Abraham loved the country-side, and he had good friends in the miller and his kind old mother. But the vagrant Thomas would have his way. In the brilliancy of the Western autumn, with the ruined woods flaming scarlet and gold, these poor people took their last look at the cabin that had been their wretched shelter, and set forth into the world.[9]


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Chicago: Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, "I. The Child of the Forest," Lincoln’s Personal Life, ed. Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907 in Lincoln’s Personal Life Original Sources, accessed June 15, 2024,

MLA: Stephenson, Nathaniel Wright. "I. The Child of the Forest." Lincoln’s Personal Life, edited by Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907, in Lincoln’s Personal Life, Original Sources. 15 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Stephenson, NW, 'I. The Child of the Forest' in Lincoln’s Personal Life, ed. . cited in , Lincoln’s Personal Life. Original Sources, retrieved 15 June 2024, from