I cannot write for any length about Mr. Lincoln without mentioning his perseverance. Mr. Lincoln was bankrupt early in life. He failed as a store keeper, as a surveyor and as a candidate. He was so predictably unsuccessful that he once said of himself, “I have done nothing to make anyone remember me. If I died right now, there would be no reason for anyone to remember I had been on the earth.”
Anyone who reads the life of Lincoln has to admire his persistence. We can probably discover the root of his persistence in his complicated relationship with Thomas Lincoln, his father. Thomas Lincoln seemed to view his children as cheap farm labor. Thomas barely missed being the joint heir of his father, who was killed in a raid by displaced American natives. Thomas Lincoln was not impoverished, but only because of the sweat of his own brow. Thomas had the money to buy land, to dispute claims against his property and the iron will necessary to leave behind years of toil when he determined that a Kentucky dirt farmer with a small family could never hope to compete with slave owning farmers, any more than modern industrial workers can hope to compete directly with small income workers in a more managed economy.
And, I think (which means no one else need think it) the complex relationship with Thomas Lincoln pushed his son Abraham to be a super achiever. His seeming extreme hatred of his father is separate and distinct from all other relationships in Abraham’s life. Mr. Lincoln was not a good hater. He never held hard feelings against anyone who bashed him. He did not want Jefferson Davis to suffer after the Civil War, though Mr. Davis had exulted in print when Willie Lincoln, Abraham’s 11 year old son, died of tuberculosis. Abraham welcomed his four bitter rivals for President into his cabinet. Mr. Lincoln was not a good hater but he managed to hold enmity against Thomas all his life.
Abraham, in rejecting his father, found himself caught up in what all rebellious sons find. He pushed away from his father, the recoil carried him far back from his father and, is free floating, Mr. Lincoln wandered out to the extreme, where he became most of what his father was rather than what Thomas was not.
Abraham tried every kind of business enterprise open to a poor young man before he tried the law. He knew he did not want to be poor, as his father fought poverty all his life. When he completely failed at all of his professional enterprises, Mr Lincoln seemed to have felt the shame in relation to his father-son relationship more than any other. He never asked his father for help, refuge or even company. His friends saved him each time. In fact, the attributes that made Thomas Lincoln bearable to others made his son the best friend a person could know, such that men were ready to do anything for him when he was in need.
Abraham, in hating Thomas, the only man he seems able to truly dislike (not Douglas, not Trumbull, not Davis, not Lee, not McLellan, not Stanton, not Seward) carried his father’s traits into adult life, either in the act or the principle or in the opposite reaction. Mr. Lincoln spent most of his life as a Conscience Whig, meaning his party affiliation was with a group of men who rejected slavery, but mostly for economic reasons. Thomas Lincoln hated slavery because he could not compete with slavery as a mere dirt farmer without cheap labor. He was not above invoking the law that made Abraham a virtual slave until he reached maturity, at which time he was cut loose with the clothes on his back and all the resentment his heart could carry. Abraham, the Whig, argued mostly for internal improvements in the industrial American base, for protective tariffs and for revenue producing taxes. Only when the Whigs dissolved and the Republicans turned West for their leadership did Lincoln discover the political currency of the anti-slavery movement. Abolition matched his inner urgings, true. No one could have argued as eloquently as Abraham did in his House Divided speech, or announce that, if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong, as Abraham did, or in calling the bluff of those who hypocritically announced that slavery benefits the slaves by demanding them to prove it by becoming slaves themselves.
But, in the same way, no one can deny that Abraham’s first compulsions were to business, not politics. His first political urgings were to remake American business. His first compulsions against slavery, as announced, were linked to his belief that American industry could not possibly grow strong if labor were burdened with the weight of the slave competition. President-elect Lincoln declared that, if he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would free them, or, if he could save the Union by dooming all the slaves to remain in chains, he would enslave the, but either way, he would save the Union. Various authors have pointed out that this pronouncement was made early in his political presidential career. I see it as the perfect political statement by a master politician who finally had achieved the power to make purposeful statements. Mr. Lincoln never retracted his statement and seems never to have revisited it. Indeed, Mr. Lincoln, who wrote his own copy, made his Save the Union statement and, in so doing, made all other political statements somewhat pale by comparison. In his one statement, Mr. Lincoln made plain his purpose and assuaged both sides. He did so, whether he knew it or not, in the spirit of replying to his own father, Thomas Lincoln, who was himself a pragmatist and a great compromiser.
In point of fact, I think the next great Lincoln biographer will be written by a competent psychologist who has himself been the son of a strict, largely unloving father. This unnamed genius will take us through the ocmplexities of a father-son relationship apparently devoid of affection on any discernible level. He will need to give Thomas Lincoln his due, for, though they were not close, Thomas Lincoln raised a son who was able to completely outdistance him, if not to outgrow him. Abraham Lincoln had four sons, only one of whom outlived him by any stretch. Robert Lincoln, Abraham and Mary’s oldest son, never outdistanced or outgrew his father. No one could outgrow Abraham Lincoln or out-achieve him. Thomas Lincoln, it might be said, finally, outdid his son in only one way; he outfathered him, if a father wants his son to be more than he.
And, the great genius who will write this next work, will answer for us the question that obviously burdens my soul here. If Mr. Lincoln was the great non-hater I claim him to be, how is it he held his father in such disregard for a life-time?