What if Thomas Lincoln had stayed in Kentucky?

The Lincolns were a mobile family, in the geographical though not the social sense.  Born in Virginia during the Revolution, Thomas Lincoln ended up at the farm near Sinking Spring in Kentucky which is now a national monument, only to move to another plot of land nearby shortly after the birth of his son.  A few years later, the family packed up and headed for Indiana—partly because Kentucky’s chaotic land titles made life a nightmare for small farmers and partly because Kentucky was a slave state.  The Lincolns moved again about the time Abraham became an adult, and when they arrived in Illinois he struck out on his own.

It didn’t take long for him to make a bit of a name for himself.  Although he lost his first election for the state legislature in 1832, he was extremely popular among his neighbors in and around New Salem. His second run two years later was more successful, setting him up for his rise to prominence in state politics, which in turn eventually led to national recognition.

"Lincoln the rail splitter." c1909. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

That a relative newcomer, still in his early twenties and without wealth or substantial connections, could make such a promising start says something about Lincoln’s abilities.  But it also says something about frontier Illinois.  It seems unlikely that someone from such humble circumstances could so quickly become a legislator, postmaster, surveyor, and local notable in a more established community.  Lincoln’s intelligence and political abilities gave him a jump-start, but it didn’t hurt that it was easier to get attention in a place like Sangamon County than in other places.

This raises an interesting what-if question.  What if Thomas Lincoln had stayed in Kentucky?  If his land title had been more secure and he’d decided to settle down, how would it have affected his son’s career?

Abraham Lincoln would have done something; he was far too ambitious and talented to live the same sort of life his father had led.  But would he have risen as far and as fast in Kentucky as he did in Illinois?

Maybe it wouldn’t have made much difference at all.  Perhaps west-central Kentucky was as congenial an environment for an obscure young politician as frontier Illinois.  The same political gifts that served Lincoln so well in New Salem and Springfield probably would have had a similar effect among the farmers around Hardin County.  It’s easy to imagine that he might have followed a similar trajectory in early adulthood—using his local influence to gain a place in the state legislature, setting up a law practice, and so on.

But then what?  Would he have been able to become an influential figure on the state level in the same way that he did in the Midwest?  Remember that Lincoln’s opposition to the spread of slavery was a handicap in the 1858 campaign against Douglas.  How much more so would it have been in a slave state?

On the other hand, maybe Kentucky would have allowed Lincoln to advance to national fame earlier than he did.  His attachment to the Whigs could have earned him some powerful allies and patrons in the home state of Henry Clay. Perhaps even Clay himself might have taken notice of a Kentucky lawyer and state legislator who idolized him and had an acumen for politics, and then taken him under his wing, allowing him to play a larger role in the Whig Party than he ever did in Illinois. With better connections, Lincoln might have been more than a one-term congressman in the 1840’s.

It’s also possible—and perhaps extremely probable—that Abraham Lincoln would have ended up in the Midwest anyway.  After all, he was intensely ambitious but lacked wealth or connections.  He undoubtedly would have set out on his own as early as possible to look for opportunities to advance himself, and perhaps he would have thought it best to leave Kentucky entirely.  He wouldn’t have been the first obscure young man from a modest background to look westward and see tantalizing possibilities.

What do you think?

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