Tag Archives: Thomas Lincoln

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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Yep, he was born in Kentucky

At a speaking engagement this weekend somebody asked me whether I believe Abraham Lincoln was born in North Carolina.  I don’t.

The story is that Lincoln’s biological father was a North Carolinian named Abraham Enloe (or Enlow, depending on who’s doing the telling).  After Enloe fathered a child with Nancy Hanks, he passed her and the kid off to Thomas Lincoln, who was supposedly in the Tar Heel State at the time.

We can document Thomas Lincoln’s whereabouts for the period in question (as for much of his life), and he wasn’t in North Carolina.  As far as anyone can tell, he never set foot in the state during his entire life.

There were a number of women named Nancy Hanks living in North Carolina during this era, and Enloe enthusiasts often assume that one of them just had to be Lincoln’s mom.  If this line of reasoning is correct, then that would make me an evolutionary biologist, a philosopher, an energy analyst, a cartoonist, an Irish politician, and not one but two deceased baseball players.  (I’ve lived a remarkably full life.)

As for the Nancy Hanks who married Thomas Lincoln, we have no evidence placing her in North Carolina at the time that Abraham Enloe supposedly impregnated her, but we do have evidence that places her in Kentucky shortly thereafter.  If you’re going to conceive a child with someone, it helps to be in the same state.

One bit of evidence often cited in favor of the Enloe theory is Lincoln’s physical resemblance to members of the family.  Unfortunately, this argument also applies to Thomas Lincoln, who of course has the benefit of the documentary record on his side.

Other problems include the information we have on Lincoln’s older sister, the year in which Lincoln left home to strike out on his own, and documentary evidence written by Lincoln himself.  This essay by Lincoln researcher Ed Steers covers the discrepancies clearly and concisely.

I think the Enloe theory has a lot more to do with wishful thinking than it does with scholarship.  If I were you, I’d skip that family vacation to the Bostic Lincoln Center and drive on up to Hodgenville, instead.


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The face of Lincoln’s father?

One of the highlights of the collection at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, TN is the photograph seen here, which may be the only image of Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas.  It’s been published and reproduced numerous times since it first surfaced many decades ago, but there have always been doubts about the identity of the man in the photo.

It once belonged to the daughter of an Ohio veteran of the Civil War named O. V. Flora.  According to her, he bought the photo during the war in Coles County, IL from someone he believed to be a relative of the Lincoln family.  Thomas Lincoln did indeed settle in Coles County, and the man in the photo matches descriptions of Thomas by people who knew him, but a relic owner’s testimony and a physical resemblance do not, by themselves, a Thomas Lincoln photo make.

When I worked at the ALLM I did some research to try to settle things one way or the other.  My good friend Steven Wilson kindly offered to publish the results in the Lincoln Herald, a quarterly journal devoted to Lincoln and Civil War studies.  My long-ago little foray into the murky world of Lincolniana has accordingly been dusted off for publication in the next issue.

For such a seemingly narrow research project, I found this to be incredibly frustrating.  I ended up looking into everything from nineteenth-century clothing styles to Confederate subversive activity in wartime Illinois…and I still couldn’t conclusively determine whether or not the photograph depicted Thomas Lincoln.  I did, however, arrive at a tentative conclusion about which explanation is most probable in light of the available evidence.

Based on what I could uncover about O. V. Flora, the historical record relating to the circumstances under which he claimed to have acquired the photo, and what is known about the Lincoln family, I think the case for the picture’s authenticity  is much more sensible than the case against it.  All the evidence I was able to find will be available for both perusal and vehement disagreement when the forthcoming Herald rolls off the press.  Have a look and see if you’re convinced.

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