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‘The Zealot and the Emancipator,’ by H.W. Brands: An Excerpt

Lincoln looked at the walls of his office. In the past few years he had been able to see beyond them. He had managed to push back the melancholy as he returned to political life. Now this. The walls closed in. The melancholy settled upon him once more. Lincoln’s mother had taught him not to swear, but in his heart he was tempted to curse John Brown.

Lincoln lacked Brown’s unquestioning religious faith. Yet he confronted the same question Brown did: What was the moral man’s obligation when faced with an immoral institution like slavery?

Lincoln knew slavery from his earliest days, as Brown did not. Lincoln was born in the slave state of Kentucky; his neighbors in Hardin County included hundreds of slaves. The Lincoln family owned no slaves, not least because Thomas Lincoln couldn’t well afford them. Lincoln in later years spoke little about his father; what he said did the older man justice but no kindness. Recounting his ancestry, Lincoln arrived at his grandparents and their children. “Thomas, the youngest son, and father of the present subject, by the early death of his father, and very narrow circumstances of his mother, even in childhood was a wandering laboring boy, and grew up literally without education,” Lincoln said. “He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name.”

[ Return to the review of “The Zealot and the Emancipator.” ]

Thomas Lincoln opposed slavery, partly for what it did to the slaves but also for what it cost non-slaveholding whites like himself. As visitors to the South often remarked, slavery demeaned manual labor, discouraging poor whites from improving their lot through their own toil. Thomas and Nancy Lincoln joined a sect that shared their antipathy toward slavery; when Lincoln was seven, his father moved the family across the Ohio River to free-state Indiana. “This removal was partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Kentucky,” Lincoln explained.

The region of Indiana Thomas selected was a wilderness. “He set tled in an unbroken forest, and the clearing away of surplus wood was the great task ahead,” Lincoln said. “A.”—Lincoln himself—“though very young, was large of his age, and had an axe put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument—less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons.” The family were hunters and gatherers, as well as farmers. The son was no Daniel Boone. “A. took an early start as a hunter, which was never much improved afterwards. A few days before the completion of his eighth year, in the absence of his father, a flock of wild turkeys approached the new log-cabin, and A., with a rifle gun, standing inside, shot through a crack, and killed one of them. He has never since pulled a trigger on any larger game.” Lincoln didn’t like his father, though they shared certain traits.

Neighbors commented that Lincoln acquired his storytelling skills from the older man. Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine; Thomas remarried. A story recalled from his father had his second wife asking him whether he liked her or his first wife better. “Oh, now, Sarah,” Thomas responded, in a style and tone any of Lincoln’s adult acquaintances would have recognized. “That reminds me of old John Hardin down in Kentucky who had a fine looking pair of horses, and a neighbor coming in one day and looking at them said, ‘John, which horse do you like best?’ John replied, ‘I can’t tell. One of them kicks and the other bites and I don’t know which is worst.’ ”

But Thomas detected energy and ambition in his son that reflected unfavorably on his own. He ridiculed Lincoln’s efforts to improve himself; illiterate, he denied his son the chance at an education. “A. now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year,” Lincoln recalled. “He was never in a college or academy as a student; and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law-license. What he has in the way of education, he has picked up. After he was twenty-three, and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar, imperfectly of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid, since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.”

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