Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
Very little is known about the provenance of Lincoln’s natural mother, Nancy Hanks, and that is by design. Lincoln himself was extremely cagey about family background; when a newspaper editor asked about it during the 1860 presidential campaign, he said only: “It can all be condensed into a single sentence … ‘the short and simple annals of the poor.’”
But privately, he told his law partner and future biographer William Herndon that his mother was the illegitimate child of a poor woman and a wealthy Virginia planter. (This theory has been long contested, but it is what Lincoln appears to have believed in his day.)
At the time of her marriage to Thomas Lincoln in 1806, Nancy Hanks lived and worked at the home of a wealthy Kentuckian. Her husband brought her to his log cabin, where she quickly gave birth to a daughter, Sarah, and then a son, Abraham. (A third child, Thomas Jr., died in infancy.)
Lincoln would later tell Herndon, “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.” Where Lincoln’s father was short, his mother was tall; where his father was dull and aimless, his mother was smart and motivated; where his father’s face was round, his mother’s had the sharp angles Lincoln inherited.
And as for Lincoln’s well-documented propensity for “melancholy,” he may have gotten that from her, too. Herndon says that, though she was kind and friendly, neighbors told him she was often “beclouded by a spirit of sadness.”
When Lincoln was seven, the family moved from Kentucky to a new settlement in Indiana, where the boy’s days were filled with farming chores and mischief with neighbor kids in the wilderness. Two years in, tragedy struck. His mother consumed milk poisoned unintentionally with white snakeroot; seven days later, at the age of 34, she was dead.
“After the death of their mother, little Abe and his sister Sarah began a dreary life,” Herndon writes. Eleven-year-old Sarah struggled to take up domestic duties in their one-room cabin with a dirt floor.
Lincoln left no record of what it was like to lose his mother, but historian David Herbert Donald notes that many years later, in a letter to a bereaved child, Lincoln wrote: “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony; because it takes them unawares … I have had experience enough to know what I say.”
The following year, Thomas Lincoln went back to his home town, where an old crush was recently widowed. Within days, he and Sarah Bush Johnston were married. She arrived at the cabin with a wagon loaded with nice furniture, comfortable bedding and three children from her first marriage.
Young Abraham Lincoln — filthy, hungry and starved for affection — immediately began calling his new stepmother “Mama.” The good feelings were mutual. Bush soaped down her new stepchildren and outfitted them with her own kids’ clothes. She also insisted her husband install a floor, a proper door and windows to their home.
Lincoln later described his “joyous, happy boyhood,” largely due to his stepmom’s love. At 11, Herndon says, Lincoln “began that marvelous and rapid growth in stature for which he was so widely noted.” Despite being illiterate herself, she acquired books for him and encouraged his intellectual side, securing for him what little formal schooling he had. Lincoln had a difficult relationship with his dad, and Bush often advocated for him.
“I induced my husband to permit Abe to read and study at home as well as at school,” she later said. “At first he was not easily reconciled to it, but finally he too seemed willing to encourage him to a certain extent. Abe was a dutiful son to me always.”
As an adult, Lincoln took to calling his biological mom his “angel mother” as a way to distinguish her from his “Mama.” (Some historians claim “angel mother” refers to Lincoln’s stepmom; this appears to based on a misinterpretation of the original Herndon biography.)
The affection between Lincoln and his stepmother continued all of his life. Lincoln later told a relative his stepmother “had been his best friend in this world and that no son could love a mother more than he loves her.”
Bush last saw her beloved stepson in February 1861, on his way to Washington to assume the presidency. (Back then, presidents were inaugurated in March.) It was not a happy visit. From the time he had declared his candidacy, she was gripped with the worry that, were he elected, something bad would happen to him.
“ … When he came down to see me, after he was elected president,” she told Herndon, “I still felt, and my heart told me, that something would befall Abe, and that I should never see him again.”
She was right. Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, just as the Civil War, through which he carried the nation, was coming to a close.
When his stepmom died four years later, she was buried in a dress Lincoln gave her on that last fateful visit.
Read more Retropolis: