Lincoln Discussion Symposium

Full Version: Abraham vs. Thomas
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What was the cause of the bad feelings between Abraham Lincoln and his father?

I think the easiest answer is that he simply didn't want anything to do with his way of life. I'm not sure how much he disliked his father, although that probably played into it because of the fact that up to the legal age, Lincoln had to give him any money he earned after Thomas rented him out. I think Lincoln had had his fill of hard labor and knew he wanted better for himself. Michael Burlingame probably said it best when he wrote:

Fleeing that drudgery and what he called “parental tyranny,” Lincoln strove to distance himself from the world of his father, who embodied the indolence, ignorance, and backwardness that his son disliked. His adult life represented a flight from the frontier. Once he left the paternal home, Lincoln would never invite Thomas to visit him. Never would he give Thomas the satisfaction of knowing that his name would be carried on by a grandson. Never would Thomas see his grandchildren or his daughter-in-law. Never would Lincoln perform Thomas’s work as a farmer and carpenter. Never would he pursue Thomas’s favorite forms of recreation, hunting and fishing.

I agree with Rob and would add that Lincoln seemed to feel his positive attributes came from his maternal grandfather rather than his own father. The identity of Lincoln's maternal grandfather is unknown, but Lincoln thought he was "a nobleman so-called of Virginia." Lincoln told Herndon, "My mother inherited his qualities and I hers. All that I am or hope ever to be I get from my mother, God Bless her." Burlingame writes that this was as much a rejection of his father as an accolade for his mother. There are some indications Lincoln was really bothered by the fact he didn't know the identity of his maternal grandfather.
Their values were different as to provide a gap in the father/son relationship that was never bridged. Thomas seemed to have little or no interest in "book learning." Abraham cherished books and writing above all else. It was a sore point with his father to find young Abraham engrossed in a book when he felt that his attention ought to have been the farm work. Thomas probably felt that for his son to get along in the world he must learn the skills that he knew. Abraham, though adept at the skills, never aspired to be like his father. Therefore, Thomas considered his son lazy. He truly could not rise above the hopes he had for his son-and his son could not convey to his father that he felt and wanted something in life other than his father's well-intentioned career path.
While I agree with all of the above comments, allow me a moment to defend Thomas. Having a little first hand knowledge of farming in Southern Indiana, I can assure you that it is not an easy way of life. I was put to work in the tobacco fields at the age of three. My task was easy (compared to others) but mainly it gave my parents a way to keep an eye on me while they worked. So, here we have Thomas, a man trying his best to carve a living in rural Indiana. His first wife has died and left him with two children to raise. His second wife has brought along three children. And, his deceased wife's cousin is living on the farm. Everyone works. It is the only way to survive. His wife Sarah, her daughters, and his daughter Sarah are cooking, cleaning, tending to chickens, making butter, and making clothing for a family of eight. Dennis and John D. are plowing the fields, harvesting, tending to animals, and working in the most humid conditions. And there sits Abraham, his own son, goofing off and reading a book or staring off into the distance day dreaming. Yes, we all appreciate that Lincoln had a better life in mind. But to Thomas, he probably just wondered how he had managed to raise such a lazy kid - and how was that boy going to make a life for himself if he couldn't do a decent day's work.
As I have stated many times, I know very little about Lincoln the Man and how he came to be what he was. All of the above comments seem rational and correct in forming Lincoln's actions later in life. However, as a parent and now a grandparent of a 12-year-old, I love Donna's description of what Thomas Lincoln must have felt.

I too grew up in a farming environment. By the time I came along, we were lucky enough to have tenants on the two farms that my grandmother and mother managed, but we still had a garden and chickens; my grandmother still made butter; and both females sewed. My father was away much of the time with the military.

My daughter now copes as a single mother, and I have to say that, as wonderful as my grandson is, he is more inclined to reading and playing than he is to manual labor. He can certainly frost his mother's buns at times! And, I remember thinking she was lazy at times - as my mother thought I was.
Donna: I appreciate the personal insight. What you shared doesn't disagree with the other posts. Also, I want to say that Thomas was an honorable man-a hard-working man. He has sort of an unearned "bad-rap" as being lazy. How unfair I think that is. His work as a farmer and carpenter is completely honorable too. I think it did frustrate Thomas when young Abraham didn't meet his expectations. I don't recall ever reading that Abraham read books or daydreamed at the expense of the labor he was supposed to get done. Maybe all it took was for Thomas to merely see Abraham reading or daydreaming-and it raised his ire. Interesting discussion!
I love how we bring our personal experiences into the discussion. I loves Ms. Verge's comment about how her grandson can 'frost his mother's buns." Ah yes, the duty of a child . . . to "frost mother's buns." I have to borrow that comment - I love it! And Bill, I think you are correct that perhaps all it took for Thomas to raise his ire was to see Abraham reading or daydreaming. I can not speak for farmers everywhere, but it does seem that the ones I know and love on the small family farms in Southern Indiana have a low tolerance for 'lazy' offspring. Just a few generations ago, education was a luxury. I remember my grandfather telling me that he had wanted to go to high school, but the family only had one horse, and it was needed on the farm. The school was eight miles away. His father would have taken grandpa to the wood shed if he had been caught reading instead of plowing. And, he made my grandfather learn a trade (mechanic) just in case something happened to the farm or if the crops failed. This is how I see Thomas Lincoln - the same as my great grandfather. The theory is work hard, learn a trade, grow and raise what you eat, and all will be well. Neither my great grandfather nor my grandfather would have imagined that a member of the family would attend college. To make one's livelihood by reading and writing -- why that could not be fathomed.
Donna, that was a great reply! It really brings home the mindset that Thomas probably had. Well, as we all know- Lincoln went through college. What was his exact humorous comment about that? I believe it was when Lincoln received an honorary degree. Was it Knox?
Found this in Abraham Lincoln 1809-1858 by Albert Beveridge pertaining to Abraham and his father Thomas: "Lincoln began to make speeches as early as his fifteenth year. He would mount a tree stump, or stand upon a fence and talk to his fellow workers, who would leave their jobs in fields or woods to listen. His father would come and make him quit, send him to work...His father had to make him quit sometimes, as he would quit his own work to speak and made the other children as well as the men quit their work." This passage sheds a further light on Lincoln's activities. He was not only sometimes reading or sometimes daydreaming but he also made speeches and tried them out during work time with others who were also supposed to be working. No wonder Thomas Lincoln did what he did.
Since we know Thomas Lincoln engaged in carpentry, I wonder if he wanted to teach young Abraham the skills he knew. Did Lincoln ever refer to his father's carpentry- and whether he learned any of the skills himself? While we can feel sympathy for young Abraham assisting his father (at age 9) building the coffin for his mother- it seems to me that he must have had some experience with carpentry already- at that time. If Lincoln showed little or no interest in wood-craft, it may have been yet another disappointment to his father.
I think Lincoln's contribution to helping his father build Nancy's coffin was just whittling the pegs.
Well, ok- a small contribution perhaps but it still was carpentry. And as painful as it must have been, maybe Thomas used the opportunity and other situations like that to teach him the trade. Just speculating.
Perhaps this helps: in "A.L.-A life", M. Burlingame states as follows:
"Thomas Lincoln prospered neither as a carpenter nor a farmer. He learned wood-working from Nancy Hanks' uncle Joseph Hanks Jr....His carpentry were so rudimentary that people called him a 'rough' and 'cheap carpenter'...who could only do a 'tolerable' job of joining...He worked when jobs came to him, but would not seek them out." (p. 6, printed edition, online edition may vary, originally E.R. Buyback,Hodgensville, to Herndon, 1866)

In New Salem A. Lincoln said to entrepreneur Denton Offutt:" I'm seeking employment. I have had some experience in boating and boat building, and if you are in want of hands I think I can give you satisfaction." (Charles Maltby, "The Live and Public Services of A.L.x, 1884), p.25. He built a flatboat (80 by 18 feet) together with D. Hanks and J. D. Johnston and with the help of a carpenter named Charles P. Cabanis. (M. Burlingame,~,p. 53.)

I think A. L. valued his experiences as a basis for his first own earnings and thus for his independence and a better future.
Eva: nice references! It seems Lincoln did learn enough to, at least, build a boat. Whether he gained that knowledge from working with his father- who can say? I have viewed a cabinet that Thomas Lincoln built (in the Greenfield Village of Dearborn, Michigan). It didn't seem crude, but I'm no carpenter.
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