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Over the course of nine years as scholar-in-residence at the Lincoln Museum, Gerald J. Prokopowicz answered thousands of questions about Abraham Lincoln. Reporters, researchers, students, and especially the 50,000 visitors who come to the museum every year all want to know about the nation's most famous president. Although there have been more books written about Lincoln than any other American, there has never been a single book that clearly answers the most important, most unusual, most provocative, and most frequently asked questions. Until now.
Did Lincoln Own Slaves? And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln draws on the questions that people actually ask. Some are personal: Did Lincoln keep any pets? Some are inspired by recent reinterpretations of Lincoln's actions: Was Lincoln a racist? Some are questions that previous generations of historians considered inappropriate: Was Lincoln gay? Whether drawn from today's headlines (Did Lincoln's presidential actions violate the Constitution?) or from today's tabloids (Did doctors really raise Lincoln from the dead?), the questions in Did Lincoln Own Slaves? illuminate what people really want to know about the past.
Prokopowicz has organized the questions along the time line of Lincoln's life to give us a portrait of the sixteenth president unlike any we have had before. His authoritative, often surprising responses illuminate facets of Lincoln's life, work, and legacy about which people remain endlessly curious.
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Gerald J. Prokopowicz served for nine years as the Lincoln Scholar at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is the author of the critically acclaimed All for the Regiment: The Army of the Ohio, 1861-1862 and was the editor of Lincoln Lore, the quarterly journal of the Lincoln Museum. He is a frequent public speaker on Lincoln-related topics and a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission Advisory Committee. He is currently chair of the history department at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: The Boy Lincoln
It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life.
—Lincoln’s reply to journalist John L. Scripps, 1860, when asked to provide information for a campaign biography
When and where was Lincoln born?
February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on the south fork of Nolin Creek, near Hodgenville, Kentucky.
Is the cabin still there?
The site is marked today by a curious memorial on the grounds of the original Lincoln farmstead. There, at the top of a wooded hill, stands what appears to be an old-fashioned bank building incongruously looming over an otherwise bucolic setting. A grand flight of fifty-six stone steps, one for each year of Lincoln’s life, leads the visitor to a pair of imposing bronze doors, hidden behind six massive Doric columns. Within this Greek temple on a Kentucky hillside, resting on the granite floor in the center of the room, is the cabin where Abe Lincoln was born.
Unfortunately, it’s not really Lincoln’s cabin. The National Park Service, which maintains the memorial, describes the crude wooden structure as the “traditional” Lincoln birthplace cabin, inventively using the word “traditional” in place of a more accurate adjective, such as “fake.” The real cabin almost certainly fell down at some point in the decades after the Lincoln family moved away, there being no reason at the time to preserve it. A speculator named A. W. Dennett purchased the farm in 1894, hoping it would become a tourist attraction. He found a two-story cabin nearby that might have been standing when Lincoln was a boy, took it apart, transported it to the birthplace farm, and reassembled it into a smaller one-story cabin. When he found few customers willing to make the pilgrimage to his remote corner of central Kentucky, Dennett took the building apart again with the idea of moving it to places more frequented by potential viewers. For good measure, he bought and disassembled another cabin that supposedly was the birthplace of Jefferson Davis. The two cabins appeared side by side at fairs in Nashville, Buffalo, and other cities.
Eventually Dennett went bankrupt, and both cabins were taken apart (again) and put in storage. In 1906, the Lincoln Farm Association, a group formed to build a Lincoln birthplace memorial, found the pieces in a basement in New York. By that time the logs that formed the two already dubious cabins were hopelessly intermingled. The association sorted out the components and used some of them to make a one-story structure that resembled descriptions of the original Lincoln cabin. The LFA also constructed the present memorial building to house their prize, but when it was completed in 1911, it turned out that the reassembled cabin was too large to fit inside easily. To make room for visitors to walk around it, they sawed off about a quarter of its length, creating the “traditional” birthplace cabin that you can see today. It’s possible (if unlikely) that some tiny fraction of the wood really did once form part of a building that was associated with Lincoln; but it’s also possible that the exhibit now on display has as much to do with Jefferson Davis as it does with Lincoln.
Haven’t I seen the cabin somewhere else?
You probably have.
There are several versions around the country, most of them replicas of the Park Service “birthplace cabin.” One is in Milton, Massachusetts, commissioned in 1923 by Mary Bowditch Forbes. There’s another in Fort Wayne, Indiana, built by the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company in 1916, that at one time was carefully furnished with antiques to give a sense of what Lincoln’s childhood home might have looked like. Now, however, it sits neglected in a wooded corner of a public park, used by the maintenance staff as a storage shed for snowblowers.
About the original birthplace cabin—is it true that Lincoln helped his father build it with his own hands?
Next question, please.
Who were Lincoln’s parents?
Thomas Lincoln (1778?–1851) and Nancy Hanks Lincoln (1784?– 1818).
His father married Lincoln’s stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln (1788–1869), in 1819.
Were Thomas and Nancy married to each other when Abraham was born? I heard that he was born out of wedlock.
Yes, they were married, and no, he was not illegitimate.
Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks were married on June 12, 1806. Their first child, Sarah, was born the following year. Abraham was born in 1809. There is no reasonable doubt that Lincoln was conceived by and born to a lawfully wedded couple, but the question still pops up persistently, probably due to confusion between the matter of Lincoln’s legitimacy and that of his mother, which is indeed doubtful.
His mother was born out of wedlock?
Probably . . .
. . . but you can no longer get into a bar fight over the issue. The question today is forgotten by everyone but a handful of antiquarians who are determined to puzzle out the Lincoln-Hanks genealogy.
In the 1920s, however, this issue bitterly divided the field of Lincoln scholars. Museum director Louis Warren passionately defended the honor of Lincoln’s grandmother Lucey Hanks, while author William Barton and most others just as avidly insisted that her daughter Nancy was a child of sin. Barton’s eventually became the accepted view of the matter, in part because Lincoln himself had apparently shared it. He believed that his mother was born out of wedlock and that his real grandfather was a Virginia aristocrat who took advantage of a “poor and credulous” girl, if the recollections of Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon are accurate.
Today, the very terms of the debate give off a musty odor of obsolescence. Defending her honor? Child of sin? Born out of wedlock? These phrases are rarely heard in connection with single parenting in the twenty-first century. But in the 1920s, unwed motherhood still carried much of the deep social stigma that it had in Lincoln’s day. Further, the 1920s were a decade of upheaval in social and sexual mores, as teenagers took advantage of the invention of the automobile to abandon traditional front-parlor courtship rituals in favor of the modern concept of dating. Contraception became a divisive topic, with Margaret Sanger and others fighting to legalize it, opposed by social conservatives who were horrified at the very idea of discussing the subject publicly. Like the issue of gay marriage eighty years later, the birth control debate exposed deep cultural fault lines.
In Indiana, where Louis Warren lived, many older people were upset by challenges to the society they had known. They were shocked by new ideas about sex and disturbed by the influx of immigrants from Europe speaking strange languages, as well as the growing number of dark-skinned domestic migrants from the Deep South. It is no coincidence that when the Ku Klux Klan was reborn around 1915, it soon had more members in Indiana than in any other state, including (at one point) the governor. It was in this reactionary climate that Warren, a preacher by trade, founded a “Lincoln Shrine and Museum” in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1928. To Warren, the idea that his hero’s mother might herself be a product of the same immorality and sexual promiscuity that seemed to be the hallmark of the modern age must have been anathema, and he spent years arguing that it could not be so.
The argument over Nancy Hanks’s birth was also fueled by public interest in the emerging science of eugenics. The idea that personality traits were inherited persuaded thirty-three states (starting with Indiana in 1907) to pass laws authorizing the sterilization of the feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, and dependent, hoping to remove undesirable elements from the gene pool. This line of thinking was eventually discredited by the monstrous eugenic experiments of the Nazi regime in the 1930s, but in the 1920s, when the Nancy Hanks paternity debate raged, it was still socially and scientifically acceptable to talk in terms of “purity of bloodline,” and to assume that Lincoln’s noble character meant that he could only have sprung from noble ancestors. There was no room for a tramp in the Lincoln family tree.
So was Lucey Hanks married when she gave birth to little Nancy? By the end of the twentieth century the consensus was clearly no, based in part on the extensive research of Paul Verduin. Nancy was born in 1783 or 1784, when her mother was still a teenager living in Virginia with her father, Joseph Hanks. The identity of the baby’s father (Abraham’s maternal grandfather) remains unknown, but he could have been any one of several wealthy young men of the neighborhood, including one who was a relation of the famous Lee family. Lucey later moved to Kentucky and married Henry Sparrow, but he refused to admit his bride’s illegitimate daughter to his household, and Nancy was raised by other relatives.
Lincoln’s suspicions that he had a Virginia aristocrat among his ancestors, and that his grandfather never married his grandmother, were likely true. If so, Lucey was hardly alone in conceiving a child before marriage; based on marriage and birth records from the colonial era, some historians estimate that more than a quarter of all brides were already pregnant on their wedding day.
Was Abraham’s last name really Lincoln?
Some relatives pronounced the name “Linkhorn” instead of “Link-un,” but it was still spelled the same way....
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