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 Abe’s Pig 

August 21, 2003

I’m not Abe Lincoln’s most sympathetic critic. In fact former Congressman Jack Kemp has numbered me among “assassins of Lincoln’s character.” My character assassination consisted in quoting Lincoln’s own words and citing his actual record on the subject of race, which were not at all what we were taught in school; but let that ride for the moment.

For all my reservations about Lincoln, and especially for the mythology that has grown up around him, there is one side of his life that provokes only compassion.

Lincoln evidently didn’t care much for his own father. He rarely spoke of him at all, and never, as far as we know, affectionately. Abe never even introduced his wife and children to his father. He declined to visit Thomas Lincoln on his deathbed, didn’t attend his funeral, and didn’t buy a headstone for his grave.

Thomas was known as a “roving and shiftless” man, “poor white trash” with no ambition. He was barely literate, able to sign his own name only “bunglingly,” as Abraham later put it. The elder Lincoln sounds very much like Huck Finn’s Pap.

The few accounts we have tell us that Thomas sometimes struck his son on slight provocation, ridiculed his love of reading, and compared him unfavorably to his stepbrothers. Thomas disparaged “eddication,” and is said to have thrown some of Abe’s books away out of spite. When Abe was big enough to earn money at labor, Thomas took every penny of his earnings. No wonder Abe later said he knew what it was to be a “slave.” As far as we know, Abe received only humiliation from his father.

But to me the most shocking detail is this. Abe was a tender-hearted boy who loved animals; even as an adult he was known for his mercy to beasts, once soiling his clothes by rescuing a squealing pig that was stuck in the mud. As a boy he had a pet pig he was devoted to. One day Thomas slaughtered the pig.

[Breaker quote: The Great Emancipator's "Rosebud"]There are worse things you can do to a child, but killing his pet ranks pretty high for sheer cruelty. After doing a thing like that, you shouldn’t be amazed if your son doesn’t drop by to pay his respects when you’re breathing your last. Abe had known other griefs, chiefly his mother’s early death, but this was one Thomas deliberately inflicted.

Abraham Lincoln’s whole life looks like an attempt to make himself the very opposite of Thomas Lincoln. He painfully educated himself, worked hard, became a lawyer. When his business failed and his partner left him with a large debt, he refused to declare bankruptcy and took years paying off every penny.

As a father, Lincoln doted on his children. He spoiled them and couldn’t bear to discipline them, often to the great annoyance of other adults.

According to Lincoln’s junior law partner, Billy Herndon (who knew only what he heard from Lincoln), Thomas Lincoln “had no marked aversion for the bottle” — a hint that the old man was a drunkard. This may help explain why Lincoln was a teetotaler and joined a temperance society as an adult. It may also explain the old man’s ugly bursts of temper.

Thomas did learn to read well enough to stumble through the Bible, but his Baptist piety didn’t rub off on Abe. To the contrary. As a young man, Abe became a militant free-thinker. He read Voltaire, Tom Paine, and other free-thinkers and wrote a book attacking Christianity. His employer burned the only manuscript so it wouldn’t get him into trouble.

Even so, Lincoln’s hostility to religion became notorious, causing the local clergy to oppose him when he entered politics. He had to deny that he was an “open scoffer” against religion. In time he made brilliant use of Scripture in his speeches, but he seems to have remained a skeptic at heart all his life. He never joined a church, and he was attending the theater on Good Friday when he was shot.

Such was the son of Thomas Lincoln, who would have been astonished if he’d lived to see his son become president of the United States. I can’t help thinking that the pig who died at Thomas’s hands was a key to the rest of Lincoln’s life — his “Rosebud,” as it were.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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