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Lincoln, Death, and the Family History Enterprise

You would be excused for thinking that Abraham Lincoln – whose life has lately been the subject of a critically successful and popular motion picture from Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis – had no interest in family history and genealogy:

“I don’t know who my grandfather was”, Abraham Lincoln famously said, “I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.”

Being as how us folks at Your Story Here LLC create family history videos, this comes as a disappointment. But is it true?

Not knowing your family history is not the same as not being interested. And there were more than one or two impediments to knowledge about Lincoln’s family forbears – including the death of his mother when he was only nine. Hard work with an ax followed in the back woods of Indiana and the general outlines of a difficult, pioneering upbringing with little education, dislike for his father, much sickness (including the insanity of a childhood friend) – and even more death – are well enough known.
Family-History-Video-ImageThe Spielberg film (not yet out on video) does not spend much time on Lincoln’s early years. But the truth is that Lincoln was interested in family history and penned a very affecting poem of his own boyhood called “My Childhood Home I See Again”:

My childhood’s home I see again / And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain / There’s pleasure in it too.

The past for Abraham Lincoln was so littered with death that thoughts of olden times could not help but “sadden”. That grandfather that he says he did not know was in fact killed by Indians in 1786. His mother died – most likely of brucellosis. But he had a brother, right? Sure: Tommy, he died when Lincoln was three. His sister? She helped raise him. But she died too – in her twenties giving birth. In short order, he lost his mother and both siblings. During his own lifetime, “family” and “history” became virtually synonymous.

O Memory! thou midway world / ‘Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost / In dreamy shadows rise.

“Loved ones lost” – it was a bitter reality for Abraham Lincoln and little wonder that he felt the greater need to look forward down the road, hoping for better times, rather than linger too long in the past.

Lincoln invited none of his own family to his wedding in 1842. Was that because of any disinterest in family or more because most of his immediate family was dead? Sure, his father was alive but Abe did have “issues” with him – refusing even to visit him on his deathbed.

We see this occasionally in our work providing family history video services – conflict between successful men and strong fathers that persists right until the end. Too much should not be inferred from that circumstance to Lincoln’s attitude towards family history generally. And political expediency would also have played a part. If Lincoln was rough-hewn and barely fit for polite company, his father was likely to have been even more so.
Family-History-Video-Image-OlderLooking backwards then, Lincoln had a family tree marked most by branches lopped off in their infancy and limbs that shriveled in their incipience. He had higher hopes for himself and knew that his work would ensure history’s remembrance. He also hoped that through his own children the family tree would grow large and prosper; if there was little enough family history in his past there would be plenty in his future surely. No, Lincoln’s family’s future would prove equally stunted and bleak.

Before his own death in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was forced to endure the death of his son Willie just after his twelfth birthday in 1862. Presiding over the Civil War charnel house, death came to the White House and took the most innocent of victims. (Willie’s older brother and Lincoln’s second oldest son Eddie had already died of TB in 1850 just before his fourth birthday.)

Writing about the lingering insanity of his childhood friend, Lincoln was doubtless thinking about his own lost ones:

O death! Thou awe-inspiring prince / That keepst the world in fear;
Why dost thos tear more blest ones hence / And leave him ling’ring here?

Two sons and no daughters survived Abraham Lincoln. One remaining son – Tad – died at the age of 18, six years after his own death. The last son Robert survived into adulthood and had children but the Lincoln family line died out after Lincoln’s great grandson died without issue.

So it’s likely that Abraham Lincoln was not uninterested in family history. It is more a case that family history was not interested in him. Even more: Fate and events conspired to ensure that the lights of past and future generations of the Lincoln family were extinguished well before their time.

Lincoln himself created enough history for any family but Death ensured that he received very little assistance from either progenitors or heirs.

The Spielberg film has yet to be released on video but videos on Lincoln are legion – many with a very decent treatment of his family history. Some of the videos you may be able to access can be found at the Illinois Humanities Council.


Filed under: death, family history video, Videos and films,

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