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The Making of a President

Most writing on Abraham Lincoln focuses on his presidency and the Civil War, a time of intense, sustained tension. In his major new biography Becoming Lincoln, however, William Freehling has chosen to explore Lincoln's life before the war, a story of far more ebb and flow. The Bancroft Award-winning historian shows how Lincoln's early experiences came together uncannily to form the person who would one day lead the country through its most bitter chapter. Lincoln had tremendous setbacks on his way up—bankruptcy, devestating political defeats—but he also had breaks of uncanny good luck, often in the form of mentors or patrons who helped his cause. Freehling also explains how Lincoln intuitively aligned himself with those strains in the nation that would ultimatley prevail as the century progressed. In an age of sectionalism, he tended to think nationally rather than regionally; he was attracted to innovation, not skeptical of it; he ultimately—not to say historically—fell on the correct side of the slavery question. As the book demonstrates, Lincoln reflected his century.

In the excerpt below, Freehling looks at the Indiana years and, through a combination of absolute fact and a great storytelling gift, creates a haunting vision of Lincoln's boyhood. He spends his days with an ax, chopping back a forest that seems to grow overnight. He longs for intellectual stimulation; instead he is trapped in a nightmare of menial work and solitude and, eventually, tragedy.

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Why did a seven-year-old rookie swing an ax more productively than most adults? Only his unusual height, after all, marked a frontier he-man. Unlike some Paul Bunyan, that other legendary frontier rail-splitter, no bulging biceps or thick thighs or a massive chest marked this prodigy. His gangly frame featured overly long arms extending to overly long fingers that reached unusually far down unusually long legs. His overly long feet were flat, barring heel to toe movement. Neither his clumping stride nor his ill-fitting pantaloons, short of his ankles by six inches, hinted that this motley fellow could exert coordinated grace.             

His peculiar length, however, made him too naturally gifted at axing for his own good. The longer an axe man’s frame, the greater his potential to maximize the ax’s advantage: Its leverage. To understand why leverage made Lincoln’s ax especially auspicious, try (or imagine!) a little experiment. Unfasten an ax’s blade from its handle. Grasp the seven-inch long blade, a rectangular amalgam of iron and steel, by its non-cutting edge. Then thrust the blade’s cutting edge at a tree. The impact will sting the hand but hardly dent the tree, with only a smidgeon of bark flying. 

To experience the contrast, reattach the blade to its thirty-three inch hickory handle. Then, after grasping the handle at its non-blade end, swing again. As the indeed “most useful instrument” explodes past the bark and tears into the tree, chunks will leap and your hands will but tingle. That’s leverage.

Even as a seven year old, Lincoln had the ideal body to expand his ax’s leverage. His long arms extended the ax handle’s length. His long feet anchored his force. His inability to move from toe to heel here for once proved auspicious. A wise ax man keeps his feet still, out of harm’s way. With his feet planted, Lincoln in motion no longer looked ungainly. At the perfect moment, he simultaneously snapped his wrists, shifted his weight, and rotated his hips as he slammed his ax home.

Bulging Paul Bunyan types could not believe that this slim lad’s heave sounded like two of theirs. To a despairing father, no sound could be sweeter than the crash of Abraham’s ax. With his son’s help, the Indiana forest might compensate for his Kentucky disaster.

The father turned his previously frolicking lad into an exhausted assistant. Delights at besting his sister at hide and seek gave way to shocks at confronting a frightening environment. The family’s first forest shelter offered scant protection against fright. This so-called half-faced camp, amounting to less-than-half of a crude log cabin, slanted from its anchors, two corner trees, downward toward its back “wall,” a single thick log. No way could even Abraham’s short sister Sarah stand tall toward the rear.

Upfront, the half-faced camp risked an open face to the wilderness. At the center of the non-wall, a fire required constantly resupplying. Sometimes, merciful winds kept smoke from billowing inside. While inhabitants slept, a blaze helped keep wolves outside. Their eyes, gleaming like ice amidst the fire’s leaping flames, hinted at more daunting creatures hovering about. As Abraham Lincoln wrote some two decades later, 

                        When first my father settled here,

                        ‘Twas then the frontier line:

                        The panther’s scream filled night with fear,

                        And bears preyed on the swine.3

Tom Lincoln enjoyed hunting less ominous beasts. His son recoiled from such sport.  After killing a wild turkey at age eight, the boy vowed never again to murder a creature. He also detested his daily task: struggling the one and a half miles to the nearest source of drinking water, a bubbling spring, and then straining back, hauling two loaded buckets. 

Clear water, wild meat, and a half-face dwelling sustained life that first Winter, until Spring bloomed in the Indiana forest. Then, amidst dogwoods’ multicolored hues, the wild forest had to be axed into a farmer’s sanctuary. After axmen downed mammoth Black Walnut or Red Oak or Shagbark Hickory trees, they hacked the corpses into remnants. 

Worse was the underbrush, pricking, infecting, and sometimes killing. Giant trees could not fend off the tyrant of the underbrush: wild grapevines. These obstructers crept up from the ground, with thin, string-like green tendrils leading their march. Once their tendrils grasped branches, grapevines leapt from one tree to the next, weaving contorted shapes above human heads. The initial underbrush, now over brush too, made swarms of trees look like underwater grottos. 

Inside grapevine tangles, the poisonous sumac’s blood red stems piled as high as young Abraham Lincoln’s shoulders. At his feet, poisonous snakes slithered under vines. The slinking reptiles would later become the mature Lincoln’s favorite symbol of a malignity that could not be assaulted without risking healthy children. 

“Foxed” jeans would later become the boy’s shield against the underbrush. Frontier matrons would cover (fox) leggings with animal skins, either horses’ buckskins or foxes’ coats. The armor protected torn skin from grapevines and burning itches from sumac. 

But when Abraham Lincoln first fought the underbrush, he suffered the battlefield before anyone foxed his jeans. His knives sometimes disappeared into vegetarian tangles. Although axing down grapevines offered the best of poor alternatives, tangled vines left no room for leveraged swings. A cramped lunge only uncovered inches of ground and sky. 

Massive trunks littered even a “cleared” forest acre. Axe men carved these survivors into useful chairs. Less helpfully, stumps became targets for vines’ tendrils. The Lincolns could only plant between the stumps, and only if constant vigilance prevented vines’ comeback. From young Lincoln’s perspective, poorly cleared farmland, the reward for horrendous toil, compared dismally with the hills and streams of Knob Creek Farm, beset only by land speculators that a lad never saw.

His father scarcely eased the boy’s transition. Tom Lincoln regaled other males with coarse humor and bawdy stories. But he did not amuse his child when demanding labor. The insistent chief stood 5’ 11” tall, five inches less than his son’s mature height. In later years, Tom’s stubby body, thick neck, and black hair gave off an ironic illusion. He would look more like Stephen A. Douglas than like Abraham Lincoln.

The irony epitomized the cavern between father and son during their long, frigid, undeclared war. In the manner of cold wars, the struggle rarely blazed. Under his father’s lashes and curses, Abraham’s resentment usually silently simmered.

During scarce time off from labor, the boy most often sought not chances to play but opportunities to read. Lincoln sometimes pursued his self-education after hours, beside the family fire or up in his loft. But nighttime family bustle in close quarters distracted an exhausted day laborer. Oil lamps up in rafters added perils more than illumination. Young Lincoln’s reading had to be mostly in day light, at rare moments when his father relented from commands to hustle.

Upon finding his son stretched out beneath a tree, reciting his latest volume as if in blab school, the illiterate father would rage about wasted time and lazy offspring. The lad would pick up the axe, mutter if at all beneath his breath, and search for another few minutes to filch from grunt labor. Only during an occasional month did his father allow Abraham to attend Indiana blab schools. “I hain’t got no eddication,” Tom later explained, “but I get along far better than ef I had.”4 To which his son still later answered that his task- master “taught him to work but never learned him to love it.”5

No one needed to teach Abraham Lincoln to love Shakespeare’s cadences or biblical sagas. The haunting rhythms of the language, decorating great tales of great men accomplishing great feats, instinctively appealed to a loather of battle against vines and snakes. The father loudly cursed his son’s bookish preoccupations as the essence of irresponsibility. The son silently denounced his father’s contempt for education as the essence of mindlessness.

This usually bloodless civil war hardened Lincoln’s most distinctive personality trait: A persona divided. As he swung his axe, the grunting youth would barely hear his father’s taunts. His world featured only his blackened thoughts. Then Abraham would break beyond his retreat, cracking filthy jokes, and becoming less distinguishable from fellow frontiersmen (including Tom Lincoln). 

Abraham’s divided consciousness flirted with psyche danger. When his attentions swerved inward, they came saturated with melancholy, befitting his bleak situation. When blackness outside overwhelmed the inner brooder, as when a loved one died, he harbored suicidal thoughts. At less extreme times, his inner obsessions could create obliviousness to the world beyond his head. Then he could seem like an uncaring companion and spouse. His was not the personality for deep friendships with men or exotic affairs with ladies. 

But his was the personality, when he properly balanced it, to act in the world and watch himself acting—the actor coolly judging his passionate action. The capacity turned his duality not into pathology but into health. Inside his thoughts, he drew the sting from his father’s criticisms, formulated a persona opposite from the tormentor’s, and reconsidered how he might refashion the universe. It was all a little grandiose for an overworked, cornered youngster. It was also the birth pangs of a fabulous statesman. 

Outside his imagination, Lincoln’s source of warmth, during his initial Indiana trials, usually glowed from his mother and sister. Other genial humans’ absence eased a year after his arrival. Then Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow, Abraham’s mother’s aunt and uncle, migrated from Kentucky along with their adopted eighteen year old son, the illegitimate Dennis Hanks. After the relatives arrived, Abraham and Tom built a log cabin for their nuclear family, while the Sparrows occupied the half-faced camp. With Kentucky kin in residence and a Kentucky style log cabin as home, the gulf between the boy’s past and present lives slightly shortened.

A year later, the gap intolerably lengthened. The culprit: Again the Indiana underbrush. A shade loving plant, the White Snakeroot, shared the forest floor with snakes, grapevines, and sumac. The Snakeroot’s brilliant white clusters of tiny flowers decorated the plant in September and October. 

The virginal appearance deceived. Cattle, after snacking on the flower, suffered debilitating tremors. Humans, after drinking the sufferers’ milk, developed lethargy, then trembles, then stomach agonies, then grotesquely swollen tongues, then vomiting, comas, and death. The deadly cycle consumed three weeks. Frontier doctors knew no cure.

In September 1818, when Abraham Lincoln was nine years old, Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow succumbed to this so-called milk-sick. Then Lincoln’s mother suffered the affliction. On October 5, she found release. The son, as usual laboring beside his father, fashioned the pegs that held together the boards that lined the crude coffin. 

And then the boy helped lower Nancy Hanks Lincoln into the earth. The funeral came months later, when a minister happened upon the hamlet. The gravestone came a century later, when antiquarians memorialized the spot (they hoped) of Lincoln’s mother’s unmarked grave.

Only once did Lincoln hint at his heartbreak. During the Civil War, the president wrote to a bereaved child that I have experienced “what I say.” We both have seen that when “sorrow comes . . . to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares.”

William Freehling's Becoming Lincoln is available now.

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