Birthplace, Family, and Friends
Lincoln’s rise from a log cabin in Kentucky to the highest office in the nation symbolizes the American spirit of freedom and equality. From Lincoln’s birth onward, Kentucky and Kentuckians played essential roles in his development and ideals. According to Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, “The idea that someone could rise from that tiny cabin in Kentucky to the presidency of the United States is not just the American dream, it is the universal dream.”
The Lincoln family entered Kentucky as part of the westward migration movement of the late eighteenth century. Lincoln’s grandfather and namesake, Abraham Lincoln, purchased a four-hundred-acre tract in eastern Jefferson County and migrated to Kentucky from Virginia in 1782. In May 1786, the elder Lincoln was planting a crop of corn with his sons, Josiah, Mordecai, and Thomas, when they were attacked by a small band of Indians. Abraham was killed in the attack, and the Lincoln family moved to a part of current-day Washington County. In an 1854 letter, Lincoln wrote that “the story of his [grandfather’s] death by the Indians, and of Uncle Mordecai, then fourteen years old, killing one of the Indians, is the legend more strongly than all others imprinted upon my mind and memory.”
Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was raised in Washington County where he married Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, in 1806. The couple first settled in Elizabethtown and then moved to the Sinking Spring farm near Hodgenville where Lincoln was born in 1809. Due to a land dispute, the Lincoln’s were forced to abandon the Sinking Spring farm and moved ten miles away to Knob Creek, where they lived for the next six years. Knob Creek was the site of Lincoln’s first memories, but the family was again forced to leave in 1816 “partly on account of slavery,” as Lincoln later put it, “but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Kentucky.”
Although the Lincoln family continued to migrate west, settling just across the Ohio River in Indiana, Lincoln’s ties with his native state were a constant influence on his life. Lincoln’s lifelong best friend, Joshua Speed, was from Farmington in Louisville, where Lincoln had an extended visit in 1841. Lincoln and Speed were extraordinarily close, and Speed later recounted that Lincoln “disclosed his whole heart to me.” Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, was born and raised in Lexington, and her affluent upbringing represented an important cultural contrast with her husband’s that impacted the couple throughout their marriage. Lincoln developed close relationships with other Todd family members, such as Emily Todd Helm and her husband Benjamin Hardin Helm.
Perhaps most importantly, Lincoln’s political idol was the renowned Kentucky politician, Henry Clay, whose political pre-eminence and staunch Unionism did much to influence the sixteenth president’s beliefs and ideals. The intellectual voice of the Whig Party, Clay crafted the party platform of national unity that resulted in the Compromises of 1820 and 1850. He also articulated a model for economic development that added a bold new facet to the nation’s traditional reliance on agriculture and overseas trade. Clay’s “American System” focused on industrial development, federal funding of internal transportation improvements, a high tariff to protect the nation’s industrial development, and a strong national bank to provide a source of investment capital. To a great extent, Clay’s vision was the model for the nation’s economic future. As his political career developed, Lincoln always considered himself a Clay man. It is no coincidence that most of his personal and political Kentucky connections, including his in-laws, were Southern Whigs. As the Whig Party disintegrated in the chaotic decade of the 1850s following the 1850 Compromise, Abraham Lincoln and other northern Whigs migrated to the Republican Party, bringing forward Henry Clay’s dedication to preserving the union. They profoundly influenced the new party’s stance on national unity, economics, and the slavery question that ultimately tore the nation apart.
* Interpretive research provided by the Kentucky Historical Society and the National Park Service. All rights reserved.