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.
Slavery, Emancipation, and Self-Liberation
Lincoln’s close ties to his native state brought him continually into contact with slavery, and his relationships with Kentuckians were pivotal to his evolving views on the institution. Lincoln’s boyhood experiences in Kentucky placed him firmly on the trajectory of opposing slavery, and Kentuckians such as Henry Clay did much to influence his beliefs and policies on “the peculiar institution.”
Lincoln’s boyhood was framed by his early exposure to the institution of slavery. It was at the Knob Creek farm that he saw slaves in chains for the first time as they were transported along the Louisville-Nashville Pike for sale farther South. His family’s membership in an anti-slavery Baptist congregation exposed him to the intense debate over slavery and an organized response to the moral and ethical quandaries related to human bondage. Abraham’s father, Thomas Lincoln, took his family out of Kentucky in 1816 and Lincoln later recalled that his father’s decision to leave for the free state of Indiana “was based partly on account of slavery.”
Lincoln’s in-laws, the Todds, were slave owners, and while visiting Lexington in 1847 and 1848, he learned firsthand about the institution. Because of these visits to Kentucky, his ideas that slavery should not be permitted to spread were strengthened. Lincoln’s distaste of slavery was also bolstered during his trip to Farmington in 1841. In addition to his close observation of dozens of slaves at Farmington, Lincoln saw a group of slaves forced onto a boat upon his departure. The memory of these slaves separated from their families remained embedded in his mind. Years later, Lincoln recalled the incident vividly, and stated in an 1855 letter to his friend Joshua Speed that the “sight was a continual torment to me … [having] the power of making me miserable.”
Perhaps no other person influenced Lincoln’s political beliefs more than Henry Clay, and this is especially true regarding slavery. As Lincoln stated in his eulogy of Clay in 1854, Clay was “ever was on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery” and “did not perceive, that on a question of human right, the negroes were to be excepted from the human race.” Lincoln’s belief in gradual emancipation, which he carried until his presidency, further mirrored Clay’s position. Clay’s “very earliest, and one of the latest public efforts of his life,” Lincoln stated in his eulogy, “separated by a period of more than fifty years, were both made in favor of gradual emancipation of the slaves in Kentucky.” Lincoln was also influenced by the fiery Cassius Clay, whose anti-slavery views gained him national notoriety. Cassius Clay helped form the Republican Party and campaigned actively for Abraham Lincoln. He was later appointed minister to Russia.
As president, Lincoln initially hoped that Kentuckians would accept compensated emancipation, a process whereby they would be paid to free their slaves. Kentuckians rejected this offer. Lincoln, however, warned the state that unless they accepted compensated emancipation, it was likely that the Civil War would end slavery, leaving slaveholding Kentuckians to suffer vast economic losses. This proved prophetic.
As the war progressed and white Union military enlistment slowed, Federal authorities turned to another available source of manpower—African Americans. Recruitment in Kentucky began in earnest in February 1864 at Camp Nelson and Louisville. Loyal slave owners were to receive $300 for each slave who volunteered to the army, and fugitive slaves were pressed into the service. Eventually, more than 23,700 African-American Kentuckians joined the Union army, second only to Louisiana in numbers.
A House Divided: Lincoln, Kentucky, and the Civil War
Lincoln understood the importance of the border state of Kentucky. With rivers, railroads, horses, and manpower, Kentucky’s natural and material resources were vital to the Union cause. Early in the conflict, Lincoln told a U.S. senator, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol.” He knew the centered role that the Bluegrass State would play during the Civil War. As historian Kenneth W. Noe has written, “Victory likely would go to the belligerent that occupied the Border States, and securing that vital region meant holding Kentucky at all costs.”
Despite their entrenched commitment to slavery, the people of Kentucky voiced their dedication to preserving the Union with a plurality of voters supporting the Constitutional Union Party in the fateful presidential election of 1860. Although the Kentucky electorate returned a near-unanimous repudiation of Lincoln’s Republican ticket, the state’s strong Unionist tradition ultimately cast it on Lincoln’s side. Just like Lincoln’s hero, Henry Clay, the people of Kentucky hoped to hammer out one more compromise over slavery. The state’s last-ditch attempt to remain neutral in 1861 dramatically illustrates its divided loyalties and the quixotic hope of avoiding the impending war.
Most of Lincoln’s in-laws supported the Confederacy. When the conflict erupted, Lincoln offered the post of paymaster to his brother-in-law, Benjamin Hardin Helm. Helm, who turned down this post. Instead, he joined the Confederate army and eventually led the famed “Orphan Brigade,” which was Kentucky’s most famous infantry unit. Brigadier General Helm was killed on September 20, 1863, at the Battle of Chickamauga. Lincoln reportedly wept when he heard the news.
After Helm’s death, his widow, Emilie Todd Helm, visited Abraham and Mary Lincoln in the White House. This created a stir in Washington, and newspapers complained when Lincoln’s rebel sister-in-law visited. Union General Daniel Sickles told Lincoln, “You should not have that rebel in your house.” The president retorted, “General Sickles, my wife and I are in the habit of choosing our own guests. We do not need from our friends either advice or assistance in the matter.” These divisions created bitterness in the family. Later, when Emilie was seeking the president’s permission to travel into the Confederacy to sell cotton, she told Lincoln that she had been “a quiet citizen and request only the right which humanity and Justice always give to Widows and orphans. I also would remind you that your Minnie bullets have made us what we are & I feel I have that additional claim upon you.”
Lincoln was keenly sensitive to his precarious political position in Kentucky. His dismal showing in the state’s presidential election, the Confederate allegiances of tens of thousands of Kentuckians, and the actions of his wife’s family reminded him that the Union’s hold on the state was fragile. Members of his “rebel kin” served in the Confederate Army and hundreds of other Kentucky families broke apart over the war. Southern sympathizers created a provincial state government and the Confederacy dedicated substantial forces and other resources in its efforts to pull Kentucky into its sphere, including a major invasion in 1862. The Confederates wanted the state for many of the same reasons that the Union was determined to hold it – troops, supplies, and its strategic location on the Ohio River.
Despite these difficulties, the president never lost sight of Kentucky’s vital importance. He employed all his political skill and deployed large numbers of Union troops that were in demand in other theaters to keep the state in the Union. As he remarked in the early stage of the war, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”
Lincoln’s deep personal friendships and family ties in Kentucky provided him with keen insights into the dual nature of this vital border state. Given his commitment to preserving the Union and unwillingness to precipitate a constitutional crisis by attacking slavery where it existed, the future president perhaps said more than even he knew when he stated in 1861, “I, too, am a Kentuckian.”
After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the trial of his co-conspirator assassins was handled by his cabinet member, Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt. Previously a member of the Buchanan admiration, Holt was a staunch Unionist who helped keep Kentucky from joining the South. As Judge Advocate General, Holt was indefatigable in rooting out Confederate sympathizers in the North. After Lincoln’s death, Holt was charged with prosecuting the remaining co-conspirators, whose role in attacking Lincoln and members of his cabinet resulted in their executions in 1865.
Lincoln in Public Memory and Living Culture
Lincoln’s unique relationship with Kentucky extends well beyond the Civil War era, stretching through the twentieth century and lasting until today. As is well documented, Kentucky’s wartime devotion to American unity gave way to eventual idealization of Confederate memory, as evidenced by many public monuments devoted to Confederate heroes in Kentucky. According to Dr. Anne Marshall, author of the book Creating a Confederate Kentucky, the state “developed a Confederate identity that was seemingly at odds with its historical past.” Dozens of monuments devoted to Confederate veterans were erected in the decades after the Civil War, such as Lexington’s statues of John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt erected in Cheapside- a former slave auction site- and Louisville’s 70-foot-tall monument to Confederate veterans.
Despite this post-war embrace of Confederate memory, Lincoln’s legacy in his native state has seen increasing recognition and influence. By the turn of the 20th Century, reconciliation movements in Kentucky had begun to bring white Union and Confederate veterans together, and efforts to memorialize the state’s Union heritage took root. In 1906, a group known as the Lincoln Farm Association- led by notable Americans such as Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan, and Henry Watterson- successfully purchased the Sinking Spring Farm where Lincoln was born. A few years later, to house what was believed to be Lincoln’s birthplace cabin, the Lincoln Birthplace Memorial was erected. The cornerstone of the memorial was dedicated in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt, and President William Howard Taft dedicated the finished building in 1912.
Also in 1912, a statue of Lincoln was placed prominently in the center of Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda, a further illustration of the state’s embrace of its native son’s legacy and ideals. Interestingly, this monument to Lincoln is flanked by statues of Henry Clay and Jefferson Davis, Lincoln’s pre-war mentor and Civil War adversary, respectively. This featuring of Lincoln at the center of Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda symbolizes the ways in which beliefs and ideals in Kentucky have been shaped by this native son.
The early 20th century also witnessed the building of the Lincoln Institute, a school for African Americans built in response to a discriminatory law passed by the state’s General Assembly in 1904. This 1904 “Day Law,” which outlawed the practice of teaching black and white students in the same institution, was aimed at Berea College, which had been conducting interracial classes since the Civil War. Berea College challenged the Day Law all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the discriminatory act, bolstering the legal foundations of segregation in America. Notably, the court’s dissenting argument was penned by Kentuckian and former slave owner John Marshall Harlan, who noted in his dissent that “our Constitution is colorblind.” The Lincoln Institute operated as an African American school until 1966 and now serves as a federal Job Corps site.
The memorialization of Lincoln in Kentucky accelerated during the Lincoln Bicentennial from 2008-2010, a celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth. Led by a significant state investment, numerous cultural and educational projects were undertaken, such as the re-establishment of the Kentucky Lincoln Heritage Trail, public art projects, preservation initiatives, and educational endeavors. New statues of Lincoln were erected in Louisville, Hodgenville, and Springfield, and the home of Joseph Holt- Lincoln’s Judge Advocate General- was purchased for preservation. New permanent interpretive exhibits were also created at the Lincoln Museum, Farmington, the Hardin County History Museum, and the Washington County Courthouse.
The legacy of Lincoln’s life and times is alive today in customs and folklife traditions within the study area. The annual Lincoln Days festival in Hodgenville has occurred since 1975 and features a Lincoln-related art competition, Lincoln presenters contest, and rail splitting demonstrations. The Kentucky Bourbon* Festival in Nelson County features historical demonstrations of the whiskey making process, including the craft of coopering, which is the art of making wooden whiskey barrels. The Kentucky Humanities Council sponsors Chautauqua characters including Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Henry Clay, who visit schools and events throughout the state. Numerous other Lincoln heritage sites in Kentucky feature similar traditions such as Camp Nelson’s Civil War Days, Ashland: The Henry Clay Estate’s Living History Day, The Joseph Holt Home’s Community Day, and the Mary Todd Lincoln House’s President’s Day event. The 12th Colored Heavy Artillery is a reenacting group based at Camp Nelson.
Most recently, the sites that comprise the Kentucky Lincoln Heritage Trail have solidified their partnership by creating the Kentucky Lincoln Heritage Trail Alliance- a 501-c-3 nonprofit organization- whose mission is to preserve and promote Kentucky’s Lincoln heritage by establishing and maintaining vibrant self-sustaining partnerships between Lincoln heritage sites in Kentucky.
* Whiskey was an important part of the culture of Lincoln’s birthplace and boyhood in Kentucky. Lincoln’s father, Thomas, engaged in the craft of coopering wood barrels for transporting whiskey, and he reputedly accepted barrels of whiskey as payment for property when leaving Kentucky.