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And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle



And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle PDF

Author: Jon Meacham

Publisher: Random House

Genres:

Publish Date: October 18, 2022

ISBN-10: 0553393960

Pages: 720

File Type: Epub, PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

My Mind and Memory

“The short and simple annals of the poor.” That’s my life, and that’s all you or anyone else can make out of it.

—ABRAHAM LINCOLN, writing in 1860

Equal rights for all men: Emancipation!

—THE REVEREND ADAM SHOEMAKER, an influential Baptist in the world of Lincoln’s youth

THE ROADS WERE ROUGH, the conversation unusual. In about his fortieth year, around 1850, Abraham Lincoln folded his long, angular frame into a one-horse buggy in Springfield, Illinois, for the nineteen-mile trip from the capital city to the courthouse in Petersburg, the seat of neighboring Menard County. He was riding with his law partner William Herndon, who recalled that the case they were to try “was one in which we were likely…to touch upon the subject of hereditary traits.”

Pondering the subject, Lincoln spoke of his mother, the late Nancy Hanks Lincoln. It was a striking, introspective, and candid moment. “He said…that she was the illegitimate daughter of Lucey Hanks and a well-bred Virginia farmer or planter,” Herndon recalled, “and he argued that from this last source”—the Virginia grandfather—“came his power of analysis, his logic, his mental activity, his ambition.” Lincoln had thought much on the subject. “His theory…had been that…illegitimate children are oftentimes sturdier and brighter than those born in lawful wedlock,” Herndon said, “and in his case, he believed that his better nature and finer qualities came from this broad-minded, unknown Virginian.”

The buggy bumped along. Lincoln was pensive. “The revelation—painful as it was—called up the recollection of his mother, and…he added ruefully, ‘God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her,’ and immediately lapsed into silence.” Lincoln’s quiet was more anguished than peaceful. “Burying himself in thought,” his companion recalled, “he drew round him a barrier which I feared to penetrate.”

Herndon was struck by the details of the exchange and the depth of feeling evident in Lincoln’s tone. Aside from the date and location of his birth—Sunday, February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky[*1] —Lincoln “usually had but little to say of himself, the lives of his parents, or the history of the family,” Herndon recalled. “There was something about his origin he never cared to dwell upon.” To a correspondent who asked for information on his background once he became a national figure, Lincoln said, “There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me.”

There was, in fact, much to Lincoln—and the best parts of him, he believed, came not from those forebears whom he knew, but from those he did not: the mysterious Virginia gentleman grandfather and long-dead Lincolns. The roots of his ambition to rise above his frontier birth may lie in his imaginative connection to ancestors, known and unknown, who had left a mark on the world. As a child and a youth, living in poverty, embarrassed by stories of promiscuity in his mother’s family, and facing a life of spirit-sapping labor and drudgery, Lincoln likely sought solace in the belief that he was a son of forebears who had transcended their time and place. If they could do so, the young Lincoln believed, then perhaps he could, too.


The family’s New World saga had begun with Samuel Lincoln, who had emigrated from Norwich, England, settling in Hingham, Massachusetts, about 1637. Puritan dissenters in England, the Lincolns of Hingham were prominent in their religious community in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, prospering in business and helping to build Hingham’s handsome Old Ship Church. Samuel and his wife, Martha Lincoln, had eleven children. One of their grandchildren, Mordecai, became a successful man in central Pennsylvania, marrying Hannah Saltar, a well-connected daughter of a New Jersey family that included lawmakers in the colonial assembly and an acting royal governor.

In 1716, Hannah Lincoln gave birth to John Lincoln, who continued the family’s migration south and west when he and his wife, Rebecca Flowers Lincoln, settled on a large farm on Linville Creek in the Shenandoah Valley in 1766. (He was to be known to history as “Virginia John” Lincoln.) Their son Abraham, the grandfather of the sixteenth president, had been born in Pennsylvania in 1744 and became an eager militiaman, earning the rank of captain. In 1774, he fought in Lord Dunmore’s War, a conflict between colonial forces under the command of John Murray, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, and a Shawnee-led Indian confederacy. Four years later, Lincoln was part of General Lachlan McIntosh’s operation to capture Britain’s Fort Detroit, a center of frontier resistance to the American Revolution; the campaign failed for lack of men and supplies.

Following familial pattern, Captain Abraham soon pressed on—in his case, leaving his father’s orbit in the Shenandoah for the Kentucky wilderness in 1780. In 1786, an Indian attacked and killed Captain Abraham—“not in battle,” as Lincoln would tell the story, “but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest.” According to tradition, the Indian warrior was then about to take one of Captain Abraham’s young sons captive. Another son, Mordecai, “jumped over the fence—ran to the fort” and shot the Indian at a distance of about 160 paces. He had aimed (“drew his ‘beed’ ”) at a silver half-moon medallion the Indian was wearing. The assailant was discovered, dead, the next day. “The story of his death by the Indians, and of Uncle Mordecai, then fourteen years old, killing one of the Indians,” Abraham Lincoln would recall of his grandfather, “is the legend more strongly than all others imprinted on my mind and memory.” The younger son who was saved that day, Thomas Lincoln, would become the father of Abraham Lincoln.

The slaying of Captain Abraham was the transformative event of Thomas Lincoln’s life. His father’s death diminished the family’s capacities, and, as the youngest son, Thomas found himself in a particular predicament. Mordecai Lincoln, having saved Thomas’s life, lost interest in the boy’s fortunes. “Owing to my father being left an orphan at the age of six years, in poverty, and in a new country, he became a wholly uneducated man,” Abraham Lincoln wrote. A kinswoman of Mary Lincoln’s recalled that “the reason why Thomas Lincoln grew up unlettered was that his brother Mordecai, having all the land in his possession…turned Thomas out of the house when the latter was 12 years old; so he went out among his relations…and there grew up.” Thomas, then, was not part of the more successful and established branch of his family. “These Lincolns,” a contemporary recalled, “were excellent men—plain, moderately educated, candid in their manners and intercourse, and looked upon as honorable as any men I have ever heard of.”

But not Thomas Lincoln. His son was blunt about his father’s plight: “Thomas…by the early death of his father and very narrow circumstances of his mother, even in childhood was a wandering laboring boy and grew up literally without education,” Abraham Lincoln recalled. “He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly write his own name.” Described as “an uneducated man, a plain unpretending plodding man [who] attended to his work, peaceable good and good natured,” Thomas was hired out for a year with an uncle, Isaac Lincoln, who had settled on the Watauga, a stream of the Holston River in what became upper East Tennessee. Forever struggling, Thomas became a carpenter and a farmer. “He was, we are told,” William Herndon wrote, “five feet ten inches high, weighed one hundred and ninety-five pounds, had a well-rounded face, dark hazel eyes, coarse black hair, and was slightly stoop-shouldered.” By 1806, Thomas had met and, in a ceremony conducted by the Methodist minister Jesse Head, married Nancy Hanks, a daughter of Lucey Hanks and, as Abraham Lincoln believed, the unknown Virginia gentleman.

The Hanks family was a source of embarrassment to Abraham Lincoln. He described his grandmother Lucey, whom a grand jury once charged with fornication, as “a halfway prostitute.” In kinder moments, he cast her as a victim. “My mother’s mother was poor and credulous, &c.,” he said, “and she was shamefully taken advantage of by the man.” Lincoln lived, too, with rumors that he was not the son of Thomas Lincoln.[*2] “That Nancy Hanks was of low character but…Thomas Lincoln married her,” recalled John B. Helm, a Kentucky neighbor of the Lincolns’. One story in local circles was that Nancy Hanks had been impregnated by a man named Abraham Enlow (also sometimes spelled “Enloe”) before her marriage to Thomas Lincoln and that Abraham Lincoln was Enlow’s natural son. “She was a woman that did not bear a very virtuous name, and it was hard to tell who was the father of Abe,” a Kentucky contemporary of Lincoln’s recalled. The story circulated for decades—and Enlow insisted it was true. However, as Herndon was told, “Abe Enlow was as low a fellow as you could find.”

The Hankses “were peculiar to the civilization of early Kentucky,” Herndon recalled. “Illiterate and superstitious, they corresponded to that nomadic class still to be met with throughout the South, and known as ‘poor whites.’ ” A Lincoln neighbor recalled that Abraham’s mother, Nancy, was “Loose,” observing “that not only was Nancy Hanks an illegitimate child herself but that Nancy was not what she ought to have been.” The “reputation of Mrs. Lincoln,” Herndon wrote, “is that she was a bold—reckless—daredevil kind of a woman, stepping to the very verge of propriety.” Or past that verge: Herndon was convinced she “fell in Kentucky about 1805—fell when unmarried—fell afterward.” John B. Helm recalled the Hankses at camp meeting revivals: “The Hankses were the finest singers and finest shouters in our country—the only drawback on them was that some nine months after these interesting meetings some of them were likely to have babies.” Whatever the truth, such talk about Lincoln’s grandmother and mother may well account for Lincoln’s reluctance to discuss his ancestry and upbringing.

Nancy Hanks “was above the ordinary height in stature, weighed about 130 pounds, was slenderly built,” Herndon reported. “Her skin was dark; hair dark brown; eyes gray and small; forehead prominent; face sharp and angular, with a marked expression of melancholy which fixed itself in the memory of everyone who ever saw or knew her.” Raised by relatives, Nancy was “rude & rough,” her son recalled. “She could not be held to forms & methods of things; & yet she was a fine woman naturally. It is quite possible that a knowledge of her origin made her defiant & desperate; she was very sensitive, sad sometimes—gloomy.”

Her husband shared Nancy’s tendency toward depression. “He often became depressed and withdrew into himself, sometimes wandering out…for hours on end,” the Lincoln historian Michael Burlingame wrote of Thomas. “Bouts of depression would hardly be surprising in a man who, as a boy, had witnessed his father’s murder and then endured wandering, rootless poverty and hard labor.” Thomas Lincoln was known to remark that “everything that I ever touched either died, got killed, or was lost.” Thomas’s brother Mordecai also suffered from what a kinswoman called “the Lincoln horrors,” a pattern of melancholy. Another relative was committed to the Illinois Hospital for the Insane after a finding that her condition was “with her hereditary.”

The world into which Abraham Lincoln was born on Sunday, February 12, 1809, at the family’s tiny (sixteen by eighteen feet) dirt-floored cabin at Sinking Spring Farm on Nolin Creek near Hodgenville, Kentucky, was materially and emotionally impoverished. “Why, Scripps, it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of me or my early life,” Lincoln remarked to the Chicago Tribune’s John L. Scripps in 1860. “It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy, ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’ That’s my life, and that’s all you or anyone else can make out of it.”


There was little romance to Lincoln’s first years. He remembered the cold of the winters, his toes sticking out of his boots, the tattered clothes. “To all human appearance the early life of Abraham Lincoln was as unpromising for becoming a great man as you could imagine,” a Kentucky neighbor, Samuel Haycraft, recalled in 1865, “indeed I would say it was forbidding, and proves to me that nature bestowed upon him an irrepressible will and innate greatness of mind, to enable [him] to break through all those barriers & iron gates and reach the portion he did in life.”

The Kentucky of Lincoln’s early years was demanding, depleting, and dangerous. Kentucky, Lincoln would later read in a book of American history, was known “by the name of the Dark and Bloody Ground…it became a theater of war, and the residence only of wild beasts.” Thomas Lincoln moved the family—which included Lincoln’s older sister, Sarah—to nearby Knob Creek in 1811. “My earliest recollection,” Lincoln later wrote, “is of the Knob Creek place.” The family’s farm there was near the road between Bardstown, Kentucky, and Nashville. It was a poor place. “The 30 acre farm in Ky was a knotty—[as] knobby as a piece of land could be—with deep hollows—ravines—cedar trees Covering the parts—knobs…thick as trees could grow,” Lincoln cousin Dennis Hanks recalled. Soldiers returning home from fighting the War of 1812 found the Lincolns welcoming. The family, it was recalled, “fed and cared for them by Companies—by strings of them.” A younger brother, named Thomas, was born and lived but briefly. During the Knob Creek period Lincoln received a smattering of education in what he called “A.B.C. schools” conducted by Zachariah Riney and Caleb Hazel. These few but valuable hours of instruction helped Lincoln learn to write, a skill he also studied with Dennis Hanks, who “taught Abe…with a buzzard’s quillen which I killed with a rifle & having made a pen—put Abe’s hand in mine & moving his fingers by my hand to give him the idea of how to write.” Lincoln loved the experience. “It was his custom to form letters, to write words and sentences wherever he found suitable material,” John L. Scripps reported. “He scrawled them with charcoal, he scored them in the dust, in the sand, in the snow—anywhere and everywhere.”

Abraham Lincoln’s Kentucky childhood was spent near the Louisville-to-Nashville Cumberland Road, and there is speculation that he encountered slave drivers along the route. “I remember when I was a boy one night a gang of slaves was driven up to my father’s house at dusk,” a contemporary of Lincoln’s told the writer Louis A. Warren. “The slave dealer wanted to put them in the barn for the night but father was afraid of fire and would not allow it. We had a big haystack outdoors and all the slaves, men, women, and children, were chained together and slept on the haystack that night. Some of the women had babies in their arms. I have never forgotten that sight.” Warren’s conclusion: “One such scene as that would be sufficient to impress it indelibly in any boy’s mind….Abraham Lincoln, as a boy, must have observed these people herded much the same as cattle and driven along the public highway.” Discussing slavery with a young office boy in the early 1850s, Lincoln remarked, “I saw it all myself when I was only a little older than you are now, and the horrid pictures are in my mind yet.”

The Lincolns appear to have been broadly antislavery in a time and place where slavery was a fact of life. African slavery existed in Spanish holdings in the New World as early as 1502; it had come to English North America by 1619. Over the three-hundred-odd-year course of the Atlantic slave trade, some 12.5 million Black people were enslaved and brought across the ocean. The population of enslaved people in the United States increased fivefold, to about four million, between the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the Revolutionary War, and the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

Slavery was an ancient institution. “From the hour of their birth,” Aristotle had written, “some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Often, though, slavery had been based more on conquest than on race. The historian David Brion Davis reported that the Sumerian term for “slave” translates as “male (or female) of a foreign country.” For much of recorded history, the enslaved in a society could come from anywhere, and enslavement meant that they were seen as objects to be controlled and exploited, not as human beings with agency.

Christianity had offered the chance for all that to change. For nearly a millennium and a half, much of the Western world had been theoretically governed on the biblical assertion that all human creatures were made in the image of God and all were, in Christian terms, open to redemption. By the sixteenth century, however, the rush to exploit slavery in the Western Hemisphere proved profit and power to be more compelling than respect for the sanctity of the individual. Geopolitics also played a key role. Portuguese traders turned to Africa to supply the demand for enslaved labor partly because Turkish control of the Mediterranean foreclosed access to the Balkans and other parts of Europe—regions that had long been a source for enslavers.

The imperial demands for forced labor in the Atlantic world came at about the same time the European Enlightenment, which did so much to advance liberty and learning, was helping to create a scientific vernacular and a climate of opinion in which Black people could be seen as inherently subordinate to people of other races. In a representative example, in 1735, the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus wrote that “H. sapiens afer”—Africans—were “sluggish, lazy…[C]rafty, slow, careless. Covered by grease. Ruled by caprice.” Some writers went so far as to assert that Black people were a wholly separate—and lower—order of creation; others that they were human but had lesser capacities than non-Black people. Other works that contributed to scientific racism included Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s 1776 On the Natural Varieties of Mankind; Thomas Jefferson wrote of alleged Black inferiority in his Notes on the State of Virginia. “The ethnologist,” the twentieth-century scholar William Sumner Jenkins observed, “had attempted to prove by deductions from science that the Bible doctrine of the unity of the races was not true, that Negroes belonged to a different species, were not human and, therefore, might be enslaved with perfect consistency with the theory of absolute social equality.”

The racial dimension of American slavery fueled anti-Black discrimination and white supremacist ideology, and the mid-nineteenth century would see the spread of pseudoscientific racist theories. Born in Columbia, South Carolina, and educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Josiah Clark Nott long argued for “polygenesis,” which asserted that “human races are distinct,…with separate origins.” Another influential advocate of polygenesis, Samuel George Morton of Philadelphia, published Crania Americana, which claimed, based on skull dimensions, that Black people were intellectually inferior. In a typology of racial categories, Morton wrote that the “Ethiopian race” was “characterized by a black complexion…the negro is joyous, flexible and indolent.” The Swiss-born Harvard University professor Louis Agassiz was also crucial in this movement. Agassiz commissioned daguerreotypes of the enslaved as part of his work and contributed to a volume based on Morton’s papers, co-edited by Nott, entitled Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches, Based Upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and Upon Their Natural, Geographical, Philological and Biblical History.

The rise of African slavery, racial prejudice, and the ethnological arguments for Black inferiority intersected in the New World with tragic results. “The negro race, from the first, was regarded with disgust, and its union with the whites forbidden under ignominious penalties,” the nineteenth-century historian George Bancroft wrote. On a visit to British North America around 1730, the Anglo-Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley reported finding “an irrational contempt of the blacks, as creatures of another species, who had no right to be instructed or admitted to the sacraments.” Long afterward, in the 1850s, an English observer wrote: “There seems, in short, to be a fixed notion throughout the whole of the States, whether slave or free, that the colored is by nature a subordinate race; and that, in no circumstances, can it be considered equal to the white.”

In the age of the American Revolution, the hypocrisy at the heart of the national experiment did not go unnoted. “How is it,” Samuel Johnson asked, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Calls for the abolition of slavery in what became the United States dated from 1688, when Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, wrote a “Petition Against Slavery.” In the eighteenth century, figures such as Anthony Benezet, Ralph Sandiford, and Benjamin Lay published antislavery tracts. “The Colour of a Man avails nothing, in Matters of Right and Equity,” the New Jersey Quaker John Woolman argued in Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, published in 1754. The African-born Phillis Wheatley—she was sold into enslavement and brought to Massachusetts in 1761—became a noted poet. The patriot-physician Benjamin Rush praised her “singular genius,” and Wheatley corresponded with George Washington, whom she praised as a “great chief” in “freedom’s cause.” The first formal American abolition organization, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes, Unlawfully Held in Bondage, was founded at the Rising Sun Tavern in Philadelphia on Friday, April 14, 1775, just five days before the Battle of Lexington and Concord. In Massachusetts, Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved woman, successfully sued for her liberty on the basis of the state’s 1780 constitutional claim that “all men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.” She saw the implications of the American promise more clearly than many, and she acted on that understanding.

Freeman’s suit foreshadowed much. Between 1777 and 1817, eight states pursued abolition. Slavery was banned in Vermont by its 1777 constitution; in Massachusetts by judicial rulings in 1781–83; in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey by gradual emancipation laws from 1780 to 1808; and in New York by an 1817 general emancipation bill that went into effect in 1827. At the federal level, the Confederation Congress approved the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. Upheld two years later by the first Congress that met under the new federal constitution, the document was formally entitled “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North-West of the River Ohio.” Under its provisions, there could be “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” in the territories that would give rise to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. Border and Southern states, meanwhile, protected and nurtured slavery, ever suspicious that antislavery northerners would try to advance abolition. In 1790, during the First Congress, Representative Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina dismissed talk of a “general emancipation of slaves by law,” saying: “This would never be submitted to by the Southern States without a civil war.”


The Kentucky into which Abraham Lincoln was born was very much part of the growing slave-based order. In 1792, the convention called to draft a state constitution had rejected the emancipationist pleas of the Presbyterian minister David Rice, who had published a pamphlet, Slavery Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy, on the subject. Instead the Kentucky delegates, under the sway of the proslavery George Nicholas, insisted on Article IX: “The legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners, or without paying their owners, previous to such emancipation, or a full equivalent in money, for the slaves so emancipated.” Slavery was thus ensured in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the first Land of Lincoln.

The 1800 census for Hardin County, where Thomas and Nancy Lincoln began their married life, reported a population of 3,653, comprised of 3,317 white people, 325 enslaved people, and eleven free Black people—meaning about 9 percent of the county was made up of slaves. By 1811, two years after Abraham Lincoln’s birth, tax records show that the enslaved population had risen to 1,007; it is estimated that there were an “average of at least two slaves for each [white] family” in Hardin County.

Though there were slave owners in both the Lincoln and Hanks families in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Thomas Lincoln, who chose to join antislavery churches in Kentucky and in Indiana, was not among them. The “daily experience and observation” of struggling white men such as Thomas Lincoln, John L. Scripps wrote in 1860, led to a conviction that “slavery oppresses the poorer classes, making their poverty and social disrepute a permanent condition through the degradation which it affixes to labor.”

In the autumn of 1816, when Abraham was seven, Thomas took his family from Kentucky to land on Little Pigeon Creek in Spencer County, Indiana. Looking back, Scripps suggested that Thomas Lincoln had “wisely resolved to remove his young family from [the] presence” of slavery. “It is said…that Mr [Thomas] Lincoln left the State of Ky because and only because Slavery was there,” Dennis Hanks recalled. “This is untrue. He movd off to better his Condition—to a place where he could buy land for…$1.25 per acre—Slavery did not operate on him. I know too well this whole matter.” Hanks was not denying that slavery was an issue for Thomas; he just did not believe it to be the sole or controlling one. Land in Indiana, where the Northwest Ordinance had banned slavery, was cheap and plentiful, and white farmers without enslaved labor had more opportunity in the absence of slave-owning competitors. It is reasonable, then, to surmise that slavery did “operate” on Thomas Lincoln to the extent that a free territory was more congenial to him than a slave one. When Abraham Lincoln recalled that his father’s move was “chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Ky,” the son tellingly noted that the decision was also “partly on account of slavery,” and a closer examination of the elder Lincolns’ world suggests that Thomas Lincoln’s antislavery inclinations had moral as well as economic components.

The religious argument against slavery had been evident in the 1780s Kentucky of Thomas’s childhood. “Being conscious to myself that the practice of holding slaves in perpetual slavery is repugnant to the Golden Law of God and the unalienable rights of mankind,” one slave owner in Jefferson County wrote in a 1787 legal document, “[I] do…emancipate, set free, and discharge all my negroes hereafter mentioned.” In 1796, a Baptist church in the region posed the question “Is slavery oppression or not? The query being taken up was answered in the affirmative. It was oppression.” It was also asked: “Can we, as a church, have fellowship with those that hold the righteousness of perpetual slavery?” The verdict: No. In the same year, a minister in the Lincolns’ neighborhood, the Reverend Josiah Dodge, helped found what was called an “Emancipation church” about thirty miles away, in Bardstown. One of the clergymen the Lincolns knew, the circuit-riding Methodist Jesse Head, who had married Thomas and Nancy, was also said to be antislavery. “Tom and Nancy and Sally Bush [Thomas’s second wife],” a contemporary recalled, “were just steeped full of Jesse Head’s notions about the wrong of slavery and the rights of man as explained by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.”

Thomas Lincoln belonged to South Fork Baptist and, later, Little Mount Separate Baptist churches in Kentucky. In Indiana, he was active in the Little Pigeon Creek Baptist Church. Opposition to slavery was a common theme in these congregations. In Kentucky, the Lincolns were part of the Baptist Licking-Locust Association Friends of Humanity, also known as an “emancipation association.” This is striking and underappreciated in the popular impression of Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln grew up in a family and among neighboring churchgoers who knew antislavery preaching and subscribed to antislavery theology. Young Lincoln would recite sermons he had heard, and according to a clergyman who claimed to have found an “old, faded memorandum book” in the Little Pigeon Creek church in 1866, Lincoln had worked as a sexton in the log building. When Lincoln would later say that he was “naturally antislavery,” he was not manufacturing a useful past for political purposes. He was reporting the fact of the matter.

The roots of the religious antislavery convictions that Lincoln encountered can be found on both sides of the Atlantic. Essential to the long war for emancipation was the faith of enslaved and freed Black people themselves, many of whom bravely rose against slavery and many of whom drew on religion through interminable years of captivity. Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and Thomas Paul were leading ministers in the closing years of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. There were alliances and overlap with Quakers, the denomination that was home to pioneering voices for universal human liberty; figures such as Benjamin Lay made the case against slavery on the grounds that God created human beings to be equal. In the latter decades of the eighteenth century, the cause was taken up by Anglicans including the Reverend John Newton (who wrote the words of the hymn “Amazing Grace”), William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and Hannah More, as well as the Methodist John Wesley. The abolitionist motto, emblazoned with an image of a man in chains, was powerful: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”


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