Abraham Lincoln and his father had a complicated relationship. Search Lincoln’s letters and try to find a “word of praise” for his father. You won’t succeed.
Consider the final letter he sent to his father.
Harriett Hanks Chapman, Dennis Hanks’ daughter, sent Lincoln a letter in early January 1851. She had just visited his father and things didn’t look good. He was in terrible health and, by all accounts, he would not recover from his latest illness. She told Lincoln that the family had written to him twice, but he had failed to respond each time. His father was dying, but he didn’t seem to care. Why?
After reading her letter, Lincoln finally reached for his pen. Instead of responding to her, he wrote directly to his stepbrother, John D. Johnston, who was at his father’s bedside.
Lincoln began by telling his stepbrother that he had received both of the letters. He had not forgotten about the letters, nor had he “been uninterested about them,” but “it appeared to me I could write nothing which could do any good.”
He explained that he could not travel to nearby Coles County to see his father. “My business is such that I could hardly leave home now,” he wrote. Moreover, his wife was presently “sick-abed” with a case of “baby-sickness,” though he did not think it was serious. Mary had given birth to their third child, Willie, on December 21, 1850, some three weeks earlier.
But before he closed his letter, Lincoln worked up some final words he wanted his father to hear:
I sincerely hope Father may yet recover his health; but at all events tell him to remember to call upon, and confide in, our great, and good, and merciful Maker; who will not turn away from him in any extremity. He notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads; and He will not forget the dying man, who puts his trust in Him. Say to him that if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant; but that if it be his lot to go now, he will soon have a joyous [meeting] with many loved ones gone before; and where [the rest] of us, through the help of God, hope ere-long [to join] them.
Why did Lincoln think it would be “more painful than pleasant” to see his father? By painful, did he simply mean sad? Was he trying to say that it would be painful or sad to see his dying father because he loved him and did not want to see him suffer? Maybe.
The illness was indeed serious.
On this date in 1851, five days after Lincoln wrote to him, Thomas Lincoln died. He was 73.
Lincoln did not attend the funeral.
Two years later, the Lincolns named their fourth and final child after him. Interestingly, he rarely went by “Thomas;” instead, everyone called him “Tad,” because his father said his large head reminded him of a tadpole.
A little more than nine years after his father’s death, Lincoln visited Coles County for the final time. He had been elected president and was preparing to leave for Washington. He said goodbye to his stepmother and visited his father’s grave. He mentioned that he would like to have a headstone placed at the gravesite.
Two years after the assassination, in late 1867, Lincoln’s widow wrote to her husband’s aged stepmother:
My husband a few weeks before his death mentioned to me, that he intended that summer, paying proper respect to his father’s grave, by a head & foot stone, with his name, age & & and I propose very soon carrying out his intentions. It was not from want of affection for his father, as you are well aware, that it was not done, but his time was so greatly occupied always.
However, Mary failed to make good on the promise.
By 1880, local citizens spearheaded an effort to erect a monument to Lincoln’s father. When Lincoln’s son, Robert, heard about their efforts, he made “a generous contribution to the undertaking.” He also donated money for a tombstone to mark Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s grave.