|Let’s imagine for a moment that a mysterious illness were to sweep into your town or neighbourhood. Not the kind that would just require you to stay home for a few days rewatching a DVD boxset of the Sopranos before returning to health. But a far more sinister kind of ailment that would start to take people down. Kill them in a matter of days. It might start with a distant acquaintance. A friend of a friend. But then it might move closer. Killing people you were close to. People you loved and depended on. If you were the nine year old Abraham Lincoln in the fall of 1818 then it would come a take your mother, Nancy Lincoln.|
Milk sickness was first described in writing by a European American in 1809, when Dr. Thomas Barbee of Bourbon County, Kentucky, detailed its symptoms. Variously described as “the trembles”, “the slows” or the illness “under which man turns sick and his domestic animals tremble,” it was a frequent cause of illness and death. The fatality rate was so high that sometimes half the people in a frontier settlement might die of milk sickness. Doctors used their contemporary treatment of bloodletting, but it had little success as it was unrelated to the cause of the illness.
Thomas and Nancy Lincoln had come over the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky in the late 18th century and had married in 1806. Abraham Lincoln once described his father uncharitably as having been a ”wandering laboring boy.” After the birth of a daughter, Sarah in 1807, Thomas uprooted his family and moved southwest near what later became the village of Hodgenville, some 25 miles from Fort Knox.Here, on Feb. 12, 1809, Nancy gave birth to their son Abraham. His brother Thomas came in 1811, but would later die in infancy. But Thomas Lincoln never thrived in Kentucky. Plagued by faulty land titles, Thomas packed up again and headed west for Indiana in 1816. Abraham, then 7, never forgot the brutally hard journey, part of which required the Lincolns to bushwhack their way through thick, underbrush, without the aid of maps. Not one to plan ahead, Thomas arrived to stake his claim in the teeth of a bitter wilderness winter, and had time to construct only a three-sided cabin exposed to the elements and only just warmed by a fireplace that had to be supervised 24 hours a day.
In spring, Thomas clapped together a tiny, one-room cabin with a crude, packed-dirt floor, a dried-clay hearth and chimney, and an ill-fitting door on leather hinges.
Nancy Lincoln was 34 when she died. Abraham helped his father make the crude coffin in which she was buried. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Lincoln left the children behind with their Uncle, Dennis Hanks to court another bride. For two to six months, Abraham was faced with the absence of his father who upon his return found his children dirty and poorly clothed. Lincoln described himself at this time as, “sad, if not pitiful”.
One consistency in his life that must have provided the young Lincoln with solice and stability was his sister, Sarah. She was thin, but strong woman who resembled her Father in stature, with brown and hair and dark eyes. Not unlike Lincoln, she had a sharp mind and inquisitive intellect. She remained with her family of origin until she married in 1826. Shortly after setting up her new home she gave birth to a stillborn child and died herself from complications. “We went out to tell Abe,” remembered a neighbour. “I never forgot the scene. He sat down in the door of the smoke house and buried her face in his hands. The tears slowly trickled from between his boney fingers and his gaunt frame shook with sobs”.
When we think of enterprising leaders in this day, we may assume a background of privilege and care, with stability and opportunity. In short, we think of a life free of mental torment and anguish. The truth is that neither privilege or suffering are essential ingredients in the development of the a principled leader. There is a convincing correlation between success and stability in one’s youth, between mental health and the care of a present and interested parent. And while hardship can be endearing and provide substance to one’s character, it can also damage one’s sense of esteem and spirit. And without resilience some hardships can destroy us.
The appearance of a sad forlorn Lincoln is well documented and a significant aspect to the mystic that he developed over the course of the 19th century before and after his death during a time when depression and sadness was likened to a romantic and open eyed sensitivity to life. Many people remarked about his melancholy. “He was a sad looking man – gloomy – and melancholic,” said William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer. Another member of the Illinois bar said that Lincoln had “a settled form of melancholy, sometimes very marked, and sometimes very mild, but always sufficient to tinge his countenance with a shade of sadness, unless a smile should dispel it, which frequently happened.” With such a litany of harrowing loss, Lincoln’s sad bearing is understandable. His quickness to smile and his resilience is the astonishing aspect.
While, the specters of milk sickness and child birth mortality were responsible for the death’s of Lincoln’s mother and sister respectively, these were just two of the many doors to early death that lay open for people to chance upon. Typhoid was another, or “bilious fever” that doctors during that period probably referred to it as. In 1835 an epidemic swept into the town of New Salem. Lincoln was remembered to have helped tend to the sick, build coffins for the dead, and assist in the burials – despite “suffering himself with the chills and fever on alternate days.” There can be no doubt that the waves of death and sorrow would have also profoundly affected the young man and his emotional outlook. Anna Mayes Rutledge, a pretty and bright blond girl, to whom Lincoln often visited, took sick in August of 1835. Her death greatly affected Lincoln. “It was very evident that he was much distressed,” remembered a neighbour named John Jones. She died on August 25th and when her funeral took place the weather turned cold and wet. It was said that Lincoln was so distressed that he “couldn’t bear the rain falling on her grave.” He may well have been close to emotional collapse. “As to the condition of Lincoln’s mind after the death of Miss Rutledge,” Henry McHenry remembered, “he seemed quite changed, he seemed retired and loved solitude, he seemed wrapped in profound thought, indifferent to transpiring events, had but little to say, but would take his gun and wander off in the woods by himself, away from the association of even those he most esteemed, this gloom seemed to deepen for some time, so as to give anxiety to friend in regard to his mind.”
When asked to describe his early life, Abraham Lincoln once told a journalist that his entire youth could be condensed into one line from Gray’s ”Elegy”: ”The short and simple annals of the poor.” Lincoln shrugged. ”That’s my life, and that’s all you or anyone else can make of it.”
Lincoln’s ability to recover from these losses would have been the mark of a man of fortitude and strength, despite his many obstacles and despite the loss of his mother and presence of a disinterested father. But Lincoln was able to not only recover but soar. His resilience was developed from a personal perspective influenced by the heady optimism of the time, the promise upheld by the freethinkers of that day and a moral and spiritual view that he developed that guided him and those he came into contact. As his spirit rose, so too did those in his life.
The following is a quick overview of some of Lincoln’s set backs. We can only imagine the cruel agonies of each of these failures: