Before I try to demonstrate that, I would like to call attention to something that Professor Burlingame says in his Author’s Note:
Many educated guesses, informed by over twenty years of research on Lincoln, appear in this biography. Each such guess might well begin with a phrase like “in all probability,” or “it may well be that,” or “it seems likely that.” Such warnings, if inserted into the text, would prove wearisome; readers are encouraged to provide such qualifiers silently whenever the narrative explores Lincoln’s unconscious motivation.
It is agreeable to be informed, when embarking on such a long and demanding work, that one will be treated like a grown-up.
There is, whether intentionally or not, a sort of biblical cadence and flavor to the way in which Burlingame relates the early family history: the grandmother Bathsheba; the father’s older brother Mordecai; and Mary Lincoln’s half sister, who said 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; so he went out among his relations.” The story of Jacob and Esau, and of Naboth’s vineyard, was surely known to the person who recounted that.
As for the social background, here is a sentence that conveys a great deal of misery in a very few words. It is Burlingame’s summary of the area in which Sinking Spring farm, Kentucky, young Abraham’s birthplace, was situated. “The neighborhood was thinly settled; the 36-square-mile tax district where the Lincoln farm was located contained 85 taxpayers, 44 slaves, and 392 horses.” Lincoln himself said that his early life could be “condensed into a single sentence” from Gray’s “Elegy”: “The short and simple annals of the poor.” But this would be to euphemize his true boyhood situation, which was much more like that of a serf or a domestic animal than of Gray’s lowly but sturdy peasantry. To read of the unrelenting coarseness and brutality of the boy’s father is lowering to the spirit, as is the shame he felt at his mother’s reputation for unchastity. The wretchedness of these surroundings made Lincoln tell a later acquaintance in Illinois: “I have seen a good deal of the back side of this world.” (Incidentally, one has to imagine this being said with some kind of wink and nudge: Burlingame is not content, as so many historians are, merely to hint at Lincoln’s fondness for broad humor, but furnishes us with some actual examples, which are heavy on the side of scatology and flatulence.)
Lincoln’s own experience of legal bondage and hard usage is very graphically told: not only did his father’s improvidence deprive him of many necessities, but it resulted in his being hired out as a menial to be a hewer of wood and drawer of water for his father’s rough and miserly neighbors. The law as it then stood made children the property of their father, so young Abraham was “hired out” only in the sense of chattel, since he was obliged to turn over his wages. From this, and from the many groans and sighs that are reported of the boy (who still struggled to keep reading, an activity feared and despised by his father, as it was by the owner of Frederick Douglass), we receive a prefiguration of the politician who declared in 1856, “I used to be a slave.” In Lincoln’s unconcealed resentment toward his male parent, we get an additional glimpse of the man who also declared, in 1858, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”