DL Fowler's Blog

Lincoln’s Tragedies

I promised to post this a long time ago. Now the wait is over. Lincoln was no failure (see The Myth of Lincoln’s Failures). But he did …

… experience  a great deal of trauma. Consider this:

From Lincoln’s earliest days, melancholy hangs over him like a fog refusing to burn off. Death repeatedly rips away the ones he loves. His own life is nearly snuffed out half a dozen times before he comes of age. Religion fails him. Rumors of illegitimate birth eat at him. Father’s tyranny ignites his zeal for justice. With a small band of outsiders, he battles angry radicals on one hand and anxious pacifists on the other while challenging a charismatic Senator and his alliance of entrenched despots who are bent on spreading slavery across half the globe.

Let’s begin by understanding that Abraham Lincoln was one of these intensely sensitive children who feel every emotional stimulus as being almost too intense to endure. You know, the kid who thinks the world is ending if his vegetables touch his mashed potatoes, or who goes into hysterics when you squish a spider. Then consider that by the age of 10:

  • his infant brother died
  • his mother died, and he helped build her pine-box coffin
  • he almost drowned in a raging creek
  • he was wedged between boulders in a cave with little hope of rescue
  • he was persistently beaten by his father
  • his father slaughtered his favorite pet
  • he was uprooted from his playmates and transplanted to the wilderness where he endured a brutal, sub-freezing winter with only a lean-to for shelter and no fire for heat, with little food or water, and surrounded by panthers, bears and wolves
  • he was kicked in the head by a horse, leaving him unconscious for hours, mourned by family and neighbors who thought he was dead
  • as a result of the head injury he was never again longer able to focus both eyes together
  • he was regarded as ugly, awkward and not very bright

Then over the next ten years,

  • his father hired him out and kept every dime he earned
  • his father thew out every book Abe owned and ripped up the poetry he loved to write
  • he almost died 3 more times, once his father abandoned him and his sister during an entire winter of deep snows
  • he heard rumors he was illegitimate
  • his sister died
  • he watched slaves being sold at auction, children being separated from their parents, a young light skinned girl was bought to serve as a sex object

You could say that during his first twenty-four years only two good things happened. He got a step-mother and he almost won an election.

Why is this important? Because, to understand why we fought a bloody Civil War and endured more than a century of legalized bigotry, it’s important to know that Lincoln didn’t overcome failures, he was traumatized by tragedy—over and over and over again. His refusal to give up one more inch of ground to slavery was not him taking bearings on a moral compass. It was a survival instinct. He came to a point where he said “Enough!” He stared oppression in the eye and dared it to make him—or anyone else—a victim any longer.

To Lincoln, slavery wasn’t an abstract wrong that other people suffered. It was an oppression that, along with all other sources of pain, shouldn’t be tolerated.

Soon, you’ll be able to read the human side of Abraham Lincoln’s story in my new book Lincoln Raw—the human side of history. I’ll keep you posted.

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  1. […] How did these traumas mold his passions and drive his ambitions? […]

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