“I used to be a slave,” said Abraham Lincoln.
He did not explain what prompted him to make this incredible statement, why he branded himself as belonging to the most oppressed, stigmatized and untouchable caste, far worse than being accused of being an abolitionist. Illinois, while a free state, had a draconian Black Code.
Why would Lincoln announce that he was a former “slave”? The bare facts he did not disclose to his audience were these: Until he was 21 years old, Lincoln’s father had rented him out to neighbors in rural Indiana at a price of 10 to 31 cents a day, to labor as a rail splitter, farmhand, hog butcher and ferry operator.
The father collected the son’s wages. Lincoln was in effect an indentured servant, a slave. He regarded his semi-literate father as domineering and himself without rights.
Thomas Lincoln, who had led a harsh and unfair life, wanted his son to learn an honest trade as a laborer, perhaps trained as a carpenter like himself, considered formal education a waste of time and sought to suppress any larger ambition as useless dreaminess.
It was only when the self-made man finally identified himself as a Republican that he felt free to reveal himself as “a slave.” And then Lincoln completed his story, “And now I am so free that they let me practice law.”
Lincoln’s wry humor drove home his point about his getaway, but masked the scar. Calling himself “a slave” was not a slip of the tongue, hyperbole, or metaphor. It was not just another of his funny stories, though he made it into a joke. He truly considered himself to have been held in bondage and escaped.
Lincoln rarely if ever talked about his feelings, even to his closest friends, who tried to discern the signs. He hid his depths behind his simplicity. His authenticity was not deceptive but a veneer nonetheless.
“He was simple in his dress, manners, simple in his approach and his presence,” recalled William H. Herndon, his law partner. “Though this be true, he was a man of quite infinite silences and was thoroughly and deeply secretive, uncommunicative and close-minded as to his plans, wishes, hopes, and fears. . . . I venture to say that he never wholly opened himself to mortal creature.”
It was no wonder. His captivity as a boy, he felt, was humiliating and degrading, imprisonment in a world of neglect, poverty, fecklessness and ignorance. It was at the root of his fierce desire to rise.
If he was angry with his father, he also knew that his father had been reduced to a dirt farmer and compelled to flee Kentucky to escape from slavery. “Slave States are places for poor white people to remove from; not to remove to,” Lincoln said in 1854 in opposition to Douglas’s Nebraska Act. “New free States are the places for poor people to go to and better their condition.”
Lincoln had been oppressed by a man who himself was oppressed. By crossing the Ohio River into Indiana, his father had made his own escape. Lincoln was a fugitive’s son—and a fugitive himself.
Even more startling than Lincoln’s self-description as chattel was his subsequent self-identification as a particular kind of slave—a fugitive slave, a runaway.
In one of only two brief autobiographical interviews he ever granted, this one intended for circulation in support of his Senate candidacy in 1858, and given to his friend Jesse W. Fell, an Illinois lawyer and businessman who had advised him to challenge Douglas to debate, Lincoln offered this physical description of himself:
If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing on an average one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes—no other marks or brands recollected.
Many, perhaps even at the time, might have missed Lincoln’s allusion at the end of his seemingly bland self-portrayal, though the politician and lawyer who had learned to wield words with surgical precision certainly knew his own intent and had undoubtedly ruminated on it.
“No other marks or brands recollected” was not another of his amusing jokes, but the exact language slave owners used to describe runaway slaves in newspaper ads. Lincoln had therefore identified himself not only as one of the fugitives but also mocked their owners.
This was more than sympathetic projection; he believed he had his own fugitive experience and emancipated himself. He was an oppressed and stunted boy who achieved his freedom. If, with his disadvantages, he could do it, it could be done.
When he became a Republican and identified himself as “a slave,” he had begun emerging as the Abraham Lincoln identifiable in history. Four years later, at the Illinois state Republican convention nominating him for president, he would be given another identity, the “Rail Splitter,” the legendary ax-wielding laborer, common man of the people, establishing one of the most enduring icons in American history, though to the private Lincoln, who chuckled at the contrived image making by party handlers, it was a picture of himself from the time when he thought of himself as “a slave.”
Like other runaways, he had remade his identity and never took it for granted.
From A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln 1809-1849 by Sidney Blumenthal. Copyright © 2016 by Sidney Blumenthal. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.