Clues uncovered during the recent restoration of his house at Springfield help humanize the Lincoln portrait
One good measure of our apparently inexhaustible interest in Abraham Lincoln is that this year eight hundred thousand of us will be led through his house at the corner of Eighth and Jackson streets in Springfield, Illinois. So many people edge past the horsehair furniture and stomp up and down the narrow stairs that the National Park Service had to close the place down in 1987, take much of it apart, and put it back together again, newly decorated and sturdily reinforced with steel, to withstand the next generation of pilgrims.
I use the word pilgrims advisedly, for the refurbished house, its windows newly sealed against dust and weather, its air climate-controlled for the sake of the artifacts, the sanctioned path past its relics marked out by a narrow gray carpet and bound by wooden railings, seems more shrine than home. It is hard to believe that a prairie lawyer and politician, his wife, four sons, and a perpetually shifting cast of cooks and hired girls, cats and dogs, all ever really lived in these chaste rooms. No small boy ever tracked black Illinois mud across these bright Belgium carpets; no dirt ever sullied the broom that leans against the kitchen wall; no visiting pol ever missed the brown-and-white ceramic spittoon in the corner of the sitting room.
The site’s curious sterility is not really the fault of the Park Service, which has labored hard to make this old house a home again. The structure’s modest size and the long lines of people who wait in front of it each day to take the twenty minute tour demand that severe limitations be placed on visitors; much of the period furniture that fills the rooms has no genuine link with the Lincolns; and a good deal of educated guesswork has inevitably gone into the restoration. No one is even entirely certain anymore just where everyone slept.
And it should not surprise us that Lincoln’s house remains a shrine. He himself sympathized with the impulse to revere heroes. “Let us believe as in the days of our youth,” he once said, “that Washington was spotless. It makes human nature better to believe that one human being was perfect—that human perfection is possible.” From the moment of his assassination—and despite the hard work of a host of scrupulous biographers—Lincoln has remained a martyred saint to most of us: unfailingly modest and loving, candid and forbearing, selfless and self-depreciating.
But even as the Lincoln home has grown more immaculate, more monumentlike, discoveries made as the work went forward offer further clues to the real human being who lived here for seventeen years, adding fresh details to a Lincoln portrait that will always be tantalizingly incomplete.
Reconstructing the daily lives of the Lincolns is a tricky business. Precisely one letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to her husband written during the Springfield years has survived, and while a handful of Lincoln letters home do still exist, he was always reticent about his private life—"the most shutmouthed man that ever lived,” a close friend said—and routinely left the details of daily living to his wife. Most of his letters mirror little more than his genuine affection for Mary and for the boys he called “the codgers.” The result is that much of what we think we know about the Lincolns’ domestic lives is distinctly second- and third-hand, drawn from the memories of friends and neighbors and family members, some unwilling to be anything but worshipful, a few with old scores to settle. Opinions differ even on the quality of the meals prepared in the Lincolns’ small kitchen. One frequent Springfield visitor remembered that they were “famed for the excellence of many rare Kentucky dishes and, in season, . . . venison, wild turkey, prairie chickens, quail and other game”; another guest remembered “an old-fashioned mess of indigestion, composed mainly of cake, pies and chickens.”
Most of the finds made during the recent renovation were important primarily to specialists: a staircase once led from one garret to the other; a cistern was uncovered behind the house, and a pump relocated to conform to it; the Lincolns’ wallpaper was gaudier than had once been thought.
But two discoveries were of wider interest. The first of them has permanently altered one of the oldest legends about the Lincolns. The dwelling to which the Lincolns brought their year-old son, Robert, in 1844 was a story-and-a-half Greek Revival cottage, built by Dr. Charles Dresser, the Episcopal minister who had married the couple two years earlier. Tradition has always held that although the family steadily grew—Edward Baker Lincoln was born here in 1846, William Wallace in 1850, Thomas, known as Tad, in 1853—Lincoln earned too little money to make any improvements on their increasingly crowded cottage until 1856, when Mary sold off eighty acres of land inherited from her father and took it upon herself to order up a second story. Lincoln was said to have been away circuit-riding while the work went on and to have claimed not to recognize his old house when he got back, asking a neighbor, “Stranger, do you know where Lincoln lives?”
If he did ask such a question, he meant it purely as a joke, for it is now clear from structural evidence and the town tax records that the Lincolns together improved and expanded their home not once but six times while they lived in it—in 1846, 1849, 1853, 1855, 1856, and 1860—and apparently approved a seventh renovation from the White House in 1863.
This record of constantly growing affluence and comfort is further proof that Abraham Lincoln’s celebrated penury was always relative. Lincoln himself did little to dispel the myth of his poverty. Illinois was traditionally a Democratic state, and the Whigs, with whom he identified from boyhood until their party went out of existence, were widely denounced as “aristocratical”; it was not merely good politics, it was probably essential politics, that Lincoln appear always a little more threadbare than he really was.
In fact, as the comparative spaciousness and affluent furnishings of his home attest, he had come a very long way from the dark one-room cabins of his boyhood in Kentucky and Indiana and a considerable distance from the log houses of New Salem. He knew his rail-splitting youth was a political asset, but he did not like to dwell upon it; his whole boyhood, he told a campaign biographer, could be “condensed into one line and that one line you can find in Gray’s Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’”
His marriage to the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky merchant-banker had helped make the “flourishing about in carriages” of Springfield’s most fashionable citizens seem less intimidating than it had seemed when he first arrived in 1837, and the house he and his wife occupied and steadily improved together nicely symbolizes the great and growing distance his will to succeed had put between the circumstances of his own life and those of his father, a gulf so wide he finally did not try to bridge it. No member of Lincoln’s family was asked to attend his wedding; neither his father nor his stepmother ever met his wife or saw their grandchildren. Lincoln revered the memory of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, dead when he was nine, but was frankly scornful of his father, Thomas, who, he said, “never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name.” He visited Thomas Lincoln from time to time but never invited him to his home in Springfield, did not go to see him on his deathbed in 1851, never even ordered a headstone for his grave. In fact, only one member of Lincoln’s family is known to have stayed with the Lincolns, a cousin named Harriet Hanks, who lived at Eighth and Jackson for a time while attending a local seminary for young ladies; she later said she had been treated as a servant by Mary Lincoln.
He may have sometimes been irritated by the pretensions of his in-laws—Lincoln is supposed to have wondered why, if God was content with one d, the Todds demanded two—and they evidently never quite thought him worthy of Mary; but it was the kind of life led by Todds, not Lincolns, that he wanted for himself and for his children.
The aggregate of Lincoln’s own schooling, he once said, was less than a year—asked in 1858 to summarize his education, he answered simply “Defective”—but when it came time to educate his eldest son, he sent him to Phillips Exeter and Harvard, evidently intending to make of him an Eastern gentleman. He may have succeeded too well. On the centennial of his father’s birth in 1909, Robert refused to attend the dedication of the big Greek temple near Hodgenville, Kentucky, that now harbors the small cabin in which Lincoln is alleged to have been born. Archie Butt, military aide to the main speaker, President Theodore Roosevelt, thought he knew why: “If it be true, as I hear, that Bob Lincoln . . . does not relish the perpetuation of this cabin,” he wrote, “I cannot blame him. The very thought of it... would make any member of his family shudder with horror. It does not bear the stamp of poverty alone, but degradation and uncleanliness.”
If we are made a little nervous by the notion of a resolutely aspiring Abraham Lincoln, apparently willing to put behind him the people from whom he sprang in the course of bettering himself, we are still more wary when asked to consider him as a vote-seeking politician. Yet “politics were his life, newspapers his food, and his great ambition his motive force,” as his law partner, William Herndon, remembered. “He delighted [in politics], he revelled in it, as a fish does in water, as a bird disports itself on the sustaining air.”
The declining fortunes of his Whig party in Democratic Illinois led some of Lincoln’s early biographers to portray Lincoln as a political failure; in fact, he was a considerable success, a state legislator at twenty-five, a promising party leader well before he married.
But a second discovery made during the renovation of his home reminds us that there was nothing inevitable about his rise to power, that in order to become the Emancipator we remember best, Lincoln first had to master the small, sometimes seamy world of state and county politics and to learn to take seriously the importuning of ordinary citizens.
In 1849, Park Service experts now speculate, someone—probably six-year-old Robert or one of his playmates—fed some of his father’s old papers into a crack above the baseboard in the kitchen’s north wall. They were soon obliterated by a shower of plaster shaken down upon them by further alterations to the house. A field mouse then constructed its nest atop the plaster. (When what was left of the papers was uncovered in 1987, the delicate skeleton of the nest’s builder still lay cuddled up inside it.)
There was nothing momentous in this cache; nothing in Lincoln’s own hand, in fact, except part of a franked but empty envelope addressed to the Washington landlady in whose boardinghouse he lived while in Congress. The papers include two more or less intact letters from Illinois political allies, termite-chewed fragments of two additional letters from constituents seeking favors, and a copy of an 1849 speech by a fellow Whig congressman, James Wilson of New Hampshire, opposing slavery’s spread into the lands newly acquired from Mexico, its pages still uncut.
One letter, from David Dickinson, a political backer from Lacon, Illinois, was written in early 1846, while Lincoln was maneuvering to assure his own nomination for the state’s single safe Whig congressional seat. Lincoln believed that he had an agreement with the two other leading party hopefuls—Edward D. Baker (for whom his second son was named) and John J. Hardin—that they would rotate the nomination among themselves, and that 1846 was his turn. But Hardin, a former incumbent (and Mary’s distant cousin), had other ideas and schemed to seize the nomination for himself. Lincoln finally forced him to withdraw, but he was evidently still wary of a last-minute betrayal, for Dickinson wrote to reassure him that he had been scouting Putnam County, on the lookout for Hardin’s “moccasin tracks,” and that all was well.
During his single term in Congress, Lincoln was besieged by letters from constituents demanding services. Two of these survived beneath the mouse nest. One voter asked him to register a patent for a “compound vegetable” elixir that cured “dyspepsia . . . weakness ... or a bad cold . . .”; the other hoped the congressman could arrange for him a commission in the Army, then fighting the Mexican War. “I hope to obtain your interference in my behalf,” the aspiring officer wrote, “and if I succeed rest assured sir that it will never be forgotten by me. . . .” It is unlikely that the young congressman’s interference did his eager constituent much good with the Democratic administration; Lincoln was a freshman and a Whig who believed the current struggle in the Southwest “a war of conquest brought into existence to catch votes.” But it is likely that he did his best; he could not afford to be forgotten by any voter.
Lincoln’s first love may have been politics, but he made his money as a lawyer, at least five thousand dollars annually by the 1850s, and the result was that he wasn’t home much; for up to six months a year he was away politicking and trying cases on the Eighth Circuit, a vast shifting area that once encompassed fourteen counties, one-fifth of the state. “During my childhood and early youth,” Robert Lincoln once recalled, trying to explain why his father had never found the time to tell him much about his own boyhood, “[my father] was almost constantly away . . . attending courts or making political speeches.”
During all that time, year after year, Mary was left to run her household and raise her children largely on her own, and it is understandably her impress rather than her husband’s that is most evident in their house. It was Mary who studied Miss Leslie’s House Book, or Manual of Domestic Economy for Town and Country; who saw to it that the ceilings were freshly whitewashed and the oil lamps were filled and their wicks trimmed; who arranged the seashells on the what-not shelves in the parlor. (Lincoln’s own mussed, intensely masculine world was epitomized by the law office, five blocks away, where he spent most daylight hours when he was in Springfield. It was so disheveled, a clerk recalled, that government seeds brought back with him from Washington actually sprouted in one unswept corner.)
A reporter from upstate New York, ushered through the Springfield house shortly after Lincoln was nominated for the Presidency, reassured his Republican readers that they need not fear that they were being asked to vote for an untamed frontiersman. The candidate’s “house was neatly without being extravagantly furnished,” he wrote. “An air of quiet refinement pervaded the place. You would have known instantly that she who presided over the modest household was a true type of the American lady. There were flowers upon the tables . . . pictures upon the walls. . . . The thought that involuntarily blossomed into speech was—‘What a pleasant home Abe Lincoln has.’”
Making that home pleasant was a demanding task, especially for a woman who came to her marriage speaking fluent French but unable to prepare the simplest dish. But the newly restored house barely hints at the difficulties she faced every morning. The Lincolns’ backyard today is as well groomed as a putting green; the freshly painted back porch is kept bare of everything but an empty woodbox whose purpose has to be explained to visitors, most of whom have never seen one. But a photograph of the same scene, made while the Lincolns’ wartime tenants still occupied the house, suggests something of the shabbier reality of daily life in their time: the grass is ragged; the paint is peeling; logs overflow the woodbox, and bark litters the porch, which is crowded with fire-blackened pots and battered washtubs. And even the old photograph cannot convey the perpetual buzz of flies in summer or the reek produced by the milk cow kept tethered behind the house, the two horses in the barn, the privy at the back of the garden, the hogs rooting along the unplanked streets just beyond the fence.
Mary Lincoln had a string of hired girls to help her, but her relations with them were frequently turbulent and she complained because the “wild Irish” whom she often had to employ were not as admirably submissive as the slaves who had served her family in Kentucky.
Her problems may have rested less with her servants’ temperaments than with her own. Mary Todd’s wit and coquettish vivacity had made her a great prize when Lincoln began to court her but beneath that surface she was insecure, quick-tempered, sharp-tongued, seeing slights where none were intended, suffering from migraine headaches that frequently drove her to bed in her darkened room, living in daily dread that those she loved most would be taken from her—as her mother had been by death at six, as her beloved father had been by his remarriage to a stranger who bore him eight children and had little time for a stepdaughter.
In 1849 and 1850 her worst fears seemed confirmed as first her father died, then the grandmother who had done all she could to fill in for her dead mother, then her own Eddie, not yet four, who succumbed to diphtheria despite his parents’ desperate nursing. She was inconsolable for months and increasingly fearful thereafter, especially when her husband was away, certain one of the other boys would fall ill and die, that the house would catch fire or be hit by lightning. When a bearded umbrella mender knocked unexpectedly at the front door one day, she screamed, “Murder! Murder!” so loudly that a neighbor ran over and escorted the astonished man away.
Mary herself once called Lincoln “my Sainted Idol. . . . A sainted man who had a holy smile.” Her own tumultuous personality had a good deal to do with the myth of his saintliness, for if, as some of her husband’s closest associates said, she was a “she-devil” and “Hell-Catical,” was Lincoln not all the more wonderful for having put up with her for so long?
In fact, his home was not a “hell on earth,” as William Herndon claimed, and many of the stories that seem to suggest it was and that Lincoln was “woman-whipped and woman-carved” were amassed by his junior partner, whose loathing for Mary Lincoln was surpassed only by hers for him. Although a photograph of the two partners hung on her parlor wall, she would not have Herndon in her home. “Mr. Herndon had always been an utter stranger to me,” Mary wrote many years later; “he was not considered an habitué, at our house. The office was more, in his line.”
There is no reason to suppose that Lincoln ever regretted having had “Love Is Eternal” engraved on Mary’s wedding ring. Mary Todd Lincoln may not have been easy to live with, but neither was her husband, and some of his wife’s eccentricities were certainly exacerbated by his own. Mary Owens, to whom Lincoln had once been engaged, gently recalled that he had been “deficient in those little links which make up the chain of a woman’s happiness,” and even Herndon believed he “ought never to have married anyone. He had no quality of a husband.”
Despite Mary’s best efforts, an early writer said, Lincoln was inherently “unparlorable.” His company manners had improved a good deal since he first moved to Springfield, when he was still capable of stalking into a fashionable ball with friends wearing muddy boots and shouting, “Oh, boys—how clean those girls look!” But despite her exhortations to “dress up and look like somebody,” his clothes remained rumpled, his hair unbrushed; the stovepipe hat he hung on the arched hat tree in the front hall every evening usually looked “as if a calf had licked it.” He was perpetually—and unapologetically—late for meals, used the wrong knife to spread his butter, and persisted in answering the door himself instead of allowing the serving girl to do it, sometimes in his shirt sleeves and without his boots. Once, to Mary’s acute embarrassment, he told some visiting ladies his wife would be down “as soon as she gets her trotting harness on.”
Lincoln could be solicitous, insisting that Mary not try to do everything herself, and genuinely concerned when she fell victim to one of her headaches: “he was never himself—when I was not perfectly well,” Mary remembered. But he was also laconic and undemonstrative; no one who knew him well ever slapped his back or called him Abe. At the best of times he spoke and thought and moved so slowly, a friend remembered, it seemed as if he needed oiling, and he dealt with Mary’s tantrums by stalking from the house until she calmed down, his forbearing silence only adding further to her frustration.
At his worst he was given to spells of severe and morbid depression, which must have frightened his wife and from which even she could sometimes not rouse him. The closing stanza of “Mortality,” his favorite poem, hints at the sort of lugubriousness that sometimes gripped him:
The last letter fragments found in the kitchen wall came from a Whig editor to whom Lincoln had sent the poem in 1846; the newspaperman wanted to know whether Lincoln himself had written it. “Beyond all question, I am not the author,” he replied (the Scottish poet William Knox was). “I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”
Her husband’s frequent absences were difficult enough for Mary to bear, but even when at home, he often seemed to disappear within himself. She dealt with his strange, brooding withdrawals as lightly as she could when guests were present. Her half-sister Emilie Helm remembered an evening in the sitting room when Lincoln and Robert were playing checkers and someone asked her brother-in-law a question. There was no answer. “Your silence is remarkably soothing, Mr. Lincoln,” Mary finally said, “but we are not quite ready for sleep just yet.” Everyone, including Lincoln, laughed.
But when the Lincolns were alone together, Mary was evidently less forgiving. After suggesting three times that he poke up the dying fire without spurring him to the slightest action, she once went at him with a stick of wood. Another time a neighbor woman had just reached the back door when Lincoln burst through it with his wife close behind, hurling potatoes.
The Park Service has done its best to evoke the lively presence of the Lincoln sons throughout the restored house. Their original stereoscope rests on a table in the sitting room, and wooden hoops, alphabet blocks, and a little book called The Passionate Child lie scattered about the room the curators believe the two younger boys occupied just across the hall from their mother’s bedroom, where a child’s table and chairs are clustered at the end of the bed in which they often slept.
Inevitably, these period artifacts convey nothing of their individual personalities. Robert was high-spirited as a small boy but increasingly reserved as he got older, evidence perhaps of the impact of his younger brother’s death when he was only six and the responsibility he felt for keeping his anxious mother calm while his father was away. Willie and Tad were uniformly boisterous; even their mother called them her “noisy boys.” Willie was his father’s favorite, perhaps the brightest of his sons and fond of poetry as well as mischief. Tad suffered from a speech impediment so severe that outsiders found it hard to understand him, and he may also have suffered from what we now call hyperactivity, unable to sit still for long, unable to read until he was twelve.
The Lincoln literature is filled with stories of his sons’ wildness. One kicked over the chessboard while his father was trying to concentrate on his next move; Tad smeared black ink all over the white marble counter at the telegraph office and raced through a reception swinging a side of bacon to scatter the formally dressed guests.
No one found the boys more tiresome than Herndon, who often had to clean up after them. “Sometimes,” he recalled, “Lincoln would, when his wife had gone to church, to show off her new bonnet, or when she had kicked him out of the house, bring to the office Willie and Tad— these little devils . . . would take down the books, empty ash buckets, coal ashes, inkstands, papers, gold pens, letters, etc., etc., in a pile and then dance on the pile. Lincoln would say nothing, so abstracted was he, and so blinded to his children’s faults. Had they s--t in Lincoln’s hat and rubbed it on his boots, he would have laughed and thought it smart.”
“Mr. Lincoln . . . was very exceedingly indulgent to his children,” Mary later wrote, trying to explain the boys’ behavior. “He always said: ‘It is my pleasure that my children are free, happy and unrestrained by parental tyranny. Love is the chain whereby to bind a child to its parents.’” Some have taken this at face value, seeing in it further evidence of Lincoln’s patient wisdom, his foresightedness in understanding the advantages of the more permissive style of child raising familiar in our own day.
It seems at least as likely that Lincoln was a fond but preoccupied and often absent father who, when he did make it home, wished to enjoy his children, not to discipline them. Child raising, he believed, was woman’s work. “Since I began this letter,” he wrote to a friend when Robert was small, “a messenger came to tell me, Bob was lost; but by the time I reached the house, his mother had found him, and had him whip[p]ed—and, by now, very likely he is run away again.”
The boys’ chronic obstreperousness may simply have been the only way they knew to attract their oblivious father’s sustained attention. According to Herndon, they rarely held it long. “On a winter’s morning,” he remembered, “[Lincoln] might be seen stalking and stilting it toward the market house, basket on his arm, his old gray shawl wrapped around his neck, his little Willie or Tad running along at his heels, asking a thousand little quick questions, which his father heard not, not even then knowing that little Willie or Tad was there fast running after him, so abstracted was he. When he thus met a friend on the road, he said that something he had just seen, heard, or left put him in mind of a story which he heard in Indiana or Egypt [southern Illinois] or elsewhere, and tell it he would and there was no alternative . . . but to patiently stand and hear it.”
The stories his friends stood to hear were often strong stuff. After Lincoln’s death an old woman who had known him as a youth began to recite for an interviewer a piece of doggerel she believed he had written, then stopped, blushing furiously, and explained that since the “poem is smutty . . . I can’t tell it to you, will tell it to my daughter-in-law, she will tell her husband; and he will tell it to you.” When a friend asked Lincoln why he didn’t publish his stories, he wrinkled his nose. “Such a book,” he said, “would stink like a thousand privies.”
Such redolent tales would not have been spun out in Mary Lincoln’s parlor, but they were surely told in the upstairs bedroom, where her husband often retreated with his political friends, and that room remains, it seems to me, the place in the restored house most successfully evocative of its owner. There oval portraits of his Whig heroes, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, hang above the black parlor stove; on a baize-covered table rests the battered mahogany lap desk he carried in his saddlebags while riding the circuit; his original shaving mirror is nailed to the west wall, startlingly high. Bargains were struck in this room, campaigns were planned, political news was received, and tactics were altered to fit new circumstances.
Mary may not have been immediately privy to the salty intriguing that went on next door to her own bedroom—few women in her time wished to be considered “political females”—but she was always intensely interested in his career, amiable to his allies, unforgiving of his enemies, and unwilling to allow setbacks to impede his progress.
Lincoln wondered at the skill with which she served as his hostess in the Springfield house, sometimes presiding over gatherings attended by three hundred guests—and once, if the local newspaper is to be believed, “thronged by thousands” inching their way through the downstairs rooms. But he also reserved the right to be a little bemused by it all. At one reception the guests were expected to serve themselves from pyramidal shelves piled high with sandwiches, fruit, and frosted cakes. “Do they give you anything to eat here?” Lincoln murmured to the man ahead of him in line.
Mary’s ambition was every bit as consuming as Herndon said her husband’s was, and while the evidence offered by some of her admiring biographers that she greatly influenced his political thinking seems thin, at least to me, she was certainly his most effective and persistent booster. “Mr. [Stephen A.] Douglas is a very little, little giant by the side of my tall Kentuckian,” she told a relative, “and intellectually my husband towers above Douglas just as he does physically.” When the Whigs won the White House in 1848, it was she who wrote more than forty letters to Washington applying for a federal post and signed his name to each—and she who helped talk him out of taking the dead-end ones offered in response. He was destined for greater things, and so, she thought, was she.
During the 1858 Senate race against Douglas, a sudden downpour forced Lincoln and a reporter to take shelter together in an empty boxcar. “My friends got me into this business,” he told his companion as the rain splattered through the open door. “I did not consider myself qualified for the United States Senate, and it took me a long time to persuade myself that I was. . . . Mary insists, however, that I am going to be Senator and President of the United States, too.” He clasped his long arms around his knees and laughed. “Just think of such a sucker as me as President!”
Lincoln’s legendary humility was the public product of private self-assurance; we can be certain that he had himself often thought about the Presidency. Mary shared her husband’s aspirations and helped focus his energies upon realizing them, but she did not create them.
Lincoln’s subsequent loss to Douglas was disappointing but not devastating. “I believe . . . you are ‘feeling like hell yet,’” Lincoln told one supporter a few days after the votes were counted. “Quit that; You will soon feel better. Another ‘blow-up’ is coming; and we shall have fun again.” A national figure at last, he was flooded with invitations to speak, and in September he packed his bag, said good-bye to the boys, as he had so many times before, and set forth on a political swing through Ohio. This time his wife went with him.
In Cincinnati, on September 17, a large crowd turned out at the Fifth Street Market to hear him. Mary sat proudly near the platform. “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us,” she heard him tell his audience. “Twenty-five years ago, I was a hired laborer. The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account today, and will hire others to labor for him tomorrow. Advancement—improvement in condition—is the order of things in a society of equals.”
For Lincoln, the comfortable house in which he and Mary and their children lived provided vivid, reassuring proof of how far a man might rise in the society of equals that he would one day give his life to preserve.