Few people are as iconically American as Abraham Lincoln. That honest face is set in stone, after all, both at Rushmore and at his own D.C. monument, and then there’s the penny and the five dollar bill. We celebrated his birthday annually until we got stingy with the days off and merged his birthday with some other guy’s–George somebody. The George guy might claim the title of “father of our country,” but Abe is the father figure of our country, the kind, funny, approachable dad upon whom we could depend.
That’s what 150 years and a bullet in the head will do for a guy’s reputation. Time, reverence, and elementary school have flattened our 16th president into a long, tall caricature of an ideal man, but the truth is that Abraham Lincoln–and particularly young Abe Lincoln–was a pretty rough character. His rags to riches story is part of his appeal, but we tend to focus more on the riches than the rags. Lincoln was raised in dire poverty at the literal edges of the American frontier, and his character reflected that. In other words, the child and young man who loped through the wilderness of Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois was far from the statesman who led his country through its most tumultuous period to date.
Fortunately for Young Abe, there was no internet access on the frontier back in the early 1800s. If there was, he may have had a social media presence as Marfan_Man or @DrinkinLincoln, and then that rough character of his wouldn’t have been isolated to the backwoods. It would’ve been out there for the whole world to see rather than tucked safely away in the pages of well-researched biographies like 2008’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life by author Michael Burlingame. It’s a beast of a book–two volumes clocking in at an aggregate 1,600 pages, but one only needs to read the first 100-150 pages to realize how poorly Lincoln would have fared in the social media era. For example:
Young Abe tortured animals. One night Abe and his buddies decided to sneak out for a raccoon hunt. Abe’s dad’s dog, Joe, wouldn’t stop yapping, so the boys brought him along just to shut him up. The young hunters skinned the first raccoon they caught, then sewed the furry hide around Joe and cut him loose to be ripped apart by the coon dogs in the area. Burlingame alleges that this might have been Lincoln’s revenge on his father, who slaughtered young Abe’s pet pig, so we can add he was a spiteful sumbitch to our list of grievances.
Many years after the Joe incident, Lincoln officiated at least one cockfight that we know of, making him sort of the Michael Vick of presidents.
He loved to fight. Yep, Abe was one of those “come at me bro” mulletheads. Young Abe was a big, strong dude who once lifted 1,000 pounds in order to help a friend win a bet. He knew he was a badass, too: Once after breaking up a fight that he caused, Lincoln “stood up and swore that he was the biggest buck at the lick.”
He loved crude jokes. Dennis Hanks, Lincoln’s uncle, claimed that his nephew like to sing “little smutty songs.” No examples of those songs survive; however, several of Lincoln’s favorite jokes do, as his taste for off color humor persisted throughout his life. Acquaintances labeled his brand of humor “very nasty indeed” and called the future president “one of the most obscene men that ever lived.”
He was a troll. Young Lincoln had a penchant for writing and publishing essays that mocked his political opponents, always hiding behind a pen name. He finally gave up the practice after he trolled the wrong guy: James Shields challenged him to a duel, and the two met in the woods to have it out with broadswords. Like any good troll, Lincoln didn’t actually want to fight. Faced with getting hacked to pieces or killing a man, Abe decided instead to settle the matter with some quick diplomacy.
He was a race baiter. Young Abe wasn’t above exploiting race for his political benefit. In one example, he skewered Martin Van Buren for suggesting that free blacks should be allowed to vote. Returning to his pseudonymous trolling ways, Lincoln wrote a letter to the Sangamo Journal in the guise of a black man named “Sees-Her” mocking Van Buren as the “black” candidate: “[…] De way de niggers is goin for him now, oh hush! [….] De ways dey is going to run him ahead em all ain’t nobodys business [….] and let the free niggers vote–and when we send all dese tarnal white folks off, we’s goin to send him to kongress, and de niggers will be in town! Oh, hush!”
He was a #metoo nightmare. Lincoln visited prostitutes on at least two different occasions, was a notorious flirt, and more than once made moves on the women in whose house he was a guest. If that wasn’t bad enough, once in a receiving line he dared to request a second handshake from a particularly attractive woman. Two handshakes!
He married a slaveholder. Mary Todd Lincoln’s Kentucky family owned several slaves, including Mary’s favorite, Mammy Sally. Some of Mary’s half brothers fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, too. Way to pick a family, cuck!
He fought indigenous people. Young Lincoln was a captain in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War, a conflict that erupted when Black Hawk rightfully tried to settle on tribal land and the local settlers freaked out.
Can you imagine the guy described above surviving Twitter? He would have been zapped into the cornfield long before he reached the national stage, and today the faces of your pennies would remain blank.
And while all of the above is absolutely true, it’s only half the story. Abraham Lincoln was an animal lover, who vowed never to hunt “big game” again after killing a turkey. While fighting was part of life on the frontier, Lincoln usually played the peacekeeper. As for the dirty jokes? Well, he liked dirty jokes. Who doesn’t? As for the trolling, publishing criticisms under a pen name was a very common practice for American politicos dating back to the founding fathers.
When it came to race, Lincoln’s position is awfully complex for modern minds, but he was inarguably antislavery from a young age, as was his future wife. His inevitable actions more than demonstrate his commitment to that cause. And as for the Black Hawk War, Abe never fired a shot and his service lasted only a month or so.
His relationship with women was awfully complex, too, likely stemming from the loss of his mother when he was only nine but exacerbated by both his homeliness and his poverty. Lincoln referred to women as “the only thing I was ever scared of that couldn’t hurt me.” One of those two known brothel visits ended when Abe, with only three dollars to his name, couldn’t pay the lady’s five dollar rate. She offered him credit, but he noted that “I’m poor & I don’t know where my next dollar bill will come from and I cannot afford to Cheat you.” The woman allegedly told him that “you are the most Conscientious man I ever saw.” Later, he wed Mary Todd out of a sense of duty, and the marriage was a miserable one with Mary playing the role of the abuser.
People are complex. Young Lincoln wasn’t just his bad traits, and Old Lincoln didn’t even bear many of the awful attitudes and characteristics of his younger self. If that great man had been reduced to the kind of cardboard cutouts that we make of our social media adversaries, our country most likely would have been cheated out of its greatest statesman. Reading an accurate biography of Lincoln is a nice reminder that we’re all flawed, but we all have the capacity to change; that who we are at a specific moment in time isn’t who we are destined to remain.
So keep that in mind the next time you’re calling for a comedian’s career to be ruined over a tasteless joke, or you’re calling a social media stranger a Nazi or a snowflake based on a single post. Or don’t. You can always settle up with broadswords.