Eulogy for Nancy Hanks Lincoln
February 10, 2002

“God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.” These are Abraham Lincoln’s own words, describing his “angel mother”, Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

The question then becomes “What, exactly, did she give to him, and why?” Nancy Lincoln had no way of knowing who Abe would become. The idea that he would become President, let alone the greatest President the union has known, would have been laughable during her lifetime.

Lincoln himself apparently believed that he INHERITED from her, ambition, mental alertness, and a power of analysis that were lacking in the rest of the family. These traits were important to the man he would become., but they were not necessarily the most important traits.

What is much more important though, to who Abe became, was the lessons she taught him as a very young boy. We know she taught him his letters, even though she could not write much, if at all. She sent him to ABC schools, where he learned to read, and learned the power of reading. We know that as an infant he listened to his mother’s voice, reciting verses from the bible as she worked. We know he learned from her the great power of language, which he used so effectively in his years as a politician and President. He maybe even learned on some level from her to take complex ideas, even ideas like freedom and democracy, and using stories and illustrations, to put those ideas in a form understandable to everyone.

We now know that most of a child’s sense of right and wrong is instilled within the first few years of his life. From this we can be confident that Abe gained from Nancy and Tom Lincoln his honesty, integrity, and sense of moral purpose that served him - and the nation – so well during his later years.

We know that Tom and Nancy Lincoln belonged to a church that that taught in no uncertain terms that slavery was wrong. We can be sure he learned from her at least the roots of that great single moral truth that drove him throughout his life and his political career: to believe, ABOVE ALL ELSE, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, as Jefferson so eloquently put it. Abe came to believe in those words even more than the founding fathers who wrote them.

But why? At the time of Nancy Lincoln’s death, Abe was only nine. He was not “Honest Abe”, the Great Emancipator, the man who saved the Union, and perhaps even democracy and freedom as we know it. He was not even the successful lawyer in Illinois. He was Abe, the young boy on the frontier, who would more than likely grow up to become a farmer and carpenter like his father, struggling to make a decent living, if he grew up at all.

She taught him without knowing what he would become. She taught him these things because she had faith that this child should know his letters – should be able to read – should believe in the equality of men – whether his destiny was to become a humble farmer or carpenter – or even President of the United States. And she did all of this on faith and faith alone, that what she taught him mattered. That whatever he became, he would be good, and kind, and honest.

And it was because she taught him these things that he went on to become “Honest Abe”, the “Great Emancipator”, the “Savior of the Union”, and to produce that New Birth of Freedom that HE spoke so eloquently of.

A few weeks ago I found a poem, written by Rosemary Benet. It doesn’t rise to the level of Lincoln’s beloved Robert Burns or Lord Byron, or William Shakespeare, but it does express better than I can what I am trying to say. She wrote the following poem entitled "Nancy Hanks"

If Nancy Hanks
Came back as a ghost,
Seeking news
Of what she loved most,
She'd ask first
"Where's my son?
What's happened to Abe?
What's he done?"

"Poor little Abe,
Left all alone
Except for Tom,
Who's a rolling stone;
He was only nine
The year I died.
I remember still
How hard he cried."

"Scraping along
In a little shack,
With hardly a shirt
To cover his back,
And a prairie wind
To blow him down,
Or pinching times
If he went to town."

"You wouldn't know
About my son?
Did he grow tall?
Did he have fun?
Did he learn to read?
Did he get to town?
Do you know his name?
Did he get on?"

Julius Silberger wrote another poem, entitled "A Reply to Nancy Hanks"

Yes, Nancy Hanks,
The news we will tell
Of your Abe
Whom you loved so well.
You asked first,
"Where's my son?"
He lives in the heart
Of everyone.