Original publish date: June 3, 2013
This has been an epiphinal year for the Hunter family. Recently, I watched as my daughter Jasmine graduated from Indiana University and tomorrow I’ll watch as my son Addison graduates from high school and readies himself to head down to I.U. this fall. I’ve raised these kids surrounded by history. Vacations, TV programs, movies, books, publications, heck, just about everything we do as a family has a historical tint. I’ve always told them that no matter what problem you face today, the answer can be found in history. Every modern situation has been faced and dealt with by someone we admire and emulate at some point in the past.
Recent weeks have set my mind a wanderin’ about parenting skills. Effective parenting is defined as a matter of strengthening the bond between the parent and child, and building positive parenting skills. I just returned from a two-day getaway to the Springfield, Illinois home of President Abraham Lincoln. I love to go and visit his house on Seventh Street in the early morning hours before the National Park Service employees, buses full of schoolchildren and tourists arrive. This during these early morning hours when you can really feel a connection with the old house.
My eyes are always drawn towards the upper second-floor balcony and a wrought iron gate contained there. Upon closer examination, one notices that there is a small piece of the ornate iron fencing that is broken. The balcony railing has been maintained in a state of “arrested decay” to honor Lincoln’s rambunctious boys, Willie and Tad, who allegedly broke off a piece of the ornamentation while playing on the balcony. While I have a deep affinity for Abraham Lincoln the man, I don’t think I’d aspire to adopt the parenting qualities of Abraham Lincoln, the father.
I often wonder how Lincoln, or any historical figure for that matter, would cope with raising children today. After all, many of the issues parents face today would have seemed like science fiction in Abraham Lincoln’s time. Monitoring kid’s online activities, cell phone usage, accelerated sports programs, complicated homework assignments and the litany of social media activities can be a difficult challenge requiring delicate handling nowadays. Yet, as far as parenting philosophies go, the Lincolns and their contemporaries have more in common with modern parents than they did with their own parents and grandparents. It seems that Civil War era families shared more in common with us than we think.
In colonial America, the family functioned as a single economic unit with each member of the household responsible for contributing to the families production and survival. Families were large, and children were expected to pitch in as soon as they were old enough to be useful. Life expectancy was short and it was not uncommon to find the same first name used over and over in family trees in anticipation of the child not surviving to adulthood. Colonial households did not allow a lot room for sentimentality where the family was concerned.
Marriages were often arranged for practical purposes: a father might marry his daughter off to a neighbor’s son to combine their parcels of land, for example. Romantic love between spouses was the exception, not the rule. Children were viewed as products of original sin that needed to have their wicked wills broken in order to become upright and productive citizens. All that was changing around the time that young Abe Lincoln wrote in to Springfield. As urban, middle-class professional men started working in offices separate from their homes, the family was increasingly bound together by ties of affection rather than economy. Men and women started marrying for love, limiting the size of their families and investing additional care and affection in their children. Childhood then, as today, was seen as a time of innocence and natural goodness that parents sought to indulge and enjoy.
Consider the difference between Lincoln’s experience and that of his children. Lincoln was born on a farm and expected to work for the families benefit until he legally came of age at 21. He later recalled that at age 8 he “had an ax put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year, he was almost constantly handling the most useful instrument – less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons.” Lincoln left home at his earliest opportunity and his relationship with his father was so cool that he opted not to visit him on his deathbed.
Lincoln’s own children, however, spent their days playing with their toys in their carpeted sitting room or attending school. Both luxuries not available to young Abe Lincoln. While Abe grew up in poverty, Mary came from a prominent, wealthy Kentucky family-the Todds. Although she grew up in considerable luxury, her childhood was affected by the loss of her mother, emotional alienation from her father and disenfranchisement from her step-mother. Mary’s unhappy childhood caused her to dote on her children as equally as her husband but for vastly different reasons. In short, most people would consider the Lincoln children to be perfect “brats”. Mary Lincoln later recalled that Lincoln “was very – exceedingly indulgent to his children… 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.”
Examples of Lincoln’s indulgence towards his children can be found in every volume that mentions his family life. Some of the accounts are romantic and flowery in their descriptions, while other, more contemporary accounts offer a more frank, unvarnished view. Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon described the Lincoln boys thusly: “Had (his children) sh-t in his hat, and rub it on his boots, Lincoln would have laughed and thought it smart.” Willie and his younger brother Tad were considered “notorious hellions” during the period they lived in Springfield. They were recorded by Herndon for turning their law office upside down; the boys regularly discarded orange peels and other trash on the office floor, jumped from desk to desk and pulled books off the shelves. While Lincoln appeared oblivious to their behavior.
The Lincolns had four sons. Undoubtedly, Mary would have liked to have had a little girl to dress up and fuss over, but she loved her boys deeply. The Lincoln boys had extremely varied personalities; Robert was serious and dour, Eddie and Tad bubbly, curious and energetic while Willie was precocious and much more contemplative. Only two of the children survived their father and only one lived to maturity. Eddie was the first to die and we do not know as much about him as the other boys. He died at an early age before the Lincolns were well known. From all accounts it was a tragedy from which their parents never recovered, especially his mother.
By all accounts, the Lincolns were permissive parents. On one train trip the other passengers were appalled by the behavior of the boys who Lincoln referred to as the “little codgers”. They were racing down the isles disturbing the other passengers. The Lincoln home was a child-centered home. Every year, Mary would hold birthday parties for her boys during an era when such events were very out of the ordinary. Mary would dress up for roles in Robert’s many theatrical performances. The Lincolns encouraged the boys to recite poetry (usually Burns and Shakespeare). Viewed in context with the times, these were considered inappropriate intrusions into adult social functions. In short the Lincoln boys did as they pleased and attempts at discipline in the Springfield household were rare.
The permissive approach continued in the White House. The two middle boys entered the White House together with their parents while Robert was initially away at school and later serving in the Union Army. The roof of the White House was converted to a play area for Willie and Tad. But make no mistake about it, the entire White House was domain to the devilish pranksters as they ran wild throughout the White House. Their antics amused a nation immersed in the tragedy of the Civil War. Visitors, employees, and Cabinet members became so used to the sight of Willie and Tad sliding down the banisters, that they quickly ignored it. Sometimes the President himself could be seen romping about the White House with them. Both boys delighted in their father carrying them on his shoulders. Lincoln was of course very tall and the boys could often reach the rafters in the ceiling which delighted them.
They were the two most famous presidential boys and they left a trail of destruction and mayhem in their wake. The President for the most part saw it as great fun. Tad was impulsive, unrestrained, and did not attend school. Some historians have described Tad as being “slow”, or worse, as mentally challenged. Willie, however, was a deep thinker who regularly memorized railroad timetables and chided his brother for breaking White House property because it didn’t belong to the family, it belonged to the American people. Lincoln’s personal secretary, Hoosier John Hay, wrote that Tad’s numerous tutors in the White House usually quit in frustration. While Willie read, Tad had free run of the White House. Tad collected animals, charged visitors to see his father, and once sentenced a pet rat to death by hanging. His father quickly pardoned the rat and set it free.
It is a little-known fact that Abraham Lincoln issued more presidential pardon’s than any president before or since. It is understandable as so many of them were for deserters in the civil war. For much of history deserting your post has been punishable by death. Harsh perhaps, but when your actions [falling asleep at your post etc] can get your fellow soldiers killed it was an effective way to maintain discipline. Lincoln recognized that war is awful and felt that if, in his own words, “God gave a man cowardly legs” then perhaps some lenience when they “run away with him” was appropriate. Lincoln once heard about a 16-year-old soldier who was scheduled to be executed for desertion. He telegraphed the General in charge to pardon the young man and asked that they institute a policy of not executing anyone under the age of 18.
Although remembered as angelic in nature, Willie was not immune to the military atmosphere in which he was surrounded. When one of Tad’s soldier dolls “fell asleep at its post”, Willie sentenced the doll to death. Tad brought the issue to his father knowing that he was the only one that could help. In the midst of dealing with the pressures and physical hardships brought on by the rigors of the Civil War, Abe still took the time to address the situation by issuing an official pardon on presidential stationary signed, “A. Lincoln”. Weeks later, in 1862, when 11-year-old Willie died of fever in the White House, the entire nation grieved. Less than 100 years after the Lincolns inhabited the White House, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy told a reporter, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”