All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 1962

Nancy Hanks Boys


Nancy Hanks: I see the calendar says it is 1962, more than seven score years after my life in the world ended. Pray tell me, Spirit of the Present, whether anyone remembers that I ever lived, or knows my place of burial.

The Spirit of the Present: Oh, yes. There is a monument over your grave at Pigeon Creek. A man named Studebaker of South Bend, Indiana, went there in 1879 and spent $1,000 in making it.

The imaginative interview reproduced here be­tween Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln, and “The Spirit of the Present” was written in 1914 by Mr. O’Brien, while he was editor of the Boston Herald. Minor alterations have been made in the text to bring it up-to-date.

Nancy Hanks: What do you mean? More money than I ever saw in my life spent on my grave, more than 60 years after I had made it! Was he a rich descendant of mine?

The Spirit of the Present: He was no relative of yours. As a matter-of-fact citizen, he thought your grave ought to be marked. Twenty-three years later the state of Indiana erected a massive monument in your honor; 10,000 school children marched in pro­cession when it was dedicated. The Governor of the state, now one of the great commonwealths of the union, was there, while a distinguished general from afar delivered the principal oration. This monument cost a larger for­tune than you ever knew anyone to possess. More people than you ever saw were there. And on the pedestal, in raised letters, one may read: “Nancy Hanks Lincoln.” Can there be any mistake about that?

Nancy Hanks: What is this wonder of wonders? I realize that my mortal remains, enclosed in a rough pine box, were buried under the trees at Pigeon Creek, and that no minister of religion was there to say even a prayer. I supposed that if anybody in all this earth of yours would be surely forgot­ten, and soon forgotten, it would be Nancy Hanks, the plain woman of the wilderness. My life was short—only 35 years—and in it I saw little of the great world, and knew little of it, and on going out had little further to expect from it. So, I pray, break to me the meaning of this mystery!

The Spirit of the Present: This is the twelfth day of February!

Nancy Hanks: That was the birthday of my little boy, a slender awkward fellow who used every night to climb a ladder of wooden pins driven into a log, up into a bed of leaves in the loft, and there to dream. Whatever became of thatsad little boy? He was not very well when I left him. All that win­ter he seemed ailing. I hated to go away. I was afraid his father could not give the care that the frail little fellow needed. Did you ever hear what became of my little nine-year-old boy out there in the woods of Pigeon Creek?

The Spirit of the Present: Of course I have heard what became of him. Few have not. The people who could answer your question number hundreds of millions to­day. There is no land and no tongue in which the information you seek could not be supplied, and usually by the “man in the street.” Millions of people know that the twelfth of February was the day you welcomed into your cabin in the frontier wilderness that little boy. His birthday, in thirty-four states of the Union, including the imperial state of New York, has become a legal holi­day. Most of the others hold some commemorative exercises. When the great financial market of the world opened in London this morn­ing it was with the knowledge that the United States of America, the great republic over the seas, would record no stock transac­tions this day. The words, “No market—Lincoln‘s Birthday,” trav­el on wireless and ocean cables under every sea; and business in the great buildings, as many as 102 stories high, has paused to­day.

Nancy Hanks: Pray tell me more of my little boy’s life. I cannot wait to hear what it all means!

The Spirit of the Present: If you had one copy of every book that has been written about him, you would have a larger library than you ever saw in your mortal life. If you had visited every city which has reared his statue, you would be more widely traveled than any person you ever saw. The journey would take you to several European capitals. Every possible word that he ever wrote, every speech he ever made, every docu­ment he ever penned, has been col­lected and these have all been printed in sets of books with a full­ness such as has been accorded to the works of only a few children of men. You could count on the fingers of two hands, and perhaps of one, the men in all secular his­tory who so vitally appeal to the imagination of mankind today.

Nancy Hanks: And so my little boy came into all this glory in his lifetime!

The Spirit of the Present: He died at 56, as unaware of how the world would eventually regard him as old Christopher Columbus him­self. A few months before his death he expected soon to be thrown out of the position he was holding, and so he wrote a letter telling how he would strive to help his successor to carry out the un­finished task. Your little boy saw so little to indicate the place that time has accorded him. His wid­ow was hardly able to get from Congress a pension large enough for her comfortable support, and yet that same body, in less than a half century, appropriated $2,­000,000—stop to think of that—for a national monument in his honor.

But I could tell you only half the story. Men have retired from business to go into solitude to study his life. Others have been famous by reason of having known him. I recall a New York financier who had known the high life of the world, mingling with the princes and statesmen of nearly every land. On his seventieth birthday his friends gave him a complimentary dinner. He chatted with them on what he had seen and where he had been. But he dismissed all the honors of the big world by saying that the one thing he valued most in his three­score years and ten was that he had shaken hands and conversed in private audience with your lit­tle boy, whom he pictured as “leading the procession of the im­mortals down the centuries.”

Nancy Hanks: This is beyond me. I am lost in mystery and a­mazement. What did my boy—that earnest, sad little fellow of the woods and streams—do to make men feel this way? How did it all come about?

The Spirit of the Present: That might be as hard for you to un­derstand, without a knowledge of what has taken place in the mean­time, as the skyscrapers and the ocean cables and railroad trains that I have spoken about. But I will try to tell you something of what he has done.

Nancy Hanks: I am hanging on your words. I long to hear the story.

The Spirit of the Present: We have in the United States a great democracy. We are making a great experiment for the nations. Your little boy gave friends of democ­racy the world over the largest measure of confidence in its per­manency and success of any man who has ever lived.

More than a million people a year have come to the United States from lands beyond the seas, most of them unfamiliar with our language and our customs and our aims. When we Americans who are older by a few genera­tions have gone out to meet them, we have taken, as the supreme ex­ample of what we mean by our experiment, the life of Abraham Lincoln. And, when we are our­selves tempted in the mad com­plexity of our material civiliza­tion to disregard the pristine ideals of the republic, we see his gaunt figure standing before us, and his outstretched arm point­ing to the straighter and simpler path of righteousness. For he was a liberator of men in bondage, he was a savior of his country.

He became President of the United States, but that affords small clue to his real distinction. Few Americans ever refer to him as “President Lincoln.” In the idiom of our people, he is Abra­ham Lincoln, called by the name you gave him in the gloom of the wilderness. To that name of your choosing no titles that the vain world knows can add anything of honor or distinction. And today, from the Atlantic to the Pacific seas, and in places under distant skies, children will recite in their schools his words, men will gather about banquet boards to refresh their ideals by hearing anew some phase of his wonderful story. Our nation could get along without some of its territory, without mil­lions of its people, without masses of its hoarded wealth, but it would be poor indeed were it to wake up on this morning of the twentieth century without the memory of your little boy.