Lincoln vs. Montaigne
by William H. Benson
June 16, 2016
Abraham Lincoln’s father, Tom, was of a different substance than his son. Tom uprooted his family again and again. They moved from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois, and in each he expected his son to help him build a home and a farm. There were trees to chop down, fences and cabins to build, stumps and boulders to dig up, seeds to plant, and grains to harvest in the fall. It was nonstop work.
One of Lincoln’s biographers said, “Abraham Lincoln was like a slave to his father.” As Tom’s health and eyesight failed him, he came to depend upon young Abe’s strong back and arms, and then he sent his son to work in the neighbors’ fields to generate a few coins that Tom then collected and spent. Hence, Abraham’s chilling words written years later, “I used to be a slave.”
Indeed, the domineering Tom Lincoln exploited his son’s skills with an axe, his ability to wrestle a rock or a stump out of the ground, and his command of a horse hitched to a plow. Abraham Lincoln detested all the work and said, “My father taught me to work, but he never taught me to love it. I never did like to work, and I won’t deny it.”
In Indiana, Tom was a leader in the Baptist church, located just a mile across the Lincolns’ field. Another of Lincoln’s biographers said, that as a teen-ager, “Abraham lived in an atmosphere that out-Calvined Calvin himself.” The pulpit, the pew, and the plow loomed large in young Abraham’s life.
When still a young man, Abraham set upon a course of reading and self-education that lasted until his final days. He rejected Tom’s monotonous farm work and his terrifying religion. Instead, Abraham sought to learn about life and ideas beyond his wretched existence. He wanted to read books, to ponder others’ thoughts, and to consider other pursuits in life. Soon, he took up the study of law.
David Herbert Donald said of Lincoln, “In all his published writings, and indeed, even in reports of hundreds of stories and conversations, he had not one favorable word to say about his father.” When Abraham married Mary Todd, he did not invite Tom to the wedding, and Tom never met Mary or their children. When Tom passed away, Abraham did not attend the funeral.
Now contrast the Lincolns’ estranged father / son relationship with that of the sixteenth-century thinker and writer, Michel de Montaigne and his father, Pierre.
Pierre first hired a Latin tutor and then a Greek instructor for Michel, who grew up in a state of “constant intellectual and spiritual stimulation.” Because his father never expected him to work on the estate’s fields, Michel learned nothing of field work.
He admitted, “I can hardly distinguish between the cabbages and lettuces in my garden. I don’t even know the names of the chief implements of husbandry, nor the rude principles of agriculture, which every boy knows.”
Pierre hired a musician to play his lute every morning to awaken Michel in a most gentle and soothing manner, because he believed “that it troubles the tender brains of children to wake them in the morning with a start, and to snatch them suddenly and violently from their sleep.”
Whereas Lincoln had a slim chance for a superior education, and Tom expected him to work hard, Michel had the best education, and Pierre never expected Michel to work in any field.
Montaigne retired early, to his country estate at Bordeaux on February 28, 1571, on his 38th birthday, because, he said, he was “long weary of the service of the Court and of public employments.” There, he jotted down his essays for the next twenty-one years. Lincoln’s self-improvement scheme propelled him into the White House, and he never enjoyed any retirement.
The difference in the two parenting styles reminds me of Johnny Cash’s song “A Boy Named Sue.”
“Well, my daddy left home when I was three, and he didn’t leave much to Ma and me, . . . But the meanest thing that he ever did was before he left, he went and named me ‘Sue.’ It seems I had to fight my whole life through. Some gal would giggle, and I’d get red. Some guy’d laugh, and I’d bust his head. I tell ya. Life ain’t easy for a boy named ‘Sue.’”
Then, one day Sue meets his father in a saloon, challenges him, and the two grown men fight. Sue’s father then explains to Sue that he ought to thank him “for the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye, because I named you Sue.” Sue then says, “I came away with a different point of view.”
Unlike the fictional boy named Sue, Lincoln was constant in his rejection of his father, and all the arduous work, and when Abraham had children, he was loving and most indulgent. On the other hand, Montaigne was constant in his appreciation of Pierre and called him, “The best father that ever was.”
What can we take from this? That certain parenting styles are ill-suited for certain children. I wonder though, “If Tom Lincoln had loved Abraham and directed his son’s education like Pierre had done for Michel, would Abraham have achieved all that he did?” I wonder.
On Sunday, celebrate Father’s Day, perhaps at a picnic in the park, and think of your father.