Abraham Lincoln, the Great Unifier, didn’t talk much about his Puritan ancestors. Nor did he talk much about his ancestors from Virginia, where the original Anglican settlers were known as Cavaliers.
He had good reason to hide the fact that his ancestor Samuel Lincoln had come to Hingham, Mass., during the Great Migration. Lincoln also downplayed his Anglican, or Cavalier, ancestors who settled in Virginia.
“Exposing either of the ancestral strands could have been politically risky,” wrote David S. Reynolds, in his recently published Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.
Lincoln had to try to unify the country. So he hid his Cavalier and Puritan ancestors and claimed dubious Quaker roots. The North and the South found Quakers an acceptable compromise, something that would have astonished the early Puritans.
Puritan Ancestors vs. Cavaliers
During Lincoln’s presidency and afterward, people viewed the Civil War as a contest between Puritans and Cavaliers. More recently, Kevin Phillips in his book, The Cousins’ Wars, made the same argument. He maintained the American Civil War was merely an extension of the English civil wars.
The argument has some truth to it. Puritans from eastern England largely settled New England. Anglicans, or Cavaliers, from the west fled Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan uprising and settled in Maryland and Virginia.
The Puritan Northerners prized liberty, innovation, education, reform and hard work. From the southern point of view, they were fanatical, narrow-minded, money-grubbing commoners who disturbed the peace.
In contrast, the Cavalier southerners thought of themselves as hospitable, chivalrous, traditional and aristocratic. Northerners called that oppressive, decadent and unjust – especially in regards to slavery.
In the late 1850s, The New York Herald wrote, “The people of the North and those of the South are distinct and separate.” They think differently, wrote the Herald, and they spring from a different stock. Different in every way, they cannot coalesce.
“The Puritan and the Cavalier…will always fight when they meet. There is nothing in common between them but hate.”
Lincoln’s Puritan Ancestors
Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, was born out of wedlock to a poor young woman who’d been taken advantage of by a plantation owner. Lincoln proudly described his mother as “the daughter of a nobleman…so-called of Virginia.” He told a friend he had inherited through his mother his brains and ambition from his Virginian grandfather.
Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas, had qualities associated with his Puritan ancestors: piety, honesty and lack of pretension.
Lincoln learned that his ancestor, Samuel Lincoln, had settled Hingham, Mass., during the Great Migration in 1637. He had come from Hingham in Norfolk County, a hotbed of anti-Anglican sentiment. His pastor arrived a year later, excommunicated for his radical views. Samuel Lincoln helped fund and build the Old Ship Church in 1681.
In 1848, Lincoln spoke in Dorchester and mentioned his Puritan ancestors, describing himself as one of the “Hingham Lincolns.”
Samuel had two brothers, and he and his wife had 11 children, so within the first generation Hingham had 60 Lincolns. Another Massachusetts Lincoln with Puritan ancestors from Hingham was Levi Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general and governor of Massachusetts. His son, Levi, Jr., also won election as governor of Massachusetts, and another son, Enoch, served as governor of Maine.
Samuel’s son Mordecai moved to Scituate and brought smelting furnaces to Massachusetts. Mordecai’s son, also Mordecai, married Hannah Saltar. Their son, John, was Abraham Lincoln’s great-grandfather.
Significantly, Hannah Saltar was descended from Obadiah Holmes, a Baptist and therefore a heretic in Puritan eyes. The Puritan leaders of Massachusetts in 1651 ordered him whipped 30 times in public.
News spread about the savage whipping and the persecution of the Baptists in Massachusetts. Baptist minister John Clarke turned the persecution of Baptists into an international cause celebre with a book that included a description of Holmes’ whipping. That put pressure on the Puritans to allow more religious freedom.
But Lincoln had no interest in summoning the memory of his illustrious Baptist ancestor. Baptists in Lincoln’s time reminded people of the divisions over slavery. The Baptist church in 1845 split apart into northern and southern conferences over the issue.
So Lincoln didn’t tell people during his campaign for president about his Puritan ancestors. Or about his Baptist or Cavalier forbears. He said he came from Quakers who left Berks County, Pa., for Virginia.
Mordecai’s son Mordecai had moved to Berks County, Pa. But it’s unlikely they were Quakers.
Everyone Likes Quakers
In the run-up to the Civil War, Quakers had broader appeal than Baptists, Cavaliers/Anglicans or Puritans/Congregationalists. Both southerners and northerners could tolerate them. The North saw Quakers as opponents of slavery, the South as a group unlikely to go to war over slavery.
By 1886, the perception grew that Lincoln served as a bridge between Puritans and Cavaliers. A Georgia newspaper editor named Henry Grady described Lincoln as both:
From the union of colonists, Puritans and Cavaliers, from the straightening of their purposes and the crossing of their blood, came he who stands as the first typical American…Abraham Lincoln. He was the sum of the Puritan and Cavalier, for in his ardent nature were fused the virtues of both, and in the depths of his great soul the faults of both were lost. He was greater than the Puritan, greater than the Cavalier, in that he was American.
With thanks to David S. Reynolds, Abe: Abraham Lincoln and His Times, published in September 2020.
Images: Samuel Lincoln sign By Timothy Valentine – https://www.flickr.com/photos/el_ramon/3232950290/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5821709. This story last updated in 2022.