Mother’s Day: “All That I am or Hope Ever to be I Get From My Mother” – Abraham Lincoln

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | May 8, 2012

Add to History Board Share Print

“All that I am or hope ever to be,” Abraham Lincoln famously said, “I get from my mother – God bless her.” That she died when he was nine was, perhaps, his great introduction to what he called “the back side of this world.” The loss of a parent is, very often, one’s first experience of the “back side” and all its attendant grieves – as Lincoln explained here, between the lines, in this uncommonly revealing letter to a young girl whose beloved father had just died in battle…

By the end of 1862, the tragic immensity of the war’s carnage had settled into fact, and Lincoln had already written a number of painful letters of consolation. None, however, spoke more eloquently to the searing devastation of loss, and the haunting promise of solace, than the 166 words he penned to twenty-two year old Fanny McCullough here…

Lincoln begins by describing the nature of life. “In this sad world of ours,” he writes, “sorrow comes to all; and, to the young it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it.” He then identifies how misery can distort a fundamental truth: that there is help, in time, for pain. “You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once.” The promise of relief, however, refers to a hope that is not fanciful but realistic. “The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before…”

This letter is remarkable, too, as scholars have noted, in that it is one of the only known references by Lincoln, himself, to the long-ago death of his mother in boyhood. Of his early life, it could be summed up, he insisted, in a single-sentence: “The short and simple annals of the poor.” His mother’s death, when he was nine, was surely a calamity – and in it, the seeds of his lifelong depression, most likely, sown. When Lincoln says here that sorrow comes “to the young… with bitterest agony…and unawares”, he knew whereof he spoke. From that first loss of his mother, to the death of his beloved older sister a decade later, to a loss, in early manhood, that seemingly trumped, in his despair, both: the woman he was set to marry, Ann Rutledge, died suddenly of typhoid fever. She was, by all accounts, Lincoln’s first great love, and he himself said of her that she was a handsome, natural, intelligent girl who “would have made a good loving wife.” His distress at her death was profound, and for months his friends worried that he might lose his mind. “I ran off the track,” he recollected long after. “It was my first. I loved that woman dearly and sacredly… I did honestly… and think often – often of her now.”

Abraham Lincoln, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left. April 6, 1861. Matthew Brady. Library of Congress.

Thus Lincoln, writing here years later, can advise that “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all” and “the older have learned to ever expect it.” Yet even as he counseled that “perfect relief” was only possible with time, still the blows of the past – his mother, his sister, his first love – resonated, for as he wrote, Lincoln was himself in the throes of an awful bereavement: Willie, his beloved eleven year-old son, had died, terribly, of typhoid earlier that year. Of all his sons, Willie, he felt, was the one most like him: exceptionally kind, intelligent, sensitive – marked, all said, by infinite promise…

It was the end of the year, nearing Christmas. Willie’s birthday would have been on the 21st. The Battle of Fredericksburg, over but a week, had been a bloodbath – and Lincoln, surrounded by death from every angle, was then implored by a close friend to write to a young woman despondent over the death of her father… It was, perhaps, too much: taken all together, it was enough to make Lincoln, somehow, connect and interpret the young woman’s grief as his own. For the first time in forty-some years, then, he wrote, however obliquely, about the death of his “Angel Mother”, and the “sad sweet feeling” he carried with him, always.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809 – 1865. The 16th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), as President, 1 page, quarto, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., December 23, 1862. To Miss Fanny McCullough (1840 – 1920), the daughter of Lincoln’s long-time friend, William McCullough, whose death in battle on December 5, 1862, sent Fanny into a deep depression.

Manuscripts Related To This Article