Lincoln’s Birthday and Nancy Hanks

Lincoln’s Birthday and Nancy Hanks

In honor of Lincoln’s Birthday, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln.  After all, without Nancy Hanks, we wouldn’t be celebrating Lincoln’s Birthday! 

I was first introduced to this poem in junior high school.  While I don’t remember whether or not we were required to memorize it, I do know that, many decades later, I still remember these verses and, yes, they still give me chills.

The opening lines of the poem are used in the introduction of the 1939 movie “Young Mr. Lincoln” starring Henry Fonda in the title role.  Set in Lincoln’s New Salem and Springfield years, this classic motion picture was directed by John Ford (famed for his John Wayne westerns).  It still shows up on movie channels during February.

“Nancy Hanks” is usually attributed to Rosemary Benét, wife of poet and author Stephen Vincent Benét.  This work first appeared in 1933 in “Book of Americans” which was co-authored by Rosemary and her husband Stephen as one of 56 poems written for school children sketching “the lives of famous men and women from Christopher Columbus to Woodrow Wilson.”

 Apparently there is some minor controversy about whether Rosemary wrote the poem or whether it was co-written with the better-known Stephen (who wrote the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and the poem “John Brown’s Body”).  Whoever wrote it, the “Nancy Hanks” reminds us that Abe was not always a highly respected elder-statesman.  He was once a well-loved son.


 If Nancy Hanks

Came back as a ghost,

Seeking news

Of what she loved most,

She’d ask first

“Where’s my son?

What’s happened to Abe?

What’s he done?”


“Poor little Abe,

Left all alone

Except for Tom,

Who’s a rolling stone;

He was only nine

The year I died.

I remember still

How hard he cried.”


“Scraping along

In a little shack,

With hardly a shirt

To cover his back,

And a prairie wind

To blow him down,

Or pinching times

If he went to town.”


“You wouldn’t know

About my son?

Did he grow tall?

Did he have fun?

Did he learn to read?

Did he get to town?

Do you know his name?

Did he get on?”


Julius Silberger wrote “A Reply to Nancy Hanks” which appears in “Children and Books” compiled by May Hill Arbuthnot published in 1947.  It provides a nice closure to the questions posed in the original poem.

Yes, Nancy Hanks,

The news we will tell  

Of your Abe             

Whom you loved so well.  

“You asked first,                                         

“Where’s my son?”                                         

He lives in the heart                                           

Of everyone.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 8th, 2017 at 6:19 pm and is filed under Holidays, Lincoln's Life. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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