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Mark Bennett B-Sides

February 23, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Our greatest president had some help from an obscure relative

TERRE HAUTE — On this Presidents Day week, historians weigh the impact of Washington, Jefferson and the Roosevelts on Americans’ lives.

It’s more fun, though, to study the people who influenced the presidents. They preceded the legends. They had warts. They said weird stuff.

Dennis Hanks fits that description. His rough-around-the-edges, colorful life began in Hardin County, Ky., where he was born to an unwed mother in 1799, and ended 93 years later in Paris, Ill., after a runaway horse carriage ran over him. In between, Hanks rubbed off — at least a little bit — on our greatest president.

History records this tale-spinning shoe cobbler who lived his final days in Edgar County, Ill., as both “a worthy and highly respected citizen” and “not the truest man in the world.”

Regardless, Hanks apparently did not screw up the path and character of his younger cousin, Abraham Lincoln. At best, Hanks imparted two valuable qualities to Abe. One was a frontier resiliency.

“Dennis Hanks was a tough old guy,” said David Kent Coy, an eastern Illinois historian.

“One of my favorite [historical] characters,” Coy added.

The second quality instilled in Lincoln by Hanks — for those who believe Dennis’ version of history — was literacy. Hanks claimed to have taught Abraham Lincoln to read. For that, America should be forever grateful. Imagine the fate this nation would have faced if Hanks had never taken the time — as a teenager, no less — to share his reading skills with his 6-year-old cousin.

Perhaps Lincoln was destined to rise above his roots, and fate made Hanks his first instructor. Those roots presented significant obstacles, though. Lincoln’s family moved nomadically, from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois. The members of their household changed often, as well. When it came to education, Abraham’s mother and stepmother were illiterate, and his father rarely used his own limited reading ability. The only access children, such as Abe, had to schooling came through brief, periodic sessions with itinerant, frontier teachers.

“For the most part, they were not educated people,” said James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum at Springfield, Ill.

For that reason, Dennis Hanks became a gem — a gritty, dusty one — in American history. Without him, Lincoln’s potential may have been delayed or, worse, unfulfilled. Hanks “lived in a time when lots of people didn’t know how to read or write, so it was somewhat of a miracle that [Hanks] could,” Coy explained.

Hanks and Lincoln wound up living in the same home, with a complex, hard-to-follow family tree. Hanks’ mother, Nancy Hanks, was the aunt of Lincoln’s birth mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. (The Hankses tended to pick familiar names.) Born of unmarried parents, Dennis ended up being raised by his mother’s sister and husband, who later died of the same milk sickness that killed Lincoln’s mother. In the wake of those tragedies, Dennis moved in with the Lincolns — Thomas (Abe’s father), Abraham and Sarah (Abe’s sister). Eventually, the household grew when Thomas remarried Abe’s stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston.

Sometime before moving to Indiana when Abe was 7 years old, he learned to read.

A handful of itinerant teachers claimed credit for that — once Lincoln became president. Hanks, who was 10 years older than his cousin, contended his lessons preceded those of Abraham’s teachers in Kentucky and then Indiana.

“I first taught him to spell and read and write,” Hanks is quoted as saying in the 1887 book, “Portrait and Biographical Album of Coles County, Illinois,” which Coy recited to the Tribune-Star. Hanks continued, “I made the first pen that he ever had. I killed a buzzard and took his wing feathers for pens, as there were no geese in the settlement. We either used buzzard or wild turkey feathers. Abe’s first pen was made of a buzzard’s quill. Afterwards, he went one quarter to a subscription school kept by Josiah Crawford from Kentucky, who lived about a mile away and taught a school. He was a pretty good scholar.”

Anyone who has ever watched a youngster read or write for the first time can understand how that memory could stick with Hanks for more than 60 years. I’ll never forget coming home and having my 3-year-old son lead me to the chalkboard in his room to show that he’d written “DAD.”

Hanks’ detailed recollection sounds convincing to Coy.

“To me, it would be pretty far-fetched for him to make up a story like that,” Coy said.

It was other comments and actions by Hanks that dulled his believability. Shortly after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Dennis and another Hanks relative disassembled the log cabin Abraham’s family lived in near Decatur, Ill., turned it into an exhibit at a fair in Chicago and then P.T. Barnum’s history museum. “So they got paid for trucking the cabin around,” Cornelius said.

Dennis “was quite a character,” said Matthew Mittelstaedt, site manager of the Lincoln Log Cabin (his parents’ home after Abe left to become a lawyer) south of Charleston, Ill. “Anyone who knew Dennis Hanks always cautioned biographers to take what he said with a grain of salt.”

At the same time, adult Abe Lincoln apparently listened to Hanks, his closest male relative. (Abe and his father had a distant relationship.) Less than a year before Lincoln’s death, Dennis traveled from rural Illinois to the White House to ask his cousin to pardon men imprisoned for an infamous riot in Charleston. The inmates wound up being released.

Hanks told his stories of Abe with enthusiasm, and likely embellishment, right up until his rugged death. In 1892, a group of black citizens of Paris, Ill., invited Hanks to be the special guest at a 30th anniversary celebration of Emancipation Day. Hanks, who was living in Paris with his daughter, obliged. Despite being 93 years old and nearly blind, Hanks decided to walk home afterward. That’s when the rampant team of horses ran over him.

Amazingly, Hanks lived another month before passing. One tough old guy, as Coy accurately put it.

The same was said of his cousin, the man who led the United States through its darkest hours.

“I think he was a role model for Lincoln,” Coy said. Undoubtedly, Dennis Hanks would be proud to read those words.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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