Every year, the quote resurfaces on Mother’s Day cards. Abraham Lincoln said, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” The sentiment stirs hearts — and sells cards — because people assume they share with Abraham the exact same love for mothers. But, to paraphrase a fictional Spanish philosopher-swordsman, “Lincoln’s words did not mean what you think they mean.”

We begin first with the evidence. As it turns out, the greeting card tagline is merged from two sources. Two years after Lincoln’s death, his longtime law partner William Herndon told an interviewer that Abraham said, “all I am or can be I owe to my angel-mother.” Twenty-two years later, in his own memoir, Herndon presented a slightly more polished version: “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.” So the greeting card companies dropped the blessing from the later version and appended the earlier “angel mother” description. We can reasonably say that Lincoln expressed something like this sentiment in probably as many words.

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To discern what Lincoln meant by these words we must put them back into context. Herndon explained that the two of them were traveling in Lincoln’s one-horse buggy around 1850 on the way to the court in Menard County, Illinois, where they would argue a case that involved the question of hereditary traits. Though they had known each other for more than a decade and had been law partners for six years, Herndon recalled that this was “the first time” Lincoln ever spoke of his mother Nancy Hanks and the only time he spoke of his ancestry. Lincoln reported that his mother’s mother Lucy was the illegitimate child of a Kentucky woman and a “well-bred Virginia farmer.” The Hankses were poor and uneducated, so Lincoln attributed to his unknown planter great-grandfather “his power of analysis, his logic, his mental activity, his ambition, and all the qualities that distinguished him from other members and descendants of the Hanks family.” Thus, despite thinking he descended from an embarrassing extramarital relationship and growing up in frontier poverty, Lincoln’s hope for his own success rested on the traits inherited through his mother’s mother. The message that “your family is embarrassing but useful” is probably not what you meant to express to your mom.

The only direct reference Abraham ever made to his mother came in a letter to a friend after a woman he was courting terminated their relationship. He felt rejected and bitter, prompting caustic commentary on the woman’s weight, age and appearance. “When I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother,” he said, “from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general.” Greeting card companies will likely never adopt this firsthand statement from Lincoln!

Why would Abraham write this? Nancy Hanks Lincoln was poor, illiterate and died when he was 9 years old. His last view of her came on her deathbed, after she contracted a frontier disease called “the trembles” or “sick stomach” or the “puking illness.” Victims experienced weakness, fatigue, vomiting, abdominal pain, severe constipation and offensive breath before passing into a coma and dying. This profound childhood trauma was followed by his father’s quick remarriage, so the term “angel mother” may have been a polite euphemism for “dead mother” to differentiate from his still living stepmother. Herndon reported that Lincoln made the statement about his mother “ruefully,” before he “immediately lapsed into silence” and they “rode on for some time without exchanging a word. He was sad and absorbed.”

This Mother’s Day, let’s liberate moms from harmful cultural expectations about angelic perfection. We can question assumptions, ask for evidence and seek to understand things in proper contexts. We can embrace family experiences as they really are — imperfect, embarrassing, useful and traumatic — because they really do make us into people, like Lincoln, who can make a difference in the world. What more could we ever hope for?

 Keith A. Erekson is a public historian and author of “Real vs. Rumor: How to Dispel Latter-day Myths.”

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