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Abraham Lincoln’s surprising strength

Vera H-C Chan
Movie Talk
November 12, 2012

Steven Spielberg's Abraham Lincoln may be more historically accurate — and far more Oscar-likely — but "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" wasn't far off with its focus on No. 16's colonial ax-fu.

While Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal focuses on bringing the union together as the commander in chief, Lincoln had a reputation of being something of a strongman. According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography "Team of Rivals," which inspired both Spielberg's film and the current president's approach to his first cabinet:

Derisively called "rail splitter" because he split railroad ties [for fences] as a youth, Lincoln was uncommonly strong ... [Once, a]s the presidential party lounged on the deck, Lincoln playfully demonstrated that in "muscular power he was one in a thousand," possessing "the strength of a giant." He picked up an ax and "held it at arm's length at the extremity of the [handle] with his thumb and forefinger, continuing to hold it there for a number of minutes. The most powerful sailors on board tried in vain to imitate him."

Big, strong, and "lazy"
Then again, great strength isn't too surprising for a frontiersman of great physical stature. By the time Lincoln was 8, many accounts say, he was "large of his age, and had an axe put into his hands at once, and from that till within his twenty third year, he was almost constantly holding that most useful instrument..."

In his award-winning 1996 biography "Lincoln," the late historian David Herbert Donald noted that Lincoln at 16 was "six feet, two inches tall, though he weighed only about one hundred and sixty pounds." The growth spurt, coupled with an inclination towards bookishness, did fatigue him.

"He grew so fast he was tired all the time, and he showed a notable lack of enthusiasm for physical labor," Donald wrote, adding that his father and friends characterized his passion for reading and writing as laziness. Lincoln left the homestead — and the antagonistic relationship with his father — as soon as he turned 22. Shades of Huck Finn.

Big-time wrestler
You couldn't be in the frontier and not do hard labor. Lincoln took on odd jobs from ferryman to woodcutter before becoming a store clerk. He also volunteered in Illinois's Black Hawk War of 1832 (Black Hawk refers to the leader in charge of the Sac and Fox Indians, who crossed the Mississippi River to plant corn). He didn't fight Indians, but he did have his famous wrestling match with some rambunctious local boys. While eyewitness accounts conflict, the then-23-year-old tangled with one Jack Armstrong of New Salem, whom Lincoln would describe as "strong as a Russian bear." Neither could get the best of the other, and they would later become great friends. Whatever the actual outcome, Lincoln's first law partner called the match a "turning point."

Even in his store clerk days, Lincoln used his strength in the interests of justice.

When a small gambler tricked Bill Greene, Lincoln's helper at the store, Lincoln told Bill to bet him the best fur hat in the store that he [Lincoln] could lift a barrel of whisky from the floor and hold it while he took a drink from the bunghole. (1926, Carl Sandburg's "Abraham Lincoln" (1926)

He did it squatting, spat out the whisky after he took his drink, and the gambler paid up. Lincoln also got physical at his first political speech ever at Pappsville, right outside Springfield. A fight broke out in the crowd, and Lincoln saw a friend about to get pummeled. Wrote historian Donald: "Quitting the platform, he strode into the audience, seized the accident by the neck and the seat of his trousers, and, as one witness remembered, threw him twelve feet away." At 6-foot-4 and 214 pounds, he was "strong enough to intimidate any rival."

The Rail Candidate
When his name was bandied about in the presidential race, his handlers settled on nicknaming him the Rail Candidate, to capitalize on his humble origins. Ironically, Lincoln was famously reticent about his upbringing, once telling a reporter looking for his backstory, "It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life."

His best-known representation might well be the statue at the Lincoln Memorial, carved out of Tennessee marble, depicting him as wise, contemplative, imperial — and seated. But in life, Lincoln was a man of action, who didn't hesitate to wade into a fight.

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