Barack Obama was not the first American president to face a “birther” controversy, and mudslinging was just as much a part of politics in the 19th century as it is today. During several of Abraham Lincoln’s campaigns for Congress and the presidency, supporters of his opponents circulated rumors that Lincoln’s parents had not been married, which would make Lincoln an illegitimate child.
An accusation of illegitimacy was a much more serious matter at the time than it would be today. The parents of children born out of wedlock—particularly their mothers—were regarded as immoral, and such a birth brought shame to the entire family. Social attitudes and even laws also seemed to blame the “bastard” child for his or her parentage, as if the baby had somehow inherited the “wantonness” of the parents. For instance, illegitimate children, even those born to parents who later married, typically could not inherit any of their father’s property.
Lincoln could not definitively quiet the rumors during his lifetime because no one could find a marriage certificate for his parents, Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks. And William Herndon, Lincoln’s former law partner, kept the rumors alive with the three-volume 1889 biography he co-wrote with Jesse Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. Herndon had vowed that his biography would not sanctify the late president but instead would show the “unvarnished” Lincoln. Though it did not purport to settle the question, the book did reference the controversy over Lincoln’s legitimacy—as well as similar stories that his mother had herself been born out of wedlock.
Early in the 20th century, a new search of county records in Kentucky uncovered Thomas and Nancy’s marriage certificate. But the rumors about Nancy Hanks were probably correct: Historians agree that she most likely was born out of wedlock, but not on who her father was.