Abraham Lincoln: Vegetarian and
Animal Rights Advocate?—A Review of the Evidence
September 30, 2009
Since the mid 1980s many have claimed that Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, savior of the Union, emancipator of the enslaved, was an animal rights advocate. By contemporary definition, such an advocate believes that animals should not be treated as property and, unless a threat, should be left to live their lives without interference—a view analogous to that held by 19th century abolitionists in regard to human slavery. Given Lincoln’s antipathy toward slavery and the high regard in which he is widely held today, it should not be surprising that the claim that he harbored similar sentiments toward animals would be not only believed, but enthusiastically embraced by many advocates of animal rights.
In addition to the statement Lincoln allegedly made in favor of animal rights, many websites claim that he practiced vegetarianism throughout his adult life. There is even the assertion that he abstained from all hunting beyond his early childhood.
An examination of such website claims led to a single quotation, the earliest source of which I’ve found is a book by Jon Wynne-Tyson, British publisher and author of books on vegetarianism and animal rights. He claims that Lincoln said or wrote (unclear which): “I am in favour of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”1 Wynne-Tyson cites as the source for the quote, “Complete Works,” which presumably refers to the Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln.2 But he provides neither volume nor page number for verification.
Had the printing of Lincoln’s alleged quotation been confined to Wynne-Tyson’s book and to a few succeeding ones targeting audiences of animal rights activists and vegetarians, I would have felt less compelled to write this essay. But with the expansion of the World Wide Web during the first decade of the 21st century, Lincoln’s alleged quotation has proliferated at an astounding rate. Performing a Google search on the terms “Abraham Lincoln” and “I am in favor of animal rights” returns (as of 8 September 2009) more than 19,000 websites. Inspecting the first few dozen of these reveals that the vast majority of them accept the validity of the quotation.
I became intrigued at how such an unorthodox attitude (certainly for the 19th century) could have been held by Abraham Lincoln, and yet had come to light only within the past twenty-some years. My interest led me to Wynne-Tyson’s alleged source of Lincoln’s quotation, Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln
, first published in 1894, and reprinted with additional material in 1905. It was the latter edition that I found at the library of Binghamton University
. As this work has not yet been digitized in a form that permits the text to be searched by computer, I was compelled, over two months, to read its entire 12 volumes—4,637 pages in all. Nowhere in those pages could I find any statement by Lincoln either for or against the concept of animal rights. In fact, the very phrase “animal rights” does not appear in the work.
Yet whenever this alleged Lincoln quote has appeared on dozens of websites I’ve inspected, the citation (if given at all) is Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln. I conclude, therefore, that this alleged Lincoln quotation is, in all likelihood, a fabrication.
Nevertheless, Lincoln’s alleged utterance regarding animal rights has provided the basis for the further claim that he was a vegetarian. A Google search on the terms “Abraham Lincoln” and “vegetarian” yields (as of 8 September 2009) more than 83,000 websites. Again, inspecting the first few dozen such sites reveals that most accept the validity of the claim.
Of course, a fabricated Lincoln quote does not rule out his having been an animal rights advocate or a vegetarian, but one must examine other evidence to decide.
One source indicating that Lincoln’s behavior was consistent with the philosophy of animal rights is found in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, where she writes of Lincoln: “He refused to hunt animals, which ran counter to frontier mores.”3
Team of Rivals’s endnotes show that Goodwin came to her conclusion about Lincoln’s alleged refusal to hunt based on statements found in William Lee Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues. There, Miller writes:
But his son Abraham would not be classified with the Hunters of Kentucky, or of Indiana, or of Illinois either. He [Abraham Lincoln] himself recalled, in the autobiography that he would write, in the third person, for John L. Scripps and other editors in June of 1860: “A few days before the completion of his eighth year, in the absence of his father, a flock of wild turkeys approached the new log-cabin, and A[braham], with a rifle gun, standing inside, shot through a crack, and killed one of them. He has never since pulled a trigger on any larger game.”
One turkey, when he was eight, and that was it.4
Let’s take Lincoln at his word that after the age of eight he never “pulled a trigger on any larger game” than a wild turkey. From this statement, though, it does not necessarily follow, as Miller suggests, and Goodwin emphatically states, that Lincoln thereafter never hunted. The strongest claim that can be validly made is that Lincoln did not subsequently hunt any animal larger than a wild turkey. But there are many animals that size or smaller that Lincoln might have still hunted, such as rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, opossum, and prairie chicken.
Is there evidence that Lincoln continued to hunt such animals? Here are three examples:
• “Nat Grigsby told Billy Herndon that Abraham Lincoln frequent went ‘coon’ hunting” when he lived in Indiana.”5