The Boys: John Hanks (1802-1889)

Lincoln the Railsplitter

“After Abe got to Decatur, or rather to Macon County, [in 1830] a man by the name of Posey came into our neighborhood and made a speech. It was a bad one, and I said Abe could beat it. I turned down a box and Abe made his speech,” John Hanks told biographer William H. Herndon. “The other man was a candidate – Abe wasn’t. Abe beat him to death, his subject being the navigation of the Sangamon River. The man, after Abe’s speech was through, took him aside and asked him where he had learned so much and how he could do so well. Abe replied, stating his manner and method of reading, and what he had read. The man encouraged him to persevere.”1

Unlike the rest of the Lincoln-Hanks clan, John Hanks became a Republican and served in the Union Army. His loyalty to Mr. Lincoln never wavered. John Hanks played a central role in three events in his cousin’s life. The first was the family’s move from Indiana to Illinois in March 1830. Hanks, who lived near the Lincolns in Indiana, had moved near to Decatur, Illinois two years earlier. John returned to Indiana and his praise of the area induced Thomas Lincoln, Dennis Hanks and Squire Hall all to move west.

A skilled boatman, John Hanks, was sought out by an Illinois businessman, Dennis Offut. Hanks, John Johnston, and Mr. Lincoln made a Mississippi River trip in 1831. They were promised fifty cents a day to ferry a shipment of goods down the Sangamon and Mississippi Rivers from Springfield to New Orleans – plus a bonus of $60 on completion of their work. Offut “wanted me to go badly,” said Hanks, “but I waited awhile before answering. I hunted up Abe, and I introduced him and John Johnston, his step-brother, to Offut. After some talk we at last made an engagement with Offut at fifty cents a day and sixty dollars to make the trip to New Orleans. Abe and I came down the Sangamon River in a canoe in March, 1831; landed at what is now called Jamestown, five miles east of Springfield, then known as Judy’s Ferry.” According to Herndon, “Here Johnston joined them, and, leaving their canoe in charge of one Uriah Mann, they walked to Springfield, where after some inquiry they found the genial and enterprising Offut regaling himself with the good cheer dispensed at ‘The Buckhorn’ inn.'”2 Herndon wrote:

However, Offut did not have the raft that was needed to transport his goods so the three men spent the next four weeks building one. The launching of the raft took on proportions of a political event. The men loaded the raft with corn, pigs and produce and floated down to New Salem where the raft got hung up on the dam there. Mr. Lincoln’s ingenuity was need to off-load the goods, bore a hole in the raft to drain the water and move it over the obstacle.”3

Mr. Lincoln’s introduction to the New Salem community was as a major community attraction. According to Herndon, “Offut was profoundly impressed with this exhibition of Lincoln’s ingenuity. In his enthusiasm he declared to the crowd who covered the hill and who had been watching Lincoln’s operation that he would build a steamboat to plow up and down the Sangamon, and that Lincoln should be her Captain. She would have rollers for shoals and dams, runners for ice, and with Lincoln in charge, ‘By thunder, she’d have to go!'”4

Lincoln biographer William E. Barton wrote: “About March 1, 1831, just a year after his entrance into Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and John Hanks launched their canoe into the swollen water of the Sangamon and were floated by the melting flood of the deep snow to Judy’s Ferry. About the middle of April they launched their flat-boat. John Hanks did not accompany the boat all the way to New Orleans. By the time they reached St. Louis his concern for his family caused him to leave the party, and he walked back to Decatur.” That did not prevent Hanks from later claiming to have witnessed what Lincoln did and said in New Orleans.

The third important event in Mr. Lincoln’s life occurred 29 years later when Hanks introduced “rails” at the 1860 Illinois State Republican Convention — thus launching Lincoln’s “railsplitter” image. In the spring of 1860, Hanks and Richard Oglesby traveled to the location of the first Lincoln farm. They located an old fence of locust and black walnut rails. They then brought back two of those rails to Oglesby’s Decatur farm. At the Republican State Convention in early May Oglesby got up and announced a presentation from an “old Democrat.” Carrying one of the rails, Hanks entered the convention with a banner that read, according to contemporary biographer Isaac Arnold: “Abraham Lincoln, the rail candidate for the Presidency in 1860. Two rails from a lot of three thousand, made in 1830, by Thomas Hanks and Abe Lincoln, whose father was the first pioneer of Macon County.”5 Memories of the sign differ: “Two Rails from a lot made by Abraham Lincoln and John Hanks, in the Sangamon Bottom, in the year 1830,” reported another contemporary biographer, William O. Stoddard.6

Oglesby recalled that as Hanks walked by Mr. Lincoln, he said, “How are you, Abe?” The future President responded, “How are you, John?”7 There were shouts of “Identify your work!” as Mr. Lincoln was “seized upon and carried in the arms and over the heads of the crowd to the platform again and placed beside the rails,” recalled railroad engineer Richard Price Morgan who attended the convention. There was general bedlam on floor of the convention and a flight of hats in the air. “Then the delegates, being seated, shouted: ‘Identify your work! Identify your work!'” Mr. Lincoln said he could not verify that he had split those rails but when told they were made of honey locust and black walnut, he replied “Well, that is lasting timber, and it may be that I split the rails.” He added after examining the wood: “Well, boys, I can only say I have split a great many better looking ones.”8

Biographer Arnold wrote: “The effect of this cannot be described. For fifteen minutes, cheer upon cheer went up from the crowd. Lincoln was called to the stand, but his rising was the signal for renewed cheering, and this continued until the audience had exhausted itself, and then Mr. Lincoln gave a history of these two rails, and of his life in Macon County. He told the story of his labor in helping to build his father’s log cabin, and fencing in a field of corn. This dramatic scene was not planned by politicians, but was the spontaneous action of the old pioneers. The effect it had upon the people satisfied all present that it was a waste of words to talk in Illinois of any other man than Abraham Lincoln for President.”9

Lowber Burrows recalled that he was “present when Johnny Hanks carried that banner into the convention, and the whole crowd went wild. The members were simply frantic with surprise and delight. Lincoln was wildly called for. You know, he could not be found when they wanted him. A committee hunted around and finally found him in the back room of his friend, Jim Peake’s jewelry store. Lincoln had wandered into the store, seeking a few minutes rest and quiet, and seeing the couch, threw himself on it and soon fell asleep.”

He was aroused and rushed to the platform of the convention through a back entrance. He knew nothing of the plot and, when confronted with the banner, stood for a few minutes simply dazed with astonishment. When told that these were rails that he had split, he said: “Gentlemen, John and I did split some rails down there, and if these are not the identical rails, we certainly made some quite as good.”

After Mr. Lincoln spoke, according to John G. Nicolay, “Still louder cheering following this short, but effective reply. But the convention was roused to its full warmth of enthusiasm when a resolution was immediately and unanimously adopted declaring that ‘Abraham Lincoln is the first choice of the Republican party of Illinois for the Presidency,’ and directing the delegates to the Chicago convention ‘to use all honorable means to secure his nomination, and to cast the vote of the State as a unit for him.”

The prank had an immediate impact. Oglesby recalled: “Throughout the campaign the rail was everywhere and constantly to be seen. It was carried aloft in parades: flaming banners fluttered from it at rallies; glee-clubs sang its praises; campaign-clubs proudly called themselves Railsplitters, Rail-maulers, and Rail-splitter Wide-awakes; lusty men, mounted on huge wagons, split rails as processions moved along; and ‘Lincoln rails’ (of unquestioned authenticity) adorned hundreds of homes.”10 After the convention, Oglesby wrote State Auditor Jesse K. Dubois: “We sent you today for benefit of your office two rails made by old Abe Lincoln and John Hanks thirty years ago in this county. There is no disputing their genuine character. We had hoped to make presents to our friends throughout the country of them, but in my absence at Chicago the fever got up, and Mr. Hanks has had to pay a pretty sound price for them, and hauled them twelve miles to town. Upon receipt of them any return you make to me for old John I know will be satisfactory to him. I sent you his attested certificate of the facts.”

According to journalist Noah Brooks, President Lincoln thought the affair blown out of proportion. Near the end of the war, Brooks accompanied Mr. Lincoln on a trip through Virginia in which the President commented on the proficiency with which a field had been cleared of trees. He admitted that he didn’t believe he had even “worked by myself at splitting rails for one whole day in my life,” but maintained that “if there is any thing in this world that I am a judge of, it is of good felling of timber.” Mr. Lincoln went on to describe the 1860 Illinois State Republican Convention where “with a great flourish several rails were brought into the meeting, and being informed where they came from, I was asked to identify them, which I did, with some qualms of conscience, having helped my father to split rails, as at other odd jobs. I said if there were any rails which I had split, I shouldn’t wonder if those were the rails.”11

Oglesby biographer Mark A. Plummer wrote: “When Oglesby returned to Decatur from the Republican National Convention, he found that John Hanks had become a national hero and that the demand for ‘genuine Lincoln and Hanks rails was creating a problem of supply. Letters requesting ‘Lincoln rails’ came from Republican newspapermen and party leaders across the nation. Oglesby had a small supply of rails that he intended to distribute free of charge, but when it became necessary for John Hanks to pay the owner of the property for additional rails Oglesby established an account that he labeled Rail acct with John Hanks.’ He wrote checks labeled ‘John Hanks Rail money’ to Hanks on May 26 and June 16. The Oglesby account contains the notation ‘John has recd all the money[.] I have had all the trouble.’ Because Hanks could not write, Oglesby noted that Hanks had authorized him to ‘make my mark to all certificates of authenticity of the Lincoln rails.’ The records show that Oglesby handled only seventy-two rails of certified authenticity, although other enterprising persons were soon manufacturing hundreds of ‘genuine Lincoln rails.'”12

To counter charges that Hanks was actually supporting Douglas for President, Hanks dictated a letter of support for Lincoln that was widely published: “Should he be elected President and find any trouble in steering his new boat he has only to remember how we used to get out of hard places of rowing straight ahead…The tallest oaks in the forest have fallen by his giant arms; he still wields a tremendous maul.”13

Like many of Lincoln’s Illinois political friends, the originator of this political extravaganza sought patronage from the president; like many of them he was disappointed. Oglesby tried to help get Lincoln cousin John Hanks a position as an Indian affairs agent. After Mr. Lincoln left for Washington, Oglesby wrote him:

It will not be necessary for me in speaking of John Hanks to recount his virtues to you. You know his worth his capacity and his defects if he has any. I only wish to say this to you that if you can find it within your reach to confer some mark of respect upon him during your administration I know of no man who will feel it more keenly than John Hanks himself. Besides it will be felt and appreciated all over the county in which he lives as a just recognition of old personal ties. No a[t]tribute of human nature is more beautiful when fitly illustrated than the acknowledgement of former relations in life when one may be supposed to have forgotten them by reason of advancement to distinction and power in earthly honors. The difficulty I plainly see will be to overcome the misfortune Mr Hanks labors under of not knowing how to write. Should you be able to confer upon him some position where the requirement may be dispensed with you will have favored an old friend and pleased every body else further than this as the personal friend of Mr Hanks I do not ask or desire you to go.14

Attorney Henry C. Whitney confirmed that John Hanks “came to Washington in a new suit of blue jeans – wanted an Indian agency.” President Lincoln “really wanted him to have it but he couldnt read or write.”15 Dennis Hanks confirmed that John Hanks said Mr. Lincoln said he would have received the appointment had he only known how to read and write.16 Whitney said Mr. Lincoln thought perhaps that “Hank’s son could be his clerk” but ultimately declined to make the appointment.17 John Hanks instead joined the Union Army and served as a teamster in an Illinois regiment.

Historian Allen Guelzo noted that the tables of political debt turned with Mr. Lincoln’s candidacy: “Both of Lincoln’s Hanks cousins had…been trading on their connections with their celebrated relative all through his presidency, and in June 1865, both of them were attend the Sanitary Fair in Chicago as a pair of living exhibits along with the original Lincoln family cabin in Illinois, picked up from near Decatur and reassembled at the Fair.”18


  1. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 60-61.
  2. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 61.
  3. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 61.
  4. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 62-63.
  5. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 162.
  6. William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the War President, p. 177.
  7. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 193 (Richard J. Oglesby, Century Magazine, June 1900).
  8. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 214 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
  9. Mark A. Plummer, Richard J. Oglesby, Lincoln’s Rail-Splitter, p. 45-46.
  10. Mark A. Plummer, Richard J. Oglesby, Lincoln’s Rail-Splitter, p. 46.
  11. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Richard J. Oglesby to Abraham Lincoln, February 17, 1861).
  12. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 632 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, August 27, 1887).
  13. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, (Letter of Dennis F. Hanks to William H. Herndon, January 26, 1866).
  14. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 632 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, August 27, 1887).
  15. Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln,’”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 12.
  16. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 239-240 (Richard Price Morgan, February 12, 1909).
  17. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 162.
  18. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 194 (Richard J. Oglesby, Century Magazine, June 1900).