Abe Lincoln, pig torturer? While he admitted to incredible cruelty, the answer isn't that simple

In a campaign biography, Lincoln recalled a humorous tale in which he sewed pigs' eyes shut

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 4, 2023 1:59PM (EDT)

Abraham Lincoln | Pigs (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Abraham Lincoln | Pigs (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Abraham Lincoln referred to it as "the ludicrous incident of sewing up the hogs eyes."

"As a youngster he shot a wild turkey and was so disgusted he claimed he never again raised a weapon to kill an animal."

The story comes from a short autobiography that the future president co-authored for his 1860 election campaign. Lincoln had spent his young manhood working on river boats and — it seems reasonable to assume — was trying to share a "folksy" anecdote to highlight his working-class background and beliefs. Certainly he did not intend to come across as cruel, especially toward helpless animals. Yet by his own account, when he and his business associates struggled to drive "thirty odd large fat live hogs" into their boat, one of them "conceived the whim that he could sew up their eyes and drive them where he pleased. No sooner thought of than decided, he put his hands, including A. [Lincoln himself] at the job, which they completed."

The plan did not succeed in accomplishing their primary objective. Whatever issues the men had encountered herding the pigs while they were healthy, those problems had now been compounded by their blindness. "In their blind condition they could not be driven out of the lot or field they were in," Lincoln recalled. "This expedient failing, they were tied and hauled on carts to the boat."

Lincoln biographer Harold Holzer, who won the 2015 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize, wrote to Salon that modern readers should hesitate before judging the Great Emancipator too harshly. While he acknowledged that Lincoln's story "of course sounds grotesque," the man himself was a product of early 19th-century American prairie life. People from that background were raised to have a very callous attitude toward animals, particularly livestock. "Animals might be pets (Lincoln preferred cats to dogs), but more often were either living 'investments' or dangerous prey," Holzer explained. "Farm animals were raised to produce dairy products (milk and eggs) and/or to be slaughtered for food. I don't think Lincoln or his contemporaries attached any romance or sympathy to the beasts they owned or hunted."

Analyzing his actions from this vantage point, one sees that Lincoln and the others on his flatboat crew "suddenly found their load of frightened live pigs on the run through a stream and into the nearby community" and decided that "the only way to retrieve the valuable payload and drag the poor animals back to their raft was to disable their ability to watch their own recapture." It seems unlikely that this plan came out of nowhere; more likely, "one or all of them knew that this was the accepted way of dealing with such situations. The idea makes our skin crawl today, but we can't — at least we shouldn't — expect young Lincoln, barely old enough to vote, to rise to the standards of a Gen Y PETA sympathizer. That would be historically unrealistic for a youngster raised to farm labor."

Ingrid Newkirk is President of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and Salon contacted her about the Lincoln anecdote. She noted that there were animal rights advocates from Lincoln's time such as William Wilberforce, who had helped found the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in 1824. As such, the notion of being kind to pigs was not entirely foreign to the young Lincoln.

At the same time, "Many people had a lot to learn about empathy, including the employer who apparently ordered a young Abraham Lincoln to sew frightened pigs' eyes shut in a painful process that — completely unlike a human getting a tattoo or a piercing — they couldn't possibly understand or consent to." That is how Lincoln could be cruel to those pigs even though, as Newkirk also noted, his "overall legacy is one of compassion, including to animals." Newkirk cited Lincoln's decision not to accept a gift of elephants from Thailand's King Mongkut because they would struggle to adapt to America's climate. (She also mentioned a popular apocryphal story, dating back to the early 20th century, of Lincoln trying to rescue a pet pig from being slaughtered when he was six; Holzer says this story — along with an equally prevalent one of Lincoln as a lawyer dirtying his suit before appearing in court to rescue a stuck pig — should be taken "with a grain of salt.")

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"Even very principled and decent people like Lincoln thought it was fine to be cruel to animals, and even entertaining."

Describing Lincoln's overall philosophy of compassion, Newkirk observed "that's what PETA encourages everyone to emulate." Like Newkirk, Holzer agreed that Lincoln had compassion for animals, although he added that Lincoln was complex and his actions toward animals could seem contradictory.

"Lincoln did not like blood sports or even hunting for food," Holzer explained. "As a youngster he shot a wild turkey and was so disgusted he claimed he never again raised a weapon to kill an animal. Yet others said that as a boy he engaged in such horrific 'sport' as placing hot rocks on turtles' shells to see how they relieved themselves of the destructive burdens."

Lincoln was surrounded by animals, and as such interacted with them in a wide spectrum of ways: Sometimes he used them for food, clothing, transportation or entertainment; on other occasions, he would do things like desperately attempt to rescue a horse trapped in the White House's burning stables, although this may have been partially motivated by the horse being regularly used by his late son.

In light of these wildly conflicting attitudes toward animal rights, it is unclear what precisely Lincoln meant with his anecdote about sewing shut pigs' eyes — if, in fact, the tale was meant to be taken seriously at all.

David J. Kent, the president of Lincoln Group of DC and author of "Lincoln: The Fire of Genius: How Lincoln's Commitment to Science and Technology Helped Modernize America," wrote to Salon, "There is some question as to whether Lincoln was just trying to be funny writing about his flatboat trip from 30 years before, but assuming he was accurately relating the incident it does sound shocking to 21st century ears." Like Holzer, Kent added that in the 1830s the incident would not have seemed jarring at all because of common attitudes toward animals at the time. Additionally, like both Newkirk and Holzer, Kent pointed to stories of Lincoln's kindness toward animals.

"Lincoln certainly cared more about animal welfare than most people of his time," Kent argued. "In Springfield he had a dog named Fido. In the White House he had horses, donkeys, and two goats that were pets for his youngest sons. He was the first to pardon the Thanksgiving turkey because his son Tad didn't want any more killing during the Civil War. Lincoln was also enamored of cats. One story has him feeding the pet cats at the White House dining room table with the gold cutlery. When [First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln] complained, he replied that 'if the gold fork was good enough for [previous president James] Buchanan, I think it is good enough for Tabby.'"

"Many people still eat pork chops and hot dogs without a thought for the terrified pigs whose teeth and tails are cut off without painkillers and whose throats are slit in slaughterhouses."

Perhaps it is this intrinsic tension in Lincoln's personality — the undeniable reality of his compassion for animals contrasted with his own admission of extreme cruelty — that makes his story so fascinating. It illuminates not just Lincoln's Janus-faced character, but the much broader story of humankind's complex relationship with the animal world.

"Even very principled and decent people like Lincoln thought it was fine to be cruel to animals, and even entertaining," explained Katy Barnett, a professor at Melbourne Law School and author of the animal law book "Guilty Pigs: The Weird and Wonderful History of Animal Law," in an email to Salon. "This was the prevalent view everywhere, in pretty much all cultures and places until the 19th century." Animals only had one protection in most areas of American society during this time — against being victims of sexual assault. Yet even on those occasions, animals would usually get victimized again.

"The main prohibition in U.S. society at this time was not against cruelty, but against bestiality (see Leviticus 18:23-24) and usually the animal was punished as much as the person for engaging in it," Barnett wrote. "In our book, we recount a 1641 case from Connecticut where George Spencer and the sow with whom he had been alleged to have committed bestiality were put to death, as stipulated by Leviticus 20:15." Animal rights as humans imagine them today — namely, the idea that it should be illegal to be cruel to animals without cause — had only just been conceived as a viable political idea.

"The laws against animal cruelty started in the United Kingdom, when two statutes were passed in 1822 and 1849 respectively: An Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle (1822) and An Act for the More Effectual Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1849)," Barnett told Salon. "The Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in England in 1824. Cock-fighting was only ruled as cruel to animals in the UK in Budge v Parsons, in 1863. The seminal case on animal cruelty (a case about de-horning cattle under the 1822 statute mentioned above) Ford v Wiley, did not occur until 1888."

If there is any teachable moment to be gleaned from Lincoln's pig torturing story, it is that humans' attitudes toward animals have improved very, very slowly. Consequently humans who are living at any given point in time may be guilty of actions toward animals that future people will regard as horrifying — or even downright evil. Whenever such a shift in consciousness occurs, it is because we allow our sense of compassion to see in ways in which once it did not. Just as Lincoln painfully forced close the eyes of his pigs, humans have for millennia been figuratively sewing our own eyes shut when it comes to the suffering we inflict on the animals around us.

"The anecdote should reflect only the culture of the time — the total disregard for animal rights, especially animals who were raised to be slaughtered and consumed; not Lincoln's insensitivity," Holzer wrote to Salon. "Besides, I'm not sure pigs or cows or horses led to slaughter by the tens of thousands today fare much better than the herd Lincoln and his pals mistreated (by our standards) in the 1830s."

Newkirk, not surprisingly, agreed.

"That need for empathy still exists today — many people still eat pork chops and hot dogs without a thought for the terrified pigs whose teeth and tails are cut off without painkillers and whose throats are slit in slaughterhouses," Newkirk told Salon.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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