Abraham Lincoln Makes Friends
Abraham Lincoln was a friendly man. Critical to Mr. Lincoln’s ability to forge friendships was the warm way that he greeted new and old acquaintances. Journalist William O. Stoddard recalled meeting Mr. Lincoln in Champaign, Illinois in 1859: “He greeted me cordially as though we had known each other for a long time. There was no strangeness about him. He knew men on the instant. He wasted no time, but plunged at once into the causes of his coming. In a minute he had me not only interested but somewhat astonished.” 1 A year later, a upstate New York journalist reported meeting Mr. Lincoln in Springfield: “He approached, extended his hand, and gave mine a grasp such as only a warm-hearted man knows how to give. He sat down before me on the sofa, and commenced talking about political affairs in my own State with a knowledge of details that surprised me.”
Illinois attorney Leonard Swett recalled his initial meeting with the future President: “In the autumn of 1849, I was sitting with Judge David Davis in a small country hotel in Mt. Pulaski, Illinois, when a tall man, with a circular blue cloak thrown over his shoulders, entered one door of the room, and passing throughout speaking went out another. I was struck by his appearance. It was the first time I had ever seen him, and I said to Judge Davis, when he had gone, ‘Who is that?’ ‘Why, don’t you know him? That is Lincoln.’ In a few moments he returned, and, for the first time, I shook the hand and made the acquaintance of that man who since then has so wonderfully impressed himself upon the hearts and affections of mankind.” 2
There was a unique quality that made meeting the 22-year-old Abraham Lincoln memorable in rural New Salem, Illinois – long before the future president’s political career was established. Johnny Porter recalled that “the first time I ever saw Abe Lincoln was that summer. I was just starting in life myself, on my place below here and had a log cabin. In front of the house was a tolerably low rail fence I had built, mebbe five rails high. We had done breakfast a few minutes, when two young men came walking along the road. One of them was Abe. A man named [Dennis Offutt] was going to start a grocery at [New] Salem….Abe was walking up to go to work in the store. He had slept that night at Clary’s Grove, and when he and the young man with him got along to my place they wanted to know if they could get a bite to eat. The old woman fixed them up something, the things were on the table, and they had their breakfast. When they got through they came out, and Abe straddled over that five-rail fence as if it wasn’t in the way at all. I expect he would have gone over just as easy if it had been higher, for he had powerful long legs. When he got out to the road he turned and looked back at the table, and said: ‘There’s only one egg left; I believe I’d better make a clean thing of it.’ So he straddled the fence again, got the egg and went off – laughing like a boy, shuffling the hot egg from one hand to the other and then peeling and eating it.” 3
Another New Salem acquaintance recalled Lincoln’s appearance in the frontier village: “His long arms protruded through the sleeves of a coat which scarcely reached beyond the elbow in one direction, or of much less height, and which left exposed a pair of socks which, although had long been in use, had never received the attentions of any kind [of] washerwoman. His large long foot partially enveloped in a well worn pair of shoes, presented a singular contrast with his very small head surmounted by a sealskin cap….Without money or friends, he necessarily betook himself to manual labor that he might earn a livelihood. His frugality, and genial temper soon gained him friends.” 4
The youthful Lincoln seemed to possess great potential – at least when remembered years later. Dr. William Jayne recalled meeting Mr. Lincoln in 1836 when Jayne was just a teenager: “At this meeting we had a dinner on that day at the Rutledge Tavern in New Salem; and afterwards during our journey along the road from New Salem to Huron, where Mr. Ninian W. Edwards, who was in our party on that drive, and my father, had a country store. Mr. Lincoln became the subject of what we then called the ‘talk’ between Mr. Edwards and my father. Some time afterwards Mr. Edwards became a brother-in-law of Mr. Lincoln. What was said about Lincoln during that conversation I now remember as distinctly and vividly as if it had occurred only on yesterday. Among other things my father said to Mr. Edwards, ‘Edwards, that young man, Lincoln, will some day be Governor of Illinois.’” 5
First encounters with Mr. Lincoln were often long remembered. A young, would-be attorney, Charles S. Zane, had been turned down as a student at the law offices of Lincoln & Herndon and was referred to Springfield attorney James C. Conkling, who was accepted him into legal study. “A day or two afterward, Mr. Lincoln happened to come in. Mr Conkling introduced me to him, adding that I was a Republican. Mr. Lincoln shook hands with me in his kindly way, and the direct simplicity and naturalness of his bearing were then and still remain the exact impression upon me of his daily manner. There was a natural courtesy and real interest shown toward me, with nothing of patronage or condescension. His manner toward me, a young student in the office, was precisely the same as that toward my preceptor, an older, and of course, much more important man.” 6
Some first impressions of the Springfield attorney were unfavorable and the image conveyed was ungainly and awkward. Another aspiring lawyer, John Littlefield, met Mr. Lincoln in 1858: “When I arrived at the law-office, I found what seemed to me the oddest mortal I had ever met. He was sitting down when I came in, and I should have said that he was about my height – five feet eight; but when he rose to greet me, it was upon a pair of legs that lifted him to an altitude of six feet and four inches. ‘Glad to see you, young man,’ he said, giving me a cordial grasp of the hand. ‘Your brother says you are a good deal like him, only more so; and that’s enough. Arrange the preliminaries with ‘Billy,’ and go ahead.’” 7
“Lincoln always manifested interest in everybody with whom he associated. When you first met him and studied him he impressed you with being a very sad man and a very kind man. He struck you as being a man who would go out of his way to serve you. There was about him a sense of self-abnegation,” recalled Littlefield, who subsequently observed Lincoln as a law clerk in the Lincoln-Herndon law office. “In his freedom of intercourse with people he would seem to put himself on par with everybody; and yet there was within him a sort of reserved power, a quiet dignity which prevented people from presuming on him, notwithstanding he had thrown down the social bars. A person of less individuality would have been trifled with.” 8 The older lawyer could put people at their ease while retaining his own distance. One Lincoln technique was actively interviewing those he met. Littlefield wrote: “Lincoln displayed great eagerness to learn on all subjects from everybody. When he was introduced to persons his general method was to entertain them by telling them a story, or else cross-question them along the line of their work, and soon draw from them about all the information they had.” 9
Mr. Lincoln’s natural manner endeared him to those he met up to the end of his life. “All persons agree that the most marked characteristic of Mr. Lincoln’s manners was his simplicity and artlessness; this immediately impressed itself upon the observation of those who met him for the first time, and each successive interview deepened the impression,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks in the month after President Lincoln’s assassination. “People seemed delighted to find in the ruler of the nation freedom from pomposity and affectation, mingled with a certain simple dignity which never forsook him.” 10
Mr. Lincoln’s expressive face as well as his manner drew people to him. His visage was a wonderfully mobile vehicle of communication. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that artist J. Henry “Brown thought that there were ‘so many hard lines in his face that it becomes a mask to the inner man. His true character only shines out when in an animated conversation, or when telling an amusing tale.’” 11 New York businessman and writer James R. Gilmore observed: “His deep-sunk, dark gray eye had a soft, kindly expression, and I never knew a smile so positively captivating. It transfigured his whole face, making his plain features actually good-looking, so that I could agree with Caroline M. Kirkland, who not long before had told me that he was the handsomest man she had ever seen.” 12
Chicago journalist Horace White was just 20 when he met Mr. Lincoln shortly before his famous Springfield speech in October 1854. “I had studied his countenance a few moments beforehand, when his features were in repose. It was a marked face, but so overspread with sadness that I thought that Shakespeare’s melancholy Jacques had been translated from the forest of Arden to the capital of Illinois. Yet when I was presented to him and we began a few words of conversation this expression of sorrow dropped from him instantly. His face lighted up with a winning smile, and where I had a moment before seen only leaden sorrow I now beheld keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart, and the promise of true friendship.” Years later, White observed that “Mr. Lincoln quickly gained the confidence of strangers, and, if they were much with him, their affection as well. I found myself strongly drawn to him from the first, and this feeling remains to me now as a priceless possession.” 13
Mr. Lincoln had a great impact on those even younger than Littlefield or White. As a boy William B. Thompson lived near the Lincolns in Springfield. Thompson recalled that Mr. Lincoln “walked along with his hands behind him, gazing upward and noticing nobody. But it was usual for all of the boys in the neighborhood to speak to him as we met him. He had endeared himself to all of us by reason of the interest he took in us. When one of us spoke to him as he was walking along in his absorbed manner he would stop and acknowledge the greeting pleasantly. If the boy was small Mr. Lincoln would often take him up in his arms and talk to him. If the boy was larger Mr. Lincoln would shake hands and talk with him. If he didn’t recall the face, he would ask the name, and if recognized it he would say, ‘Oh, yes; I remember you.’ If the boy was a comparative stranger Mr. Lincoln would treat him so pleasantly that the boy always wanted to speak to Mr. Lincoln after that whenever he met him.” 14
Another Illinois boy, Robert H. Browne, recalled coming to work at the Bloomington law office of Judge David Davis and Asahel Gridley, “This was of incalculable benefit to any student, affording, at the same time, the great opportunity of a near acquaintance and close friendship with Mr. Lincoln through the years of his wonderful rise and development.” Browne wrote about how the experienced Springfield attorney took the views of a young Bloomington abolitionist very seriously:
Mr. Gridley’s introduction of the somewhat backward boy – the writer – to Mr. Lincoln was characteristic; and in those days it was a noted circumstance in any boy’s life to be made a near acquaintance and be as favorably introduced to prominent lawyers, who were persons of much distinction to country boys. Our family had known Mr. Lincoln only a few years before, tolerably well,…but nothing like so intimately as we did Judge [Stephen A.] Douglas. Hence, to meet Mr. Lincoln in such favorable circumstances as Mr. Gridley had arranged for was a notable, almost exciting, event.
When the time arrived, Mr. Lincoln walked into the office – a tall, mild-mannered, friendly-looking man, with the most comfortable and easy manner about him in his address and presence you could well imagine. Mr. Gridley met him, shook hands with him, cordially, and after some personal remarks, said, in his rapid, clear voice, his words rattling like hailstones on a tin roof: “Mr. Lincoln, I am very glad to have you here with us again. I have made some changes. This will be your desk, and the tables you can arrange as you like. This young man, Robert, will render you any assistance he can. He is here attending school. His people live in the country. He has been thinking about things for himself, and stirring them up very lively in some quarters, and, as I have advised him, he has been more cautious recently; but in spite of it he insists that he is an out-and-out Abolitionist, without evasion or any sort of qualification. I have told him that he was very foolish, and that, if he was a little older, it would bring him a lot of trouble. Anyway, with all my care and prudence, he is a long way ahead of public sentiment.”
Mr. Lincoln took my hand with a warmth and expression that lightened up the soul of any one whom he respected or held to be a friend, saying: ‘Yes, Mr. Gridley, I will get along first rate. This will all suit me very well;” and, turning to me: “The young man will do as well as the rest of us; but he must not be kept out of school an hour on my account. It seems to me, Robert, that I ought to know you; but, then, you never know about boys of your age, who change every year, and grow out of your knowledge.” I replied: “Mr. Lincoln, I know who you are very well. My father knew you when we lived in Springfield, when he helped to finish the south front and the top work of the Capitol building.” “Yes, yes, I knew Mr. Browne, the Scotchman. I remember him quite well. Of course, you are an Abolitionist.” When this was done, the friendly relation of a lifetime had begun. 15
Later, Browne remembered: “The acquaintance thus begun with him was developed, strengthened, and continued. It became a perpetual pleasure. It was an open, cheerful, good-willed friendship, that was never cramped nor stained. I was intimate with him in this office intercourse something over three years, and had a continued friendly relation that was never broken or impaired up to 1860.” 16 Many of those who thus met Mr. Lincoln were graciously welcomed to the White House after he became president.
Oliver S. Munsell recalled meeting Mr. Lincoln when he was 15. Munsell’s father told Mr. Lincoln: “My son Oliver here will be your attendant while in my house, and will take pleasure in serving you.” Munsell remembered: “Mr. Lincoln turned to me, holding out both hands, and said: “If you are my boy you must learn to shake hands with me as my boys always do, double-handed.’ During his stay, and often in subsequent years, Mr. Lincoln honored me with his attentions and confidence, and, I need hardly add, won my most fervent boyish admiration and love, a love which warms the heart of the gray-headed old man who pens these lines.” 17
Mr. Lincoln even managed to impress the friends of his eldest son. Amidst several speaking engagements in New Hampshire in early March 1861, Mr. Lincoln stopped at Exeter to visit with Robert, who was studying to enter Harvard College. They had one full day together. John S. Goff, biographer of Robert T. Lincoln, wrote: “Sunday morning they attended the Second Church of the New Parish, of which the Reverend Orpheus T. Lamphear was the pastor. After the service father and son walked back to Robert’s lodgings, and in the evening the latter had a group of friends in to meet his father. ‘Into the chatter Lincoln entered with true boy-like spirit.’ In the course of the conversation, Robert remarked that one of the boys present, Henry Cluskey, played the banjo. ‘Does he?’ asked Lincoln and wanted to know where the instrument was. Soon the banjo was brought in from Cluskey’s quarters, the owner indicating that he would have brought it with him initially but he though Mr. Lincoln would not care for it. Cluskey then gave an impromptu concert, after which Mr. Lincoln, indicating the banjo, said with unaffected pleasure, ‘Robert, you ought to have one.’” 18
Mr. Lincoln had the ability to put people at ease – regardless of age. Wisconsin Republican Carl Schurz recalled meeting Mr. Lincoln before the Quincy debate with Stephen Douglas in October 1858. Schurz would support a Lincoln opponent for the 1860 presidential nomination, but then become a strong political ally. The German immigrant wrote that Lincoln “received me with an off-hand cordiality, like an old acquaintance, having been informed of what I was doing in the campaign, and we sat down together. In a somewhat high-pitched but pleasant voice he began to talk to me, telling me much about the points he and Douglas had made in the debates at different places, and about those he intended to make at Quincy on the morrow.” As he often did, Lincoln got his new acquaintance to talk about himself and his views:
“When, in a tone of perfect ingenuousness, he asked me, a young beginner in politics, what I thought about this and that, I should have felt myself very much honored by his confidence, had he permitted me to regard him as a great man. But he talked in so simple and familiar a strain, and his manner and homely phrase were so absolutely free from any semblance of self-consciousness or pretension to superiority, that I soon felt as if I had known him all my life and we had long been close friends. He interspersed our conversation with all sorts of quaint stories, each of which had a witty point applicable to the subject in hand, and not seldom concluding an argument in such a manner that nothing more was to be said. He seemed to enjoy his own jests in a childlike way, for his unusually sad-looking eyes would kindle with a merry twinkle, and he himself led in the laughter; and his laugh was so genuine, hearty, and contagious that nobody could fail to join in it.” 19
About this time, Ohio journalist David R. Locke met Mr. Lincoln in an Illinois hotel room. “I succeeded in obtaining an interview with him after the crowd had departed, and I esteem it something to be proud of that he seemed to take a liking to me. He talked to me without reserve. It was many years ago, but I shall never forget it,” the humorist later wrote, expressing the kind of vivid memory many contemporaries were to share. “He sat in the room with his boots off, to relieve his very large feet from the pain occasioned by continuous standing; or, to put it in his own words: ‘I like to give my feet a chance to breathe.’ He had removed his coat and vest, dropped one suspender from his shoulder, taken off his necktie and collar, and thus comfortably attired, or rather unattired, he sat tilted back in one chair with his feet upon another in perfect ease.” 20
Somehow, Mr. Lincoln drew strangers to him. Illinois railroad executive Richard Price Morgan recalled meeting Mr. Lincoln in Bloomington, where Morgan was staying at a boarding house while working on the construction of the Chicago & Alton Railroad. One warm fall afternoon, he overheard Mr. Lincoln in conversation with his landlady. Mr. Lincoln was in the city for the circuit court but had been unable to locate a room. The landlady told him that much as she would like to accommodate him, she could not – although she would endeavor to provide his meals if he could find a room elsewhere. Morgan recalled:
Those being early days of western life, of which I had seen something, I stepped to the hall door and for the first time saw the tall man of destiny. After a moment, I said to the landlady: “Is this gentleman a friend of yours?” To which she replied, introduced him as “Mr. Lincoln of Springfield, a lawyer who is practicing in the court of McLean county. He is a friend of mine, and I am very sorry indeed that I am unable to accommodate him.” After looking at Mr. Lincoln a moment, and he at me, with a rather inquiring expression, I said: “If you will put a bed in my room, which is too large for one person in these crowded times, I would be pleased to have Mr. Lincoln room with me during his stay in the city.” As I finished this remark, Lincoln threw back his head a little, and with it the long black hair that came over his forehead, and said: “Now, that is what I call clever.’”
Mr. Lincoln’s civility and cordiality were soon evident. Morgan recalled that during the next few weeks, “I learned from him many things which have been of priceless value to me. Although his time was very much engrossed by court proceedings, he seemed to strive, although I was twenty years his junior, to make his companionship interesting and serviceable to me. I was told by him of many things and stories of the earlier settlers in Illinois, and also he recited selections of poetry, one of them being the poem, ‘Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?’ of which he was very fond.” 21
Mr. Lincoln’s handshake and friendliness were legendary. Sculptor Henry Volk met Mr. Lincoln during 1858 when he was working a statute of Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Volk first saw Mr. Lincoln as he checked into a hotel in Bloomington
The next day we all stopped at the town of Lincoln, where short speeches were made by the contestants, and dinner was served at the hotel, after which and as Mr. Lincoln came out on the plank walk in front, I was formally presented to him. He saluted me with his natural cordiality, grasping my hand in both his large hands with a vise-like grip and looking down into my face with his beaming dark, dull eyes, said:
“How do you do? I am glad to meet you. I have read of you in the papers; you are making a statue of Judge Douglas for Governor [Joel] Matteson’s new house?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered; “and sometime, when you are in Chicago and can spare the time, I would like to have you sit to me for your bust.”
“Yes, I will, Mr. Volk – shall be glad to, the first opportunity I have.” 22
This easy informality did not diminish with Mr. Lincoln’s nomination for President in May 1860. After Mr. Lincoln’s presidential nomination in May 1860, a New Yorker came to Springfield to meet him: “I called at his office, but he was not in. Then I went to his residence, and learned that he had a room in the Capitol building, and that I would find him there. Arrived at the room, I rapped at the door. It was opened by a tall, spare man, plain of face. I told him that I had come to see Mr. Lincoln. Inquiring my name, he took me by the arm and introduced me to some half-dozen persons who were in the room, and then remarked, ‘My name is Lincoln.’ In ten minutes I felt as if I had known him all my life. He had the most wonderful faculty I have ever seen in a man to make one feel at ease.” 23
On July 25, 1860, Carl Schurz wrote his wife about meeting with the Republican presidential candidate in Springfield: “….Well, then, yesterday I was with Lincoln. He is still the same genial old fellow as of yore, just as simple and unaffected. The reception committee had engaged a room for me at the hotel and Lincoln was one of the first to knock at my door. He wears a linen sackcoat and hat of doubtful age, but everything about him is clean and neat. We talked about two hours in my room. I happened to be lying on the bed when he came, because I wanted to rest a bit, and he insisted that I should remain there. He talked about the presidential election with as much calm and easy unconcern as if the matter under discussion were a potato crop.” 24
Another German-American, Henry Villard, frequently saw President-elect Lincoln after the 1860 election. Journalist Villard was critical of Mr. Lincoln but admired the way he greeted visitors: “As a rule, he showed remarkable tact in dealing with each of them, whether they were rough-looking Sangamon County farmers still addressing him familiarly as ‘Abe,’ sleek and pert commercial travellers, staid merchants, sharp politicians, or preachers, lawyers, or other professional men. He showed a very quick and shrewd perception of and adaptation to individual characteristics and peculiarities.” 25 James Grant Wilson, who became a Union general during the Civil War, recalled: “Soon after Lincoln’s election, he held a reception in the principal hotel of Chicago. For several hours a continuous procession of friends and admirers passed before him, many of them old and intimate acquaintances. It was amusing to observe Lincoln’s unfeigned enjoyment and to hear his hearty greetings in answer to family friends who exclaimed, ‘How are you, Abe?’ he responding in like manner with ‘Hello, Bill!’ Or ‘Jack’ or ‘Tom,’ alternately pulling or pushing them along with his powerful hand and arm, saying: ‘There’s not time to talk now, boys; we must not stop this big procession; so move on.’” 26
Mr. Lincoln’s informal ways did not change when he became President. Schurz recalled meeting President Lincoln at the White House in the spring of 1861 shortly before Schurz left the capital to become U.S. Minister in Madrid. Schurz asked Mr. Lincoln if he could bring brother-in-law Henry Meyer to the Executive Mansion. Both German-Americans were invited to lunch. “Accordingly the next day I brought my brother-in-law, who was greatly astonished at this unexpected invitation to lunch with the President, and much troubled about the etiquette to be observed. I found it difficult to quiet him with the assurance that in this case there was no etiquette at all. But he was still more astonished when Mr. Lincoln, instead of waiting for a ceremonious bow, shook him by the hand like an old acquaintance and said in his hearty way that he was glad to see the brother-in-law of ‘this young man here,’ and that he hoped the Americans treated him well.” After the meal and some spirited conversation, Schurz and Meyer departed. Meyer “could hardly find words to express his puzzled admiration for the man who, having risen from the bottom of the social ladder to one of the most exalted stations in the world, had remained so perfectly natural and so absolutely unconscious of how he appeared to others – a man to whom it did not occur for a single moment that a person in his position might put on a certain dignity to be always maintained, and who bore himself with such genial sincerity and kindliness that the dignity was not missed, and that one would have regretted to see him different.” 27
Journalist Noah Brooks first met Mr. Lincoln in the 1850s when both lived in Illinois before Brooks moved to California. After Brooks’ return east to Washington in 1862, he often saw Mr. Lincoln at the White House: “With all his simplicity and unacquaintance with courtly manners, his native dignity never forsook him in the presence of critical or polished strangers; but mixed with his angularities and bonhomie was something which spoke the fine fibre of the man; and, while his sovereign disregard of courtly conventionalities was somewhat ludicrous, his native sweetness and straightforwardness of manner served to disarm criticism and impress the visitor that he was before a man pure, self-poised, collected, and strong in unconscious strength. Of him an accomplished foreigner, whose knowledge of the courts was more perfect than that of the English language, said: ‘He seems to me one grand gentilhomme in disguise.’” 28
In Washington, D.C., as in Illinois, young Americans warmed quickly to Abraham Lincoln. Fourteen-year-old William Agnew Paton remembered visiting the White House in October 1862. “When I entered the office the President was seated in a curiously constructed armchair made after a design suggested by himself. The left arm of this unique piece of furniture began low and, rising in a spiral to form the back, terminated on the right side of the seat the height of the shoulders of the person seated thereon. Mr. Lincoln had placed himself crosswise in this chair with long legs hanging over its lower arm, his back supported by the higher side. When the attendant who had presented my card to the President, and had then ushered me into the secretary’s office, closed the door behind me and I found myself actually in the presence of Abraham Lincoln, I had the grace to feel embarrassed, for then I realized that I, a mere schoolboy, was intruding upon the patience and good-nature of a very busy overwrought man…Noting my hesitation, Mr. Lincoln very gently said: ‘Come in, my son.’ Then he arose, disentangling himself, as it were, from the chair, advanced to meet me, and it seemed to me that I had never beheld so tall a man, so dignified and impressive a personage, and certainly I had never felt so small, so insignificant, ‘so unpardonably young.’ As we met, the President gave me his hand, smiled down upon me, and, playing upon the similarity in the sound of my name with that of the person to whom he was about to refer, lightly asked: ‘Are you Bailey Peyton, the rebel guerilla we captured the other day?’ I stammered an incoherent disclaimer of any relationship with the famous Confederate free-lance, of whose exploits and recent capture the newspapers had much to say. Mr. Lincoln asked me if my uncle was well and charged me to deliver a kind message to my kinsman when I returned home to New York. Then, laying his hand upon my head, he said (how well I remember his words!) ‘You come of good people, you will soon be a grown man. Be a good man. Be a good American. Our country may have need of your services some day.’” 29
Vermont Republican leader Lucius Chittenden is not considered the most accurate of memorialists of the Lincoln era, but he has left a very clear impression of meeting President-elect Lincoln in his Willard Hotel suite in February 1861: “As I entered his apartment, a tall, stooping figure, upon which his clothing hung loosely and ungracefully, advanced to meet me. His kindly eyes looked out from under a cavernous, projecting brow, with a curiously mingled expression of sadness and humor. His limbs were long, and at first sight ungainly. But in the cordial grasp of his large hands, the cheery tones of his pleasant voice, the heartiness of his welcome, in the air and presence of the great-hearted man, there was an ascendency which caused me to forget my errand, and to comprehend why it was that Abraham Lincoln won from all classes and conditions of men a love that ‘was wonderful, passing the love of women.’” 30 Mr. Lincoln’s quiet dignity impressed even English journalist Edward Dicey, who wrote that “It was strange to me to witness the terms of perfect equality on which [President Lincoln] appeared to be with everybody. Occasionally some of his interlocutors called him ‘Mr. President,’ but the habit was to address him simply as ‘Sir.’ There was nothing in his own manner, or in that of his guests, to have shown a stranger that the President of the United States was one of the company.” 31
It was Mr. Lincoln’s manner of acting, not his mode of dress, that made the most lasting impression. Philadelphia Congressman William D. Kelley recalled a visit that four Englishmen made early one morning before President Lincoln was completely dressed. “He was in his slippers, and his pantaloons, when he crossed one knee over the other, disclosed the fact that he wore heavy blue stockings…As the President rose to greet them, he was the very impersonation of easy dignity, notwithstanding the negligee of his costume; and with the tact that never deserted him, he opened the conversation with an inquiry as to the health of [English legislator] John Bright, whom he said he regarded as the friend of our country, and of freedom everywhere.” 32
Dignity was a word not usually associated with Mr. Lincoln by those who did not know him. But presidential aide John Hay observed him at close range for more than four years: “The evidence of all the men admitted to his intimacy is that he maintained, without the least effort of assumption, a singular dignity and reserve in the midst of his easiest conversation. Charles A. Dana [who knew President Lincoln both as an editor and as a War Department official] says: ‘Even in his freest moments one always felt the presence of a will and an intellectual power which maintained the ascendancy of the President.’ In his relations to his cabinet ‘it was always plain that he was the master and they were the subordinates. They constantly had to yield to his will, and if ever yielded to them it was because they convinced him that the course they advised was judicious and appropriate.’ While men of the highest culture and position thus recognized his intellectual primacy there was no man so humble as to feel abashed before him. Frederick Douglass beautifully expressed the sentiment of the plain people in his company: ‘I felt as though I was in the presence of big brother and that there was safety in his atmosphere.” 33
Black Abolitionist leader Douglass recalled meeting President Lincoln in his office in the summer of 1863: “On my approach he slowly drew his feet in from the different parts of the room into which they had strayed, and he began to rise, and continued to rise until he looked down upon me, and extended his hand and gave me a welcome. I began, with some hesitation, to tell him who I was and what I had been doing, but he soon stopped me, saying in a sharp, cordial voice: ‘You need not tell me who you are, Mr. Douglass, I know who you are….’ He then invited me to take a seat beside him.” 34 On another occasion, a messenger informed the President that Connecticut Governor William A. Buckingham had arrived to see him while Douglass was meeting with the president. Mr. Lincoln said “tell Governor Buckingham to wait, I want to have a long talk with my friend Douglass.” 35
At a reception following the President’s Second Inaugural in March 1865, Douglass had an experience which reflected Mr. Lincoln’s ability to put people at ease in even more difficult circumstances. Douglass, who had been initially barred by guards from entering the reception, finally approached where the President was receiving well-wishers: “I could not have been more than ten feet from him when Mr. Lincoln saw me; his countenance lighted up, and he said in a voice which was heard all around; ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’ As I approached him he reached out his hand, gave me a cordial shake, and said: ‘Douglass, I saw you in the crowd today listening to my inaugural address. There is no man’s opinion that I value more than yours; what do you think of it?’ I said: ‘Mr. Lincoln, I cannot stop here to talk with you, as there are thousands waiting to shake you by the hand’; but he said again: ‘What did you think of it?’ I said: ‘Mr. Lincoln, it was a sacred effort,’ and then I walked off. ‘I am glad you liked it,’ he said.” 36
Warmth and humor were keys to Mr. Lincoln’s ability to disarm new acquaintances. Assistant Adjutant-General E. W. Andrews, who accompanied President Lincoln on his train trip to Gettysburg in November 1863, noted: “During the ride to Gettysburg, the President placed every one who approached him at his ease, relating numerous stories, some of them laughable, and others of a character that deeply touched the hearts of his listeners.” Andrews recalled:
At one of the stopping places of the train, a very beautiful little child, having a bouquet of rose-buds in her hand, was lifted up to an open window of the President’s care. With a childish lisp she said: “Flowrth for the President!”
The President stepped to the window, took the rose-buds, bent down and kissed the child, saying:
“You’re a sweet little rose-bud yourself. I hope your life will open into perpetual beauty and goodness.” 37
Mr. Lincoln’s greeting might vary – but not according to the social standing or age of the visitor. He had a special way of putting everyone at ease. A teenage employee of the Chicago Journal recalled the day in 1858 he first met Mr. Lincoln in the newspaper’s business office: “I happened in the business office of the Journal to see about an advertisement, and to my astonishment and awe, there sat Mr. Lincoln with his long legs crossed, telling a story to Mr. [Richard] Wilson, the manager, and three or four other men. As I came in, Mr. Lincoln saw me, and I suppose my face expressed a lad’s awe at meeting a great man so near at hand. He kept on with his story (which I was too nervous to remember) and actually winked at me in a pleasantly humorous way. To say I was at once delighted, embarrassed and happy is stating it mildly.” 38
The story was told by a New York Times reporter about how the President reacted to one powerless youth who came to the White House: “Among the large number of persons waiting in the room to speak with Mr. Lincoln, on a certain day in November last, was a small, pale, delicate-looking boy about thirteen years old. The President saw him standing, looking feeble and faint, and said: ‘Come here, my boy, and tell me what you want.’ The boy advanced, placed his hand on the arm of the President’s chair, and with bowed head and timid accents said: ‘Mr. President, I have been a drummer in a regiment for two years, and my colonel got angry with me and turned me off; I was taken sick, and have been a long time in hospital. This is the first time I have been out, and I came to see if you could not do something for me.’ The President looked at him kindly and tenderly, and asked him where he lived. ‘I have no home,’ answered the boy. ‘Where is your father? ‘He died in the army’ was the reply. ‘Where is your mother?’ continued the President. ‘My mother is dead also. I have no mother, no father, no brothers, no sisters, and’ bursting into tears, ‘no friends – no body cares for me.’ Mr. Lincoln’s eyes filled with tears, and he said to him, ‘Can’t you sell newspapers?’ ‘No,’ said the boy, ‘I am too weak, and the surgeon of the hospital told me I must leave and I have no money, and no place to go to.’ The scene was wonderfully affecting. The President drew forth a card, and addressing on it certain officials to whom his request was law, gave special directions ‘to care for this poor boy.’ The wan face of the little drummer lit up with a happy smile as received the paper, and he went away convinced that he had one good and true friend, at least, in the person of the President.” 39
Military chaplain John Eaton described one visit to the White House when a weekly reception was in progress: “Lincoln’s reception of the soldiers who were among the crowd could not have been more impressive. Small wonder the army adored him. The stream of visitors passed by. In the front line of those who surrounded the open space before the President, waiting their turn, was a little lad who evidently hesitated to approach him, but the kindly motion of Mr. Lincoln’s hand brought the child at once to the good man’s side. The President bent his great height, and the little boy confided to him his request. I did not hear what was said, – so confidential was the interview between the small boy and the President, – but there was no doubt he had got what he wanted, for he ran off presently with no attempt to disguise his delight.” 40
Mr. Lincoln’s compassion for disconsolate visitors to White House became legendary. Moncure Daniel Conway recalled a meeting President Lincoln in early 1862: “When we arrived at the White House a woman with a little child was waiting in the anteroom. She now and then wept, but said nothing. The President saw her first, and she came out radiant. We conjectured that some prisoner was that day released.” Soldiers recognized that they had a special friend in the White House. An army nurse, Adelaide W. Smith, brought a crippled soldier to the White House reception after the Second Inaugural. When President Lincoln saw Lieutenant Gosper with his missing leg, he said: “God bless you, my boy!’” Nurse Smith said: “I was obliged to take his left arm, which brought me on the outside away from the President. I attempted to pass with a bow, but he stood in my way, still holding out his large hand, until I released mine and gave it to him, receiving a warm sympathetic grasp. Then I saw that wonderful lighting of his beneficent grey eyes, that for a moment often beautified as with a halo that otherwise plain, sad face.’” 41
On June 21, 1864, President Lincoln visited the Union war front near City Point, Virginia. According to journalist Sylvanus Cadwallader, “On the way out many persons recognized Mr. Lincoln. The news soon spread, and on the return ride, the road was lined with weather-beaten veterans, anxious to catch a glimpse of ‘Old Abe.’ One cavalry private had known him in Illinois. Mr. Lincoln shook him by the hand, as an old familiar acquaintance, to the infinite admiration of all bystanders.” 42 Samuel H. Beckwith, the personal telegraph operator to General Ulysses S. Grant, recalled President Lincoln visiting Grant’s tent at City Point. “He stopped at my side and looked me over with a critical eye. Then throwing his arm about my neck and straightening up his lofty form so as to make the disparity in our heights the more noticeable (I am but 5 feet and 5 inches tall), he said to those present: ‘Difference in stature, gentlemen, is not always indicative of difference in ability.’ Then he slapped me cordially upon the back and with a chuckle passed into the tent.” 43 Historian William C. Davis noted that such interactions were an important element in President Lincoln’s popularity with soldiers: “Inevitably it was the face-to-face contact that Lincoln had with many that cemented the bond, the understanding among these, his children, that ‘Father Abraham’ would take care of them.” 44
One New York officer recalled that a prison guard who served under him went to the White House to request an immediate furlough to see his dying father. The soldier went to the Lincoln office where “he was told that he could not see or communicate with the President; but just then he saw the President coming towards the door as if to go out. He at once said, loudly, ‘You can’t prevent my seeing the President – I see him now!’ The President came to him and inquired what his trouble was. He gave him the telegram and the note and said: “Mr. President, I do so want to see my father again before he dies.’ ‘Of course you do,’ said the President, ‘come with me, I am on the way to the War Department,’ and putting his arm about the boy-soldier as they walked, inquired about his family, his father’s age, if his mother were living and many other kindly questions.”
Reaching the War Department they went into Secretary Stanton’s private office and the President said to the Secretary: “I want a ten days’ furlough for this young man,’ explaining the reason. The Secretary called the proper official and in a few minutes the President handed the lad a War Department furlough for ten days. He took the boy’s hand and said he hoped he would not only find his father alive, but out of danger; asked the boy to give the father his respects; trusted the lad would come out of the service of his country unharmed and live long to enjoy the consciousness of having done his duty – or words to this effect.
The boy, while happy with his furlough, could not suppress his tears, saying, “I am all broken up by that great man’s kindness to me – me, only a private among thousands.” 45
Regardless of the military rank of his visitors, President Lincoln was on the lookout for information – and encouragement. According to Interior Secretary John Palmer Usher, “Mr. Lincoln gained much of information, something of cheer and encouragement, from these visits. He particularly enjoyed conversing with officers of the army and navy, newly arrived from the field or from sea. He listened with the eagerness of a child over a fairy tale to [Congressman James Garfield's] graphic account of the battle of Chickamauga; he was always delighted with the wise and witty sailor talk of John A. Dahlgren, Gustavus V. Fox, and Commander Henry A. Wise. Sometimes a word fitly spoken had its results. When R.B. Ayres called on him in the company with Senator [Ira] Harris, and was introduced as a captain of artillery who had taken part in a recent unsuccessful engagement, he asked, ‘How many guns did you take in?’ ‘Six,’ Ayres answered. ‘How many did you bring out?’ the President asked, maliciously. ‘Eight.’ This unexpected reply did much to gain Ayres his merited promotion.” 46
President Lincoln could be equally gracious to the hundreds of women who visited the White House seeking favors or pardons for husbands, brothers or sons. One woman described him as greeting her “with the kindness of a brother…When I was ushered into his presence he was alone. He immediately arose, and pointing to a chair by his side, said: ‘Take this seat madam, and then tell me what I can do for you.’” 47 Lincoln friend Joshua F. Speed recalled two women who came to the White House to seek the release of a husband and a son who had been imprisoned for resisting the draft. He quickly understood their case and declared that “these fellows have suffered long enough and I have thought for some time and now that [my] mind is on it, I believe I will turn out the flock.” The younger woman rushed to kneel at Lincoln’s feet. The older woman approached Mr. Lincoln with tears in her eyes and declared: “I shall never see you again till me meet in Heaven.” 48
As a rule, Mr. Lincoln did not stand on ceremony for visitors. In fact, he often sat or lounged. Treasury official Maunsell B. Field recalled: “With civility the President was not overburdened, and his manners were any thing but acceptable to the fair sex. I used constantly to observe in Washington during the war, that, whereas all men appeared more or less abashed on approaching, at least for the first time, the nation’s leaders, the ladies shared in none of this diffidence. On one occasion a lady was talking to Mr. Lincoln, asking a favor at that, and he remained sitting while she stood. After a while he arose and drew up another chair, as she supposed with the intention of offering it to her. Nothing of the sort. He stretched out his own long legs upon it. This was more than female patience could endure. ‘Mr. Lincoln,’ exclaimed the lady, ‘I think you are the worst-bred man in the world.’ ‘Halloo,’ asked the President, ‘what have I done now?’ The lady explained, and Mr. Lincoln, in the best temper, admitted that he believed she was right.’” 49
One young visitor did admit his shyness: “Before approaching the President I felt a natural diffidence, not to say awe, of the man who was Chief Executive of the nation, commander-in-chief of the army and navy, as well as the man who held the life of my brother in his keeping. To a boy of fifteen this feeling was only natural. The closer I approached the great man, however, the less I feared him, the higher my courage rose; and before the interview was over I was as much at my ease with President Lincoln as if talking to my own father. The reasons for this are to be found in just the qualities of heart with which he is accredited, and rightly so, by all the world. No sooner had he laid his hand upon my shoulder and said, ‘My son,’ that I felt drawn to him, and dread less and less the interview he had granted me; and each successive question he asked me put me more at my ease, until, when I was alone with him in his private office, all my embarrassment vanished, and I saw before me the countenance of a man I could trust, one which invited confidence.” 50
Mr. Lincoln could be the soul of chivalry. Attorney Charles Caverno recalled the reception during Mr. Lincoln’s visit to Wisconsin during the 1859 campaign season: “A score or so of ladies came in. Mr. Lincoln greeted them very pleasantly and with ease of manner. Indeed, I do not see why Mr. Lincoln should have been called awkward and ungraceful. He was large and had to have room for his motions, but I do not see how he could have handled his great frame more gracefully than he did. Every lady to whom he was introduced received the token of a low bow and that indescribably sweet smile – the sweetest I have ever seen on the face of man.” 51
The next July, Wisconsin resident John S. Bliess met the Republican presidential candidate by knocking on the door of his home in Springfield. “After a short time, Mr. L. came tripping down the Stairs, as lively as a young man of sixteen years of age – sliding his right hand on the bannister – he approached me and after shaking hands – we were soon immersed in a lively conversation on various topics.” Lincoln inquired about “the resources, and developments” in Wisconsin. Bliess said Lincoln “spoke of the press in Wisconsin, and gave readily the course they had pursued – (especially some of the Milwaukee papers) as readily as a resident of that City.” 52
During the Civil War, a black woman blocked President Lincoln’s path as he returned to the White House from the War Department. Aide William O. Stoddard recalled that the President laughed and held out his hand to her, but she remained silent. “Her eyes roll wonderfully, and her smile is all over her face, and it takes elsewhere the semblance of an embodied chuckle; but all the words she ever knew have gone a wool-gathering.” As she quietly offered her hand, Mr. Lincoln said: “You look happy. Reckon you must be.” Stoddard described her “so almost bursting with pride and delight that she stuffs the corners of her check apron into her mouth.” 53 Behind the quickly departed woman was an Indiana soldier who shared none of her timidity. “Aint they workin’ of ye pretty hard, Mr. Lincoln?” When the President acknowledged they were, the soldier responded: “Well, now some of us boys was a-sayin’ so. You’d better take right smart good keer of yerself. There isn’t anybody else, lyin’ round loose, that’d fit into your boots jest now.” 54
Time has shown how unique were the boots Mr. Lincoln filled. Joshua F. Speed recalled watching with admiration as President Lincoln interacted with visitors a few weeks before he was assassinated. “Speed, die when I may,” Lincoln told his longtime friend, “I want it said of me by those who know me best to say that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.” 55
Richard J. Behn is research director of the Lehrman Institute
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, pp. xx-xxi.
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 455 (Leonard Swett).
- Walter B. Stevens, (edited by Michael Burlingame), A Reporter’s Lincoln, p. 6.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 24 (John Hill, “A Romance of Reality, Menard Axis, February 15, 1862)
- Dr. William Jayne, Abraham Lincoln: Personal Reminiscences of the Martyred President, pp. 16-17.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 130. (Charles S. Zane, “A Young Lawyer’s Memories of Lincoln”)
- Joseph Fort Newton, Lincoln and Herndon, pp. 249-250.
- Harold Holzer, editor, Lincoln as I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes & revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemies, p. 76.
- Harold Holzer, editor, Lincoln as I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes & revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemies, p. 77.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 201 (From Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln,” Harper’s Monthly, May 1865).
- Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 658.
- James R. Gilmore, Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, p. 77
- Horace White, “Abraham Lincoln in 1854,” Illinois State Historical Society, January 1908, pp. 19, 21.
- Walter B. Stevens (edited by Michael Burlingame), A Reporter’s Lincoln, p. 98.
- Robert H. Browne, Abraham Lincoln and Men of His Time, pp. 500-501.
- Robert H. Browne, Abraham Lincoln and Men of His Time, pp. 508-509.
- Charles Henry Collis, Religion of Abraham Lincoln, p. 20 (Letter from Oliver S. Munsell to Charles H. T. Collis, April 15, 1893).
- John S. Goff, Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right, p. 32.
- Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, pp. 89-98.
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, pp. 440-445 (David B. Locke).
- Paul M. Angle, editor, Abraham Lincoln by Some Men who Knew Him, pp. 69-71 (“Address of Richard Price Morgan at Pontiac, Illinois, February 12, 1909″).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, pp.239-240 (Leonard Wells Volk, Century Magazine, December 1881).
- Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 353.
- “The Lincolns at Home,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, pp. 91-92.
- Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Volume I, pp. 142-143.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 421 (James Grant Wilson, Putnam’s Magazine, February-March, 1909)
- Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, II, p. 243.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 203 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
- Rufus Wilson Rockwell, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, (William Agnew Paton, Century Magazine, p. 325, December 1913).
- Lucius E. Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln, p. 68
- Herbert Mitgang, editor, Spectator of America: A Classic Document About Lincoln and Civil War America by a Contemporary English Correspondent, p. 92.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, pp.285-286 (William D. Kelley).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 403 (John Hay, Century Magazine, November 1890).
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, p. 186 (Frederick Douglass).
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, p. 190 (Frederick Douglass).
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, pp. 191-193 (Frederick Douglass).
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, pp. 510-511 (E.W. Andrews)
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p.199 (Abram E. Smith, Woodstock Illinois Republican, February 12, 1909)
- Henry Raymond, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, pp. 740-741 (Frank B. Carpenter, “Anecdotes and Reminiscences of President Lincoln”).
- John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, pp. 183-184
- Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, pp. 98-99.
- Benjamin P. Thomas, editor Three Years with Grant as Recalled by War Correspondent Sylvanus Cadwallader, p. 233.
- David L. Wilson and John Y. Simon, Ulysses S. Grant: Essays and Documents, p. 128.
- William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men. p. 130.
- John L. Cunningham, Three Years with the Adirondack Regiment, pp. 47-48.
- Rufus Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, pp. 397-398.
- Allen Thorndike Rice, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 507 (E. W. Andrews).
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 157 (Letter from Joshua F. Speech to William H. Herndon, January 12, 1866).
- Maunsell B. Field, Personal Recollections: Memories of Many Men and Some Women, p. 312
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 366 (John M. Bullock, “President Lincoln’s Visiting Card,” Century Illustrated Magazine, February 1889)
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 210 ( Charles Caverno, Milwaukee Free Press, April 7, 1902)
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, p. 419 (Letter from John S. Bliss to William H. Herndon, January 29, 1867).
- Michael Burlingame Editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, pp. 89-90.
- Michael Burlingame Editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 90.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, pp. 157-158 (Letter from Joshua F. Speech to William H. Herndon, January 12, 1866).