Abraham Lincoln’s Beard

- April 13th, 2011

With this week marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, I´m going to take a few excursions down that road in coming days because what we now think happened back then is not necessarily what really happened.

Just for starters, let´s take a look at Civil War President Abraham Lincoln´s beard.

Here´s the standard image we have of Lincoln, a portrait made by photographer Alexander Gardner in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8, 1863.

456px-Abraham_Lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait

Lincoln is showing the wear and worry of more than two years of civil war at this point, but this is the historic  Lincoln we know, chin whiskers and all.

But this is not the Abraham Lincoln that the upstart Republican Party nominated for president in May 1860 and that the American people (well, 40% of the ones who were able to vote) elected president in November 1860.

That Lincoln was a very different man. Here´s a picture of the guy who was elected president.

 Abraham-Lincoln-Helser-Portrait-1860

Quite a difference, eh?

As a friend of mine says, the clean-shaven Lincoln looks “fragile.” I think he looks quite handsome without the beard, in a gawky, stringbean sort of way.  And there´s a sensual quality to the face you don´t see with the chin whiskers.

Maybe this is the photo Marilyn Monroe was thinking of when she called Abe Lincoln “the sexiest man in American history.”

That particular portrait was made by Chicago photographer Alexander Hesler on June 3, 1860, at Lincoln´s home in Springfield, Illinois, shortly after Lincoln won the Republication presidential nomination over such frontrunners and party stalwarts as William Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Simon Cameron — all rivals that Lincoln would put in his first cabinet a few months later.

And here´s a slightly earlier photo, one that Lincoln himself said helped make him president.

lincoln_1861_portra_748814s

The photo was taken on Feb. 27, 1860, in New York City on the day that Lincoln made a speech that propelled him from regional Illinois politician to the front ranks of the national Republican Party and the anti-slavery movement in general.

It was a speech months in the planning and it was delivered to a crowd of about 1,500 politically influential New Yorkers at the Cooper Institute. Lincoln wowed the house with a brilliant, rivetting analysis of how the framers of the U.S. Constitution clearly intended that Congress should regulate — and eventually eliminate — slavery in the United States of America.

Lincoln, you see, was a “moderate” Republican not a “radical” (in 1850s terms), in that he was not calling for the immediate abolition of slavery where it already existed: What everyone was after — North and South, slavers and abolitionists, that is (the 4 million Americans held in slavery weren´t asked their opinions) – was control of the vast, sparsely settled (so far) territories west of the Mississippi that the U.S. had gained as prizes in the Mexican-American War of 1848.

The South wanted some, if not all, of the territories to enter the union as slave states. Northern abolitionists were determined that all the territories would gain statehood without the taint of slavery. In between, compromisers kept putting forward plans to allow a nibble of slavery here and a slice of freedom there.

Lincoln was determined that slavery would not be extended to any of the territories and that the central government had the right and responsibility to enforce that. He hoped to see the end of slavery in the whole country some day, but believed it would happen slowly, (relatively) peacably and by a process of attrition.

This was a position hotly disputed by the slave states and a bone of contention for more than a decade between the South and the North.  Throughout the 1850s, compromise after compromise had held the antagonists together, but both sides clearly felt the time for appeasement was over and a real solution had to be found. After the Cooper Institute speech — and its widespread coverage in the many New York daily newspapers of the time — Northern abolitionists felt they had in Lincoln  a true champion with guts, brains and public appeal.

As for the photo, Lincoln was then staying at the Astor House hotel on Broadway. On the afternoon before his evening speech, Lincoln had gone for a walk down Broadway with a couple of friends. At the corner of Broadway and Bleeker Street, Lincoln saw the studio of photographer Mathew Brady and — really on a whim — decided to stop in and have his picture taken.

That´s the photo you see above, one that was widely distributed during the following election.

Brady later admitted he did a little retouching of the photo, smoothing out Abe´s wayward hair and “subtly refin(ing) his features.”

But it did the trick, getting Lincoln´s image out there at a time when presidential candidates did virtually no public campaigning themselves and relied on local and regional allies to carry their message to the voters.

“Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president,” Lincoln was later quoted as saying.

Here´s another, rarely seen photo of Lincoln (possibly by Preston Butler) made in May 1860, just after Lincoln clinched the Republican nomination.  

Lincoln

So why, I ask you, why did a guy who had lived the entire 51 years (so far) of his life without a beard, who had won the nomination of the Republican Party without a beard, and who had won election as president of the United States of America without a beard, why did he suddenly decide to grow a beard in the couple of months between the election on Nov. 6, 1860, and his inaugration on March 4, 1861?

According to Lincoln himself, it was because of a little girl.

On Oct. 15, 1860, 11-year-old Grace Bedell of Westfield, N.Y. (about 100 km south of Buffalo on Lake Erie), wrote to Lincoln in Springfield:

“Dear Sir

My father has just (come) home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin´s (Lincoln´s vice-presidential running mate). I am a little girl only 11 years old but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont (sic) think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am (sic) if so give them my love and tell her to write me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you (sic) you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to (sic) but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can (sic) I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty (sic) I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is  just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct (it) to Grace Bedell Westfield Chautauque County New York.

I must not write any more answer this letter right off   Good bye.

Grace Bedell”

To which Lincoln responded on Oct. 19, 1860 (and don´t forget this is less than three weeks before the national election that could make him president of the United States):

“My dear little Miss

Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received — I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters — I have three sons — one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age — They, with their mother, constitute my whole family — As to the whiskers, having never worn any,  do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it  now?

Your very sincere well wisher

A. Lincoln”

Friends and poltical supporters had  for years urged Lincoln to grow a beard to hide his long neck and prominent adam´s apple. In his reply to Grace Bedell, Lincoln seemed once again to be rejecting the notion of growing a beard.

But Grace´s appeal hit a nerve somehow and Lincoln began, soon after the election, growing his famous chin whiskers.

How do we know it was Grace that made the difference? Because Lincoln said so — in front of thousands of people.

Although Lincoln did not actively campaign in the runup to the Nov. 6, 1860 election, he made what was essentially a campaign tour in the weeks before his inauguration on March 4, 1861.

Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois, on Feb. 11 in a special train that carried him and a party of supporters east to Washington throughout the northern states that had elected him president.

At every stop for fuel and water, Lincoln was mobbed by wellwishers and gave a rousing speech in which he promised to hold the union together while stopping the spread of slavery. By this time South Carolina and six other states had seceded from the union since Lincoln had won the election — and they had seceded mainly because Lincoln´s victory was seen by many in the South as the last straw in the more-populous North´s attempt to dominate the South and force radical changes to its slave economy and culture.

As the train headed for Buffalo, N.Y. (where Lincoln was almost crushed to death when a crowd of 20,000 supporters went crazy and overwhelmed his small military escort), the president-elect made sure the train would stop at the small Lake Erie town of Westfield on Feb. 19, a week after leaving Springfield.

Here´s what the reporter for the New York World had to say in that evening´s newspaper:

“At Westfield an interesting incident occurred. Shortly after his nomination Mr. Lincoln had received from that place a letter from a little girl, who urged him, as a means of improving his personal appearance, to wear whiskers. Mr. Lincoln at the time replied, stating that although he was obliged by the suggestion, he feared his habits of life were too fixed to admit of even so slight a change as that which letting his beard grow involved. To-day, on reaching the place, he related the incident and said that if that young lady was in the crowd he should be glad to see her. There was a momentary commotion, in the midst of which an old man, struggling through the crowd, approached, leading his daughter, a girl of apparently twelve or thirteen years of age, whom he introduced to Mr. Lincoln as his Westfield correspondent. Mr. Lincoln stooped down and kissed the child, and talked with her for some minutes. Her advice had not been thrown away upon the rugged chieftain. A beard of several months´growth covers (perhaps adorns) the lower part of his face. The young girl´s peachy cheek must have been tickled with a stiff whisker, for the growth of which she was herself responsible.”

And that´s how Abe Lincoln got his Abe Lincoln beard.

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5 comments

  1. Bob says:

    Lincoln’s stories are completely fascinating and it’s interesting how his story intersects with the spread of photo journalism.

  2. terry says:

    A good story Allan. Photos also very good. I was always interested in American history. Especially the civil war. Any chance more of your writings will be concerning their tragic war? Thanks very much. Your articles are always interesting

  3. Marilyn says:

    These are the kinds of lovely stories most of us would never find on our own.

    Thank you.

    And if you should happen across any fascinating stories of Canadian characters it would be doubly intersting, since our history is always taught in such a bland way.

  4. Sean McCaffrey says:

    Great story, as an aside to Marilyn, I can think of one tangential Canadian connection, the actor with the finest Lincoln potrayal, who by all accounts best captured his likeness, was Tornoto’s own Raymond Massey. Massey played Lincoln on Broadway and several times on TV and in the movies, including the seminal Lincoln picture, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”, one of his friends said Massey wouldn’t be satisfied with his Lincoln impersonation until someone assassinated him.

  5. Paul says:

    (pardon spelling mistakes)

    Yeah that sure is fascinating.the more you get to know the guy, other than the face on the coin an old pictures in History books. Yup, I read that apparently he said’ ‘Y’ see these wiskers Grace, I grew these for you”

    I also read, that a while after he was president, that she had sent him another letter asking about a job in the government to help with her fathers measly salary> she had hope he remembered her. But somehow it was never received, I forget the details. But it was an unopened letter in archives that was discovered decades later, maybe the 1950′s, I’m sure you can correct the detail for me.

    But imagine that eh? Her whole entire life after probably wondering if he forgot about her, maybe blowing smoke out his butt in charismatic way, “oh yeah these wiskers are for YOU bla bla..but won’t get you a job..” got lost, rejected..then Boom just when him and his wife were starting to rekindle after a long series of tragedy and unhappiness, go out and grab a show with another couple. He had a good seat too dammit, poor guy gets popped behind the ear, didn’t know what hit him..close to his preminition dream remember..that was erie..whoa..
    who’s dead in the white house he asks?? all the sobs ..it must have been a real touching funeral all those 100′s people packed in the Green room or what you call it, in sync a surreal trans reciting the lords prayer. Displayed on that stage like platform with the tent drapery, orb lights above.laying stiff and lifeless all you can see if his nostrils and famous beard poking out to ceiling through that old black and silver casket..the bearded guards beside standing at Attention in solemness. I can just imagine the sound of the horses and funeral slowly parading up sad people in shock..probably hear a pin drop. I wonder what CNN’s take on it would be if it existed then
    Anyway thanks for sharing and lisenting for what is was worth

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