At 6ft 4in (193cm) Lincoln remains the tallest of America’s 46 presidents. He also stands as one of the highest in esteem, according to polls of historians, politicians and the general public.
Another noted physical feature was Lincoln’s beard. He was the first president to have one – and he can thank an 11-year-old girl for that distinction.
Grace Bedell of Westfield, New York, sent a letter to Lincoln in 1860, just before the presidential election, urging him to improve his appearance by growing a beard. Her letter read:
Oct 15. 1860
Hon A B Lincoln
My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture. . . I am a little girl only eleven years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. . . I have got 4 brother's and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband's to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is a going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try and get every one to vote for you that I can. . . I must not write any more answer this letter right off
Lincoln took Grace’s advice, won the election, and thanked her in person when his train stopped at Westfield on February 16, 1861 on his way to Washington.
The New York World reported:
On reaching [Westfield, Mr Lincoln] 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 . . . 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.
Abraham Lincoln was born into poverty in a one-room log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky. His father, Thomas, a poor pioneer, was a farmer and carpenter, and his mother, Nancy, was a seamstress.
Lincoln spent much of his youth working as a farmhand, but later became a merchant, a postmaster, a county surveyor and a lawyer, although he had no formal qualifications for any of these posts. He was largely self-educated and his total schooling, given to him by travelling teachers, is estimated to total only around one year.
But he was always a voracious reader and when he decided to become a lawyer he simply taught himself the law, then set up in practice at Springfield, Illinois, admitting later: "I studied with nobody.”
He sat in the Illinois state legislature from 1834 to 1842 and in 1846 was elected to Congress as a member of the Whig Party. In 1856, Lincoln joined the new Republican Party which had been formed two years earlier and in 1860 he was asked to run as their presidential candidate.
Lincoln won with 180 out of 303 electoral votes but less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. Only one president in US history has done worse than that – John Quincy Adams in 1824, when he mustered a mere 31 per cent of the popular vote.
Lincoln was particularly unpopular in the South where it was (rightly) feared that he would attempt to abolish slavery, and before the new president took office seven southern states left the Union to form the Confederate States of America, also known as the Confederacy. Four more joined later.
Describing their ideology, Confederate Vice-President Alexander H Stephens said it was based “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition”.
This ran counter to everything that Lincoln believed, and as many Unionists saw leaders of the breakaway states as traitors, civil war seemed inevitable.
Fighting began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate soldiers attacked the Union’s Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina. The war continued for four years and cost the lives of between 620,000 and 850,000 men. On April 9, 1865, Confederate general Robert E Lee surrendered, effectively ending the war.
While it raged, President Lincoln insisted that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery”. Nevertheless, he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
He delivered the famous Gettysburg Address later that year calling for “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Months later he stood for re-election and won. In his second inaugural address he was, typically, conciliatory towards the southern states. The address ended:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
But Lincoln got to serve only one month and eleven days of his second term before being shot and killed while attending a theatre performance. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a strong supporter of the Confederacy.
Lincoln is one of the most popular presidents in American history, consistently ranked in the top three alongside George Washington and Franklin D Roosevelt. His greatest achievements are seen as ending the Civil War, abolishing slavery and developing the economy.
Ironically, his wife Mary came from a wealthy slave-owning family in Lexington, Kentucky. Several of her half-brothers died serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Published: January 29, 2021
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