Grace Bedell wrote a letter to presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln on October 15, 1860, telling him, “I am a little girl only eleven years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much.”
And she had some advice of how he could improve his candidacy: “I have got 2 brothers 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 husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”
Beards are enjoying a resurgence in popularity in our own time, whether they be a full beard, goatee, chin strip, soul patch or something called a balbo. But beards were far more common in Lincoln’s era. Would/did growing a beard make a difference in Lincoln’s presidency and how we remember him?
Lincoln did let his whiskers grow in the months following Grace’s letter, but whether her urging was the impetus behind his new look we will probably never know. He certainly was a canny enough spin doctor to recognize and take advantage of a good public relations opportunity when he saw one.
On February 16, 1861, Lincoln’s train stopped in Westfield during his inaugural journey to Washington, D.C. The Philadelphia Enquirer reported what he said to the crowd:
“Some three months ago, I received a letter from a young lady here; it was a very pretty letter, and she advised me to let my whiskers grow, as it would improve my personal appearance; acting partly upon her suggestion, I have done so; and now, if she is here, I would like to see her; . . . A small boy, mounted on a post, with his mouth and eyes both wide open, cried out, `there she is, Mr. LINCOLN,’ pointing to a beautiful girl, with black eyes, who was blushing all over her fair face.”
Lincoln walked from his train to Grace, hugged and kissed her, and then waved goodbye to the cheering throng. It is the stuff of which legends are made. Westfield now boasts a statue of the incident.
But notice that Lincoln did say, “acting partly on her suggestion”…
Whatever the truth of the matter, Lincoln’s October 19th reply to Grace Bedell’s original letter is a wonderful example of our 16th president’s wit and charm. And, as an aside, am I the only one impressed that Grace wrote her letter on the 15th and Lincoln replied just four days later in the hectic last weeks of a presidential campaign? Both the post office and Lincoln had to move at a brisk clip to meet that timetable.
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