The Little Girl Responsible for Lincoln’s Beard
In 1860, the clean shaven Abraham Lincoln was running for President of the United States. This clean shaven look was somewhat odd for a man of the age. You see, shortly before Lincoln decided to grow a beard, something of a beard revolution swept the United States and by the mid-19th century the formerly predominately clean-shaven men of America now nearly universally were sporting beards. In fact, one reporter, doing a story on the new trend in 1857, walked the streets of Boston and after counting 543 men that walked by him, found that 62% of them were now sporting bushy beards and all but 4 of the rest had some other type of significant facial hair. Even those four that lacked any significant facial hair sported what would later be called Side Burns, after General Ambrose Burnside.
The clean shaven look that Lincoln at the time was still clinging too, was essentially out of style. Needless to say, had Lincoln been running today, his campaign manager would have told him he needed to grow some facial hair with most of the voting populace sporting it- particularly because at the time facial hair in America began being associated with radicalism- the Republican party was that.
Instead of campaign manager, it was a little girl who clued Lincoln in that he needed a change. The girl in question was 11 year old Grace Bedell from New York, who sent a letter to Lincoln dated October 15, 1860:
My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin’s. 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 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 if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have yet got four 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 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 but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty 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 to Grace Bedell Westfield Chautauqua County New York.
I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye
Apparently not too busy campaigning to answer the letter of a little girl, Lincoln wrote her back from Illinois on October 19, 1860:
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 have never worn any do you not think people would call it a silly affection if I were to begin it now?
Your very sincere well wisher
Lincoln had numerous documented instances of self-deprecating jokes concerning his less than attractive visage. In one such instance, while publicly debating with his longtime rival Stephen Douglas- after Douglas called him “two-faced”- Lincoln reportedly replied, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?” (Note: Douglas was not only Lincoln’s political rival, but also a rival outside of politics- Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd was courted by both Lincoln and Douglas originally. In the end, Lincoln perhaps wished he’d lost that battle given accounts of his married life- more in the Bonus Facts below.)
Given his attitude about his appearance, it’s perhaps not surprising that despite not definitively saying he would grow a beard, after replying to “little Miss” on October 19, 1860, Lincoln’s facial hair situation went like this (personally, I think he should have stopped at the middle one):
But this isn’t the end of the story. On Lincoln’s trip from Illinois to Washington D.C., the now President-elect made a stop in Westfield, New York on February 19, 1861.
On the train platform, he related the story behind his decision to grow a beard and asked if the little girl in question was in the crowd. She was and approached; at which point, according to Bedell, he said:
‘Gracie, look at my whiskers. I have been growing them for you.’ Then he kissed me. I never saw him again.
After Lincoln, every elected President except William McKinley would sport facial hair. This trend finally ended when Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913. From then on, U.S. Presidents have remained clean shaven.
- When Lincoln Was Almost Assassinated Nine Months Before He was Assassinated
- The Secret Message Hidden in Abraham Lincoln’s Pocket Watch
- Abraham Lincoln Established the Secret Service on the Day He was Shot by John Wilkes Booth
- John Wilkes Booth’s Brother Saved Abraham Lincoln’s Son’s Life Shortly Before Lincoln Was Assassinated
- Abraham Lincoln the Animal Lover
- Abraham Lincoln married Mary Todd, at the Edward’s home (her sister’s place) in Springfield, Illinois. Nicknamed Molly, Mary Todd first met Lincoln in 1840 when she was 21 and he was 31. Her family wasn’t too happy about the relationship because of Lincoln’s poverty & lack of political prospects. Nevertheless, she accepted his proposal and they were engaged. In 1841, they broke off the engagement and were separated for a while, till the fall of 1842. It was then, with the help of mutual friends (Mr. and Mrs. Simeon Francis), that the couple reunited and wasted no time in getting married (married after just 1 day back together, in fact). Some speculate the rush was because Todd was pregnant with their future child Robert Todd Lincoln, or that Todd had seduced Lincoln into having sex with her, then forced him to marry her the next day. There is no direct evidence of this, but Lincoln’s best man stated on Lincoln’s wedding day, he “looked like a man going to the slaughter” and it was reported that he also referred to his bride to be as “the devil” on the way to his wedding. Their marriage was rocky right from the start and never seemed to get better. Once, after a man sought retribution with Lincoln over his wife’s behavior (including beating the man with a broom), Lincoln said to him “Taggart, I’ve been putting up with her for the past 15 years, can you not put up with her for just 5 minutes for our friendship’s sake?”
- John C. Frémont was the first candidate for the American Presidency to sport a beard when he ran in 1856.
- During the Civil War, Bedell, now aged 15 in 1864, wrote another letter to Lincoln, only very recently discovered in 2007. This time, she was asking if Lincoln could help her find work as her father had recently lost “nearly all his property” and she wanted to help support her family, though her parents hadn’t asked her too. There is no record of whether Lincoln replied or ever even saw the letter.
- As for what happened to Bedell, she went on to marry a Civil War veteran by the name of George Billings sometime around 1870 and took up work first farming, and then later George switched to banking. She lived to the ripe old age of 87 years old, dying in 1936.
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