George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the iconic symbols of America. Their faces have come to represent honesty, integrity and forthrightness. George Washington, who, as the legend goes, never told a lie, and Abe Lincoln, who believed in honesty and fair play. He may have never told a lie, but there have been plenty told about him. Maybe not all lies, but he has been the victim of creative exaggeration. Lincoln would have a fit of apoplexy to hear some of the stories about him.
Early in his national political career, a patina of exaggeration was added to burnish his emerging legend. A two-mile walk to and from school became four; an acre of self-made rail fencing became a hectare; a bout with melancholy became suicidal depression; a reputation for honesty became a mania; an abundance of strength became herculean.
"Honest Abe" was a passionate advocate for the truth, especially when it concerned secondhand reports about his own life. "Let me go down linked to the truth" he told his law partner William H. Herndon in 1858. "Let me die in the advocacy of what is just and right." It is unfortunate this request was never honored.
What is not a myth is Lincoln's sense of humor. Abraham Lincoln was the first humorists to occupy the White House. Bill Green, a longtime friend of Lincoln's, commented, "He could make a cat laugh."
During the Civil War, London's Saturday Review told its readers, "An advantage the Americans have is a president who is not only the first magistrate, but also the chief joker of the land."
By the middle of 1863, there were several joke books with titles like "Old Abe's Jokes," "Abe's jokes - fresh from Abraham's bosom," and "Old Abe's jokes or, wit at the White House."
His taste in jokes ran all the way from the lowly pun to the satirical anecdote. He took keen pleasure in plays upon words.
Once while looking out the window of his law office in Springfield, Ill., he saw a stately matron, wearing a many-plumed hat, picking her way gingerly across the muddy street. Suddenly she slipped and fell. "Reminds me of a duck," said Lincoln. "Why is that?" asked a friend. "Feathers on her head and down on her behind," replied Lincoln.
On another occasion, Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward were taking a walk. Lincoln noticed a store sign bearing the name of the proprietor, T.R. Strong. "T.R. Strong," murmured the president, "but coffee are stronger."
Lincoln could laugh at himself as well. When Sen. Stephen A. Douglas called him a "two-faced man," Lincoln said, "I leave it to my audience, if I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"
He enjoyed telling about the grouchy old Democrat who walked up to him and said, "They say you're a self-made man," and when Lincoln nodded, the man snapped, "Well, all I've got to say is that it was a damned bad job."
Nothing better illustrates the myths that surround Lincoln than the story of how he wrote the Gettysburg Address. When I was in school, we were taught that Lincoln wrote his famous Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope while traveling by train to the ceremony.
The great orator and statesman Edward Everett was the featured speaker. Lincoln was asked, almost as an afterthought on Nov. 2, 1863, to give a few appropriate remarks for the event to be held on Nov. 19. Everett spoke for almost two hours. Lincoln's address lasted almost three minutes. Afterwards, Everett took Lincoln's hand and said, "My speech will soon be forgotten, yours never will be. How gladly would I exchange my hundred pages for your twenty lines."
The Library of Congress lists 2,112 books and graphics on Abraham Lincoln. It is unlikely that any other individual in history has received more attention. He ranks with William Shakespeare as the most quoted (and often misquoted) person in history. Every facet of his life has been examined, and the results published.
Lincoln's life had been tainted with the rumor that he was an illegitimate child. William E. Barton, a congregationalist minister and early Lincoln scholar, spent several years investigating these claims and wrote three books in order to refute this claim. The first, "True Lineage of Lincoln," was published in 1920. This was followed by "The Soul of A. Lincoln," and "The Paternity of A. Lincoln." Benjamin P. Thomas, Lincoln's best early biographer, said of Barton, "If he fell short of being a great historian, he was a great historical detective."
But of all the stories told about him, the most enchanting is the one about his beard. In the fall of 1860, Lincoln was the Republican nominee for president. Election Day was less than a month away when Lincoln, a lifelong beardless man, received a letter written by Grace Bedell, an 11-year-old girl from Westfield, N.Y. Written Oct. 15, 1860, the letter urged him to grow a beard. Miss Bedell's letter read:
"Hon. A.B. Lincoln
"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 won't 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 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. 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 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 Chatauque County New York.
"I must not write any more answer this letter right off good bye.
Lincoln responded on Oct. 19. His letter to Grace Bedell read:
"Miss Grace Bedell
"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 affection if I were to begin it now?
"Your very sincere well wisher
These letters are printed in their entirety, with punctuation as omitted. Whether the growing of a beard had any effect on his election has never been determined. When Abraham Lincoln left Springfield on Feb. 11, 1861, bound for the White House, he was fully bearded. On the 16th, the train stopped in Westfield, N.Y. The president-elect appeared on the train platform, and called out for Grace.
Grace was in the crowd with her two sisters, Alice and Helen. She came forth; Lincoln kissed her, and said he took her advice. It is not known if his whiskers had any influence with the voters, but in any event, the bearded Lincoln has not only come to symbolize America, but liberty and freedom for all.