Mr. Lincoln was a friendly man. One of the critical elements in Mr. Lincoln’s ability to forge friendships was the way in which he met and greeted people. Journalist William O. Stoddard recalled meeting Mr. Lincoln in Champaign, Illinois in 1859: “He greeted me cordially as though we had known each other for a long time. There was no strangeness about him. He knew men on the instant. He wasted no time, but plunged at once into the causes of his coming. In a minute he had me not only interested but somewhat astonished.”1 A year later, an upstate New York journalist reported meeting Mr. Lincoln in Springfield: “He approached, extended his hand, and gave mine a grasp such as only a warm-hearted man knows how to give. He sat down before me on the sofa, and commenced talking about political affairs in my own State with a knowledge of details that surprised me.”
Fellow attorney Leonard Swett recalled, “In the autumn of 1849, I was sitting with Judge David Davis in a small country hotel in Mt. Pulaski, Illinois, when a tall man, with a circular blue cloak thrown over his shoulders, entered one door of the room, and passing throughout speaking went out another. I was struck by his appearance. It was the first time I had ever seen him, and I said to Judge Davis, when he had gone, ‘Who is that?’ ‘Why, don’t you know him? That is Lincoln.’ In a few moments he returned, and, for the first time, I shook the hand and made the acquaintance of that man who since then has so wonderfully impressed himself upon the hearts and affections of mankind.”2
Americans tended to remember their first encounters with Mr. Lincoln. A young, would-be attorney, Charles S. Zane, had been turned down as a student at the law offices of Lincoln and Herndon and was referred to attorney James C. Conkling, where he was accepted. “A day or two afterward, Mr. Lincoln happened to come in. Mr. Conkling introduced me to him, adding that I was a Republican. Mr. Lincoln shook hands with me in his kindly way, and the direct simplicity and naturalness of his bearing were then and still remain the exact impression upon me of his daily manner. There was a natural courtesy and real interest shown toward me, with nothing of patronage or condescension. His manner toward me, a young student in the office, was precisely the same as that toward my preceptor, an older, and of course, much more important man.”3
German-American politician Carl Schurz recalled meeting Mr. Lincoln before the Quincy debate with Stephen Douglas in October 1858:
He received me with an off-hand cordiality, like an old acquaintance, having been informed of what I was doing in the campaign, and we sat down together. In a somewhat high-pitched but pleasant voice he began to talk [for] me, telling me much about the points he and Douglas had made in the debates at different places, and about those he intended to make at Quincy on the morrow.
When, in a tone of perfect ingenuousness, he asked me, a young beginner in politics, what I thought about this and that, I should have felt myself very much honored by his confidence, had he permitted me to regard him as a great man. But he talked in so simple and familiar a strain, and his manner and homely phrase were so absolutely free from any semblance of self-consciousness or pretension to superiority, that I soon felt as if I had known him all my life and we had long been close friends. He interspersed our conversation with all sorts of quaint stories, each of which had a witty point applicable to the subject in hand, and not seldom concluding an argument in such a manner that nothing more was to be said. He seemed to enjoy his own jests in a childlike way, for his unusually sad-looking eyes would kindle with a merry twinkle, and he himself led in the laughter; and his laugh was so genuine, hearty, and contagious that nobody could fail to join in it.4
About the same time journalist David R. Locke met Mr. Lincoln in a hotel room. “I succeeded in obtaining an interview with him after the crowd had departed, and I esteem it something to be proud of that he seemed to take a liking to me. He talked to me without reserve. It was many years ago, but I shall never forget it,” the humorist later wrote expressing a memory many contemporaries were to share. “He sat in the room with his boots off, to relieve his very large feet from the pain occasioned by continuous standing; or, to put it in his own words: ‘I like to give my feet a chance to breathe.’ He had removed his coat and vest, dropped one suspender from his shoulder, taken off his necktie and collar, and thus comfortably attired, or rather unattired, he sat tilted back in one chair with his feet upon another in perfect ease.”5
Mr. Lincoln’s handshake and friendliness were legendary. Sculptor Henry Volk met Mr. Lincoln during the 1858 campaign when he was working a statute of Stephen Douglas. He first saw Mr. Lincoln as he checked into a hotel in Bloomington:
The next day we all stopped at the town of Lincoln, where short speeches were made by the contestants, and dinner was served at the hotel, after which and as Mr. Lincoln came out on the plank walk in front, I was formally presented to him. He saluted me with his natural cordiality, grasping my hand in both his large hands with a vise-like grip and looking down into my face with his beaming dark, dull eyes, said:
“How do you do? I am glad to meet you. I have read of you in the papers; you are making a statue of Judge Douglas for Governor Matteson’s new house?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered; “and sometime, when you are in Chicago and can spare the time, I would like to have you sit to me for your bust.”
“Yes, I will, Mr. Volk – shall be glad to, the first opportunity I have.”6
This easy informality did not change with Mr. Lincoln’s nomination for President in May 1860. On July 25, Carl Schurz wrote his wife about another meeting with Mr. Lincoln: “….Well, then, yesterday I was with Lincoln. He is still the same genial old fellow as of yore, just as simple and unaffected. The reception committee had engaged a room for me at the hotel and Lincoln was one of the first to knock at my door. He wears a linen sackcoat and hat of doubtful age, but everything about him is clean and neat. We talked about two hours in my room. I happened to be lying on the bed when he came, because I wanted to rest a bit, and he insisted that I should remain there. He talked about the presidential election with as much calm and easy unconcern as if the matter under discussion were a potato crop.”7
Journalist Henry Villard spent much time with President-elect Lincoln after the 1860 election. The German immigrant was frequently critical of Mr. Lincoln but admired the way he greeted visitors as President-elect: “As a rule, he showed remarkable tact in dealing with each of them, whether they were rough-looking Sangamon County farmers still addressing him familiarly as ‘Abe,’ sleek and pert commercial travellers, staid merchants, sharp politicians, or preachers, lawyers, or other professional men. He showed a very quick and shrewd perception of and adaptation to individual characteristics and peculiarities.”8
Nor did Mr. Lincoln’s informal ways change when he became President. Schurz recalled bringing his German brother-in-law to meet President Lincoln at the White House in the spring of 1861 shortly before Schurz left to become U.S. Minister in Madrid. Schurz asked Mr. Lincoln if he could bring Henry Meyer to the Executive Mansion and instead both men were invited to lunch. “Accordingly the next day I brought my brother-in-law, who was greatly astonished at this unexpected invitation to lunch with the President, and much troubled about the etiquette to be observed. I found it difficult to quiet him with the assurance that in this case there was no etiquette at all. But he was still more astonished when Mr. Lincoln, instead of waiting for a ceremonious bow, shook him by the hand like an old acquaintance and said in his hearty way that he was glad to see the brother-in-law of ‘this young man here,’ and that he hoped the Americans treated him well.” After a spirited conversation and meal, Schurz and Meyer departed. Meyer “could hardly find words to express his puzzled admiration for the man who, having risen from the bottom of the social ladder to one of the most exalted stations in the world, had remained so perfectly natural and so absolutely unconscious of how he appeared to others – a man to whom it did not occur for a single moment that a person in his position might put on a certain dignity to be always maintained, and who bore himself with such genial sincerity and kindliness that the dignity was not missed, and that one would have regretted to see him different.”9
After his return from California in 1862 journalist Noah Brooks saw Mr. Lincoln often: “With all his simplicity and unacquaintance with courtly manners, his native dignity never forsook him in the presence of critical or polished strangers; but mixed with his angularities and bonhomie was something which spoke the fine fibre of the man; and, while his sovereign disregard of courtly conventionalities was somewhat ludicrous, his native sweetness and straightforwardness of manner served to disarm criticism and impress the visitor that he was before a man pure, self-poised, collected, and strong in unconscious strength. Of him an accomplished foreigner, whose knowledge of the courts was more perfect than that of the English language, said: ‘He seems to me one grand gentilhomme in disguise.'”10
English journalist Edward Dicey wrote that “It was strange to me to witness the terms of perfect equality on which [President Lincoln] appeared to be with everybody. Occasionally some of his interlocutors called him ‘Mr. President,’ but the habit was to address him simply as ‘Sir.’ There was nothing in his own manner, or in that of his guests, to have shown a stranger that the President of the United States was one of the company.”11
Iowa Congressman William D. Kelley recalled a visit by four Englishmen made early one morning before President Lincoln was completely dressed. “He was in his slippers, and his pantaloons, when he crossed one knee over the other, disclosed the fact that he wore heavy blue stockings…As the President rose to greet them, he was the very impersonation of easy dignity, notwithstanding the negligee of his costume; and with the tact that never deserted him, he opened the conversation with an inquiry as to the health of John Bright, whom he said he regarded as the friend of our country, and of freedom everywhere.”12
Dignity was a word not usually associated with Mr. Lincoln by those who did not know him. But aide John Hay observed him at close range for over four years: “The evidence of all the men admitted to his intimacy is that he maintained, without the least effort of assumption, a singular dignity and reserve in the midst of his easiest conversation. Charles A. Dana says: ‘Even in his freest moments one always felt the presence of a will and an intellectual power which maintained the ascendancy of the President. ‘In his relations to his cabinet ‘it was always plain that he was the master and they were the subordinates. They constantly had to yield to his will, and if ever yielded to them it was because they convinced him that the course they advised was judicious and appropriate.’ While men of the highest culture and position thus recognized his intellectual primacy there was no man so humble as to feel abashed before him. Frederick Douglass beautifully expressed the sentiment of the plain people in his company: ‘I felt as though I was in the presence of big brother and that there was safety in his atmosphere.”13
Black Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass had a somewhat similar experience in the summer of 1863. Frederick Douglas recalled meeting President Lincoln in his office: “On my approach he slowly drew his feet in from the different parts of the room into which they had strayed, and he began to rise, and continued to rise until he looked down upon me, and extended his hand and gave me a welcome. I began, with some hesitation, to tell him who I was and what I had been doing, but he soon stopped me, saying in a sharp, cordial voice: ‘You need not tell me who you are, Mr. Douglass, I know who you are….’ He then invited me to take a seat beside him.”14 On another occasion, a messenger informed the President that Connecticut Governor William A. Buckingham had arrived to see him while Douglass was in the office. Mr. Lincoln said “tell Governor Buckingham to wait, I want to have a long talk with my friend Douglass.”15
At a reception following the President’s Second Inaugural in March 1865, Douglass had an experience which reflected Mr. Lincoln’s ability to put people at ease in even more difficult circumstances. Douglass, who had first been barred by guards from the reception, finally approached where the President was receiving well-wishers: “I could not have been more than ten feet from him when Mr. Lincoln saw me; his countenance lighted up, and he said in a voice which was heard all around; ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’ As I approached him he reached out his hand, gave me a cordial shake, and said: ‘Douglass, I saw you in the crowd today listening to my inaugural address. There is no man’s opinion that I value more than yours; what do you think of it?’ I said: ‘Mr. Lincoln, I cannot stop here to talk with you, as there are thousands waiting to shake you by the hand’; but he said again: ‘What did you think of it?’ I said: ‘Mr. Lincoln, it was a sacred effort,’ and then I walked off. ‘I am glad you liked it,’ he said.”16
Mr. Lincoln’s greeting might vary – but not according to the social standing or age of the visitor. He had a special way of putting everyone at ease. A teenage employee of the Chicago Journal recalled the day in 1858 he first met Mr. Lincoln in the newspaper’s business office: “I happened in the business office of the Journal to see about an advertisement, and to my astonishment and awe, there sat Mr. Lincoln with his long legs crossed, telling a story to Mr. [Richard] Wilson, the manager, and three or four other men. As I came in, Mr. Lincoln saw me, and I suppose my face expressed a lad’s awe at meeting a great man so near at hand. He kept on with his story (which I was too nervous to remember) and actually winked at me in a pleasantly humorous way. To say I was at once delighted, embarrassed and happy is stating it mildly.”17
The story was told by a New York Times reporter about how the President reacted to one powerless youth who came to the White House: “Among the large number of persons waiting in the room to speak with Mr. Lincoln, on a certain day in November last, was a small, pale, delicate-looking boy about thirteen years old. The President saw him standing, looking feeble and faint, and said: ‘Come here, my boy, and tell me what you want.’ The boy advanced, placed his hand on the arm of the President’s chair, and with bowed head and timid accents said: ‘Mr. President, I have been a drummer in a regiment for two years, and my colonel got angry with me and turned me off; I was taken sick, and have been a long time in hospital. This is the first time I have been out, and I came to see if you could not do something for me.’ The President looked at him kindly and tenderly, and asked him where he lived. ‘I have no home,’ answered the boy. ‘Where is your father? ‘He died in the army’ was the reply. ‘Where is your mother?’ continued the President. ‘My mother is dead also. I have no mother, no father, no brothers, no sisters, and’ bursting into tears, ‘no friends – no body cares for me.’ Mr. Lincoln’s eyes filled with tears, and he said to him, ‘Can’t you sell newspapers?’ ‘No,’ said the boy, ‘I am too weak, and the surgeon of the hospital told me I must leave and I have no money, and no place to go to.’ The scene was wonderfully affecting. The President drew forth a card, and addressing on it certain officials to whom his request was law, gave special directions ‘to care for this poor boy.’ The wan face of the little drummer lit up with a happy smile as received the paper, and he went away convinced that he had one good and true friend, at least, in the person of the President.”18
President Lincoln could be equally gracious to the hundreds of women who visited the White House seeking favors or pardons for husbands, brothers or sons. One woman described him as greeting her “with the kindness of a brother…When I was ushered into his presence he was alone. He immediately arose, and pointing to a chair by his side, said: ‘Take this seat madam, and then tell me what I can do for you.'”19
Attorney and pastor Charles Caverno recalled the reception during Mr. Lincoln’s visit to Wisconsin during the 1859 campaign season: “A score or so of ladies came in. Mr. Lincoln greeted them very pleasantly and with ease of manner. Indeed, I do not see why Mr. Lincoln should have been called awkward and ungraceful. He was large and had to have room for his motions, but I do not see how he could have handled his great frame more gracefully than he did. Every lady to whom he was introduced received the token of a low bow and that indescribably sweet smile – the sweetest I have ever seen on the face of man.”20
The mobility of Mr. Lincoln’s face helped put people at ease. “All persons agree that the most marked characteristic of Mr. Lincoln’s manners was his simplicity and artlessness; this immediately impressed itself upon the observation of those who met him for the first time, and each successive interview deepened the impression,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks in the month after President Lincoln’s assassination. “People seemed delighted to find in the ruler of the nation freedom from pomposity and affectation, mingled with a certain simple dignity which never forsook him.”21
Three decades after the Civil War, Carl Schurz wrote an essay about Mr. Lincoln’s character. He said Mr. Lincoln’s charm “flowed from the rare depth and genuineness of his convictions and his sympathetic feelings. Sympathy was the strongest element in his nature.” According to Schurz, “As his sympathy went forth to others, it attracted others to him. Especially those whom he called the ‘plain people’ felt themselves drawn to him by the instinctive feeling that he understood, esteemed, and appreciated them. He had grown up among the poor, the lowly, the ignorant. He never ceased to remember the good souls he had met among them, and the many kindnesses they had done him. Although in his mental development he had risen far above them, he never looked down upon them. How they felt and how they reasoned he knew, for so he had once felt and reasoned himself.”22
President Lincoln did not forget his own humble background. He was an especial friend of working men and women. “As a laboring man, Lincoln was a friend of labor,” wrote biographer William E. Barton. “As a man who risen out of a condition of hard labor, he believed in ambition and aspiration for the laboring man.”23
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. xx-xxi.
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 455 (Leonard Swett).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 130Charles S. Zane, A Young Lawyer’s Memories of Lincoln.
- Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, p. 89-98.
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 440-445 (David B. Locke).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 239-240 (Leonard Wells Volk, Century Magazine, December 1881).
- “The Lincolns at Home”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, p. 91-92.
- Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Journalist and Financier, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 142-143.
- Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, p. xxxx.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 203 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
- Herbert Mitgang, editor, Spectator of America: A Classic Document About Lincoln and Civil War America by a Contemporary English Correspondent, p. 92.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 285-286 (William D. Kelley).
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 186 (Frederick Douglass).
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 190 (Frederick Douglass).
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 191-193 (Frederick Douglass).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 403 (John Hay, Century Magazine, November 1890).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 199 (Abram E. Smith, Woodstock Illinois Republican, February 12, 1909).
- Henry Raymond, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 740-741.
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 507 (E. W. Andrews).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 210 (Charles Caverno, Milwaukee Free Press, April 7, 1902).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 201 (From Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln,” Harper’s Monthly, May 1865).
- Carl Schurz, Abraham Lincoln: An Essay, p. 5-6 (http://members.aol.com/sofdisk/alaessay.html).
- William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 378.
Frederick Douglass (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)
Stephen Douglas (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)
Carl Schurz (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)
Leonard Swett (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)