Mr. Lincoln was “always on the side of the weak,” said New Salem friend Henry McHenry. Mr. Lincoln was “Always on side of justice, with the weak ever,” said New Salem friend William Greene.1 “Speed, die when I may I want it said of me by those who know me best to say that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower when I thought a flower would grow,” President Lincoln told long-time friend Joshua Speed in February 1865.2 The President had just granted the request of two Pennsylvania women to free men who had been arrested for resisting the draft. Such acts of thistle-plucking were a signature of Mr. Lincoln’s behavior. Mr. Lincoln “was remarkably tender of the feelings of others and never wantonly offended even the most despicable although he was a man of great nerve when aroused,” said another long-time friend, Joseph Gillespie.3
Angry as he was with General George Meade for not following up the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 with a decisive blow at the retreating Confederate army, Mr. Lincoln declined to unload his feelings on Meade. He wrote a scathing letter to Meade but never sent it, telling former Secretary of War Simon Cameron : “Why should we censure a man who has done so much for his country because he did not do a little more?”4
Mr. Lincoln “had very great kindness of heart,” recalled another lawyer-friend, Leonard Swett. “His mind was full of tender sensibilities; he was extremely humane, yet while these attributes were fully developed in his character and unless intercepted by his judgement controlled him, they never did control him contrary to his judgment. He would strain a point to be kind, but he never strained to breaking….He would be just as kind and generous as his judgment let him be – no more.”5
Cousin John Hanks recalled: “Abe Lincoln did Carry a drunken man home one night to keep him from freezing.”6 Dennis Hanks disclaimed knowledge of the incident but admitted: “He was good Enough & tender Enough & Kind Enough to have save Any man from Evil – wrong – difficulties or damnation.”7 Another resident of Indiana at the time, David Thurnham, testified to the truth of the story. He said that he and Mr. Lincoln “were returning home from Gentryville [and] we were passing along the road in the night. We saw something laying near or in a mud hole and Saw that it was a man; we rolled him over and over – wake up the man – he was dead drunk – night was cold – nearly frozen – we took him up – rather Abe did – Carried him to Dennis Hanks – built up a fire and got him warm – I left – Abe staid all night.”8
The story is told in the Linder family about Mr. Lincoln’s kindness to his fellow attorney, Usher Linder. “Usher Linder was drunk. They dismounted from their horses and when they reached the house, Lincoln said [to Linder’s cousin Elisha]: ‘Lish, we are going over the Shelbyville to plead some cases and Ursh has been drinking heavy and is so drunk we can’t go any further. Help me sober him up.’ Grandmother asked Lincoln if they had any dinner. He replied, ‘No, Becky, we haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.’ Grandmother killed a chicken and fried it for dinner while Grandfather gave Usher strong coffee to sober him up. He thought he had succeeded, so they sat down to dinner. Usher reached for the plate of chicken, poured it all out on his own plate, and handed Lincoln the empty plate, saying, ‘Abe, have some chicken.’ Abe and my grandfather had to pour Ursh more strong coffee. After the meal they proceeded on their way to Shelbyville.”9
Mr. Lincoln’s compassion manifested itself whether he was on the road or at home. “Mr. Lincoln always took a thoroughly kind and human interest in all his neighbors,” wrote Philip Wheelock Ayres, whose family lived across the street from the Lincolns in Springfield. “My grandfather was for several years an invalid. On returning from a trip Mr. Lincoln did not fail to ‘drop in for a chat with Mr. Wheelock.’ Siting on the edge of the high porch, with his feet resting on the ground, he would talk over the political news of the day.” He said Dr. William Jayne related how a “Mrs. Dallman told him how kind to her were both Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln when she was very ill. Mr. Lincoln rocked the cradle of her child, and Mrs. Lincoln tenderly nursed the child at her own breast.”10
Republican politician James O. Cunningham wrote about Mr. Lincoln’s appearance at the Urbana fair grounds during the 1858 Senate campaign: “At the entrance to the grounds he was met by a committee of ladies and escorted to a seat at the head of the table supporting an abundance of barbecued food, at which particular seat had been placed the rest of the spread for the use of the honored guest. He took the seat prepared for him, while the long tables were assailed by his followers, and began eating his dinner. Looking around, he saw an old woman standing not far away looking intently at him. He at once recognized her as a waiter and dishwasher at the hotel in Urbana, whom everybody knew as Granny. Ayres said to her, ‘Why, Granny, have you no place? You must have some dinner. Here, take my place.’ The old lady answered, ‘No, Mr. Lincoln, I just wanted to see you. I don’t want any dinner.’ In spite of her protestations, Lincoln arose from his seat at the head of the table and compelled her to take his place and have her dinner, while he took his turkey leg and biscuit and, seating himself at the foot of a nearby tree, ate his dinner, apparently with the greatest satisfaction: meanwhile Granny Hutchinson filled the place at the head of the table and ate her dinner as he had insisted she should do.”11
As a teenager, John M. Bullock visited the White House in the winter of 1865 in search of a parole for his dying Confederate brother. While he was there, he observed a scene that demonstrated to him “Mr. Lincoln’s feeling of kindness toward others. Just as he was in the act of writing my brother’s order of release on that little card, his son Robert came in, full of enthusiasm over the good qualities of his recent purchase [of a horse]. He was leaning over the back of his father’s chair, and talking rapidly about his horse, when, suddenly remembering something he had forgotten to communicate, he said: ‘Father, Governor [Thomas H.] Hicks is dying.’ Senator Hicks was an ex-governor of Maryland, and had been very ill for some days. Mr. Lincoln paused in his writing for a moment, and said in very sympathetic tones, without looking up: ‘Poor Hicks! Poor Hicks! Robert, order the carriage; I must go and see Governor Hicks.'”12
Bullock later recalled: “Much has been said and written in regard to Mr. Lincoln’s character for kindness, his disposition to be merciful, his gentleness toward those in trouble, his leniency to those in distress, his clemency, and desire, when possible, to pardon those who were condemned to death.” But from personal experience, Bullock said: “Before approaching the President I felt a natural diffidence, not to say awe, of the man who was Chief Executive of the nation, commander-in-chief of the army and navy, as well as the man who held the life of my brother in his keeping. To a boy of fifteen this feeling was only natural. The closer I approached the great man, however, the less I feared him, the higher my courage rose; and before the interview was over I was as much at my ease with President Lincoln as if talking to my own father. The reasons for this are to be found in just the qualities of heart with which he is accredited, and rightly so, by all the world. No sooner had he laid his hand upon my shoulder and said, ‘My son,’ than I felt drawn to him, and dreaded less and less the interview he had granted me; and each successive question he asked me put me more at my ease, until, when I was alone with him in his private office, all my embarrassment vanished, and I saw before me the countenance of a man I could trust, one which invited confidence.”13
Frances Jacob Nickels was even younger than Bullock when she determined in May 1863 to assault the White House on behalf of her father, a Union veteran who lost his leg at Fredericksburg and been given an Army clerkship in Washington. His commander, however, had determined to get rid of the father because he liked the clerk’s predecessor. She told her father he should go see President Lincoln but he dismissed the idea. So the next morning she put on her Sunday best and walked to the White House and rang the bell about 7 a.m.. She told the doorkeeper: “If you please, sir, I should like to see the President.” He kindly explained that not only was she early but the President wasn’t taking visitors. She went to the reception room and awaited with scores of other military and civilian dignitaries who had business with the President. Ahead of the others, she was ushered into the President’s office. “Come this way, Sis; come this way,” said the President, who instructed her to sit down and tell her story. “My child, every day I am obliged to listen to many stories such as yours. How am I to know what you have told me is true?” She replied: “I’m sure I don’t know Mr. President, unless you are willing to take my word for it.” The President did, promised to investigate and instructed her to tell her father that he “can rest assured that he will either be retained in his present position or have a better one.” She returned home to tell her nonplussed father that the President had “told me to tell you not to worry one bit more….” Mr. Lincoln kept his word.14
On December 23,1862, Mr. Lincoln wrote a letter to Fanny McCullough which he signed “Your sincere friend.” The missive typified Mr. Lincoln’s legendary compassion which earned him the title “Father Abraham” among thousands of Union soldiers. It was written at the behest of David Davis, who was a good friend of the McCullough family:
It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common is such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.
Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.15
Judge Davis and Mr. Lincoln shared a profound compassion for the problems of others. David Davis biographer Willard King wrote: “During his first winter in Washington Davis had occasion to press Lincoln on a personal matter. In December he received news of the death in battle of Colonel William McCullough, who had been his court clerk in Bloomington. One of McCullough’s daughters was the wife of [Davis friend] William Orme; another, the lovely Fanny, had been, as a child, very dear to Davis and Lincoln. At her father’s death, Fanny succumbed to melancholia and her mind was despaired of. The news gave Davis inexpressible pain. ‘I love her as I would a child & believe that if I was at home, that I could do a great deal to lift her out of her great grief,’ he wrote. ‘I will see Mr. Lincoln again, & prompt him to write her. He promised the other day that he would.’ The President’s letter to Fanny McCullough is one of the finest in the Lincoln literature.”16
Kentuckian Mary Owens, to whom Mr. Lincoln once proposed marriage, wrote: “In many things he was sensitive almost to a fault. He told me of an incident; that he was crossing a prairie one day, and saw before him a hog mired down, to use his own language; he was rather fixed up, and resolved that he would pass on without looking towards the shoat, after he had gone by, he said, the feeling was eresistable [sic] and he had to look back, and the poor thing seemed to say so wistfully – There now! My last hope is gone; that he deliberately got down and relieved it from its difficulty”17 Lawyer Charles Zane said Mr. Lincoln had related the same incident, quoting Mr. Lincoln that “thinking of the loss to the owner and the cruelty to the animal, I did not feel satisfied and thought it would be wrong to leave the hog there to perish, and turned back and got out and pulled the animal from the mire to solid ground, then found some water nearby and washed my hands and drove one. My action seemed disinterested, but on further reflection I found that the act was done to regain my peace of mind, my own happiness, and was not entirely disinterested on my part.”18
Mr. Lincoln’s sympathy for those injured by the Civil War was legendary. But it was hardly a presidential development. Historian William Lee Miller observed that “Lincoln, man and boy, had unusually intense sympathy with the suffering of his fellow creatures: for lost casts mired-down hogs, birds fallen out of the nest, turtles with hot coals. This sympathy extended also, as is not always the case with animal lovers, to his fellow human beings: to the old Indian who wandered into the camp; the woman whose drunken husband beat her; the farm boy who is going to be shot for falling asleep on sentry duty; the coffle of slaves on the boat in the Ohio, chained together like fish on a line. This natural human fellow-feeling he found in himself must have been part of the reason he discovered in human beings generally a naturally sympathy for the slave – that is, for the human beings who are enslaved – that, he affirmed, would still be there even if the Declaration of Independence had not been written.”19
Perhaps it was the experiences of Mr. Lincoln’s days as a new resident of New Salem that caused Mr. Lincoln to have a special place in his heart for the otherwise friendless and powerless supplicant. Journalist Noah Brooks recalled: “Going out of the main-door of the White House one morning, he met an old lady who was pulling vigorously at the door-bell, and asked her what she wanted. She said that she wanted to see ‘Abraham the Second.” The President, amused, asked who Abraham the First might be, if there was a second? The old lady replied, ‘Why Lor’ bless you! We read about the first Abraham in the Bible, and Abraham the Second is our President. She was told that the President was not in his office then and when she asked where he was, she was told, ‘Here he is!’ Nearly petrified with surprise, the old lady managed to tell her errand, and was told to come next morning at nine o’clock, when she was received and kindly cared for by the President.”20
Presidential assistant John G. Nicolay recalled out a stranger inquired of President-elect Lincoln the directions to the State Capitol. Nicolay reported: “Mr. Lincoln was coming to his room this morning [and] was accosted by a stranger inquiring the way to the same place Mr. Lincoln offered, of course to show him the way, and airing there very much electrified the stranger by turning round and saying to him ‘I am Lincoln.’ He had no idea he was being ciceroned by the famous Rail Splitter.”21
Journalist Noah Brooks recalled how the President prolonged a visit to the Virginia front in April 1863 – visiting military hospitals: “The President, with his usual kindliness of heart, insisted upon going through all of the hospital tents of General Meade’s corps, and shaking hands with every one, asking a question or two of many of them, and leaving a kind word here and there. It was a touching scene, and one to be long remembered, as the large-hearted and noble President moved softly between the beds, his face shining with sympathy and his voice often low with emotion. No wonder that these long lines of weary sufferers, far from home and friends, often shed a tear of sad pleasure as they returned the kind salutation of the President and gazed after him with anew glow upon their faces. And no wonder that when he left the camp, after his long tour through it all, that a thundering cheer burst from the long lines of men as he rode away to the chief headquarters….”22
After a draining day in Mr. Lincoln’s office where a parade of woes and complaints were presented to the President ending with a particular poignant plea from the mother of an imprisoned man, Mr. Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed said, “Lincoln with my knowledge of your nervous sensibility it is a wonder that such scenes as this don’t kill you.” He acknowledged ill health and said, “But things of that sort don’t hurt me – For to tell you the truth – that scene which you witnessed is the only thing I have done to day which has given me any pleasure.”23
Historian William Lee Miller noted that through “development of a conscious mature discipline, Lincoln came to be unusually respectful in his personal conduct of the dignity and independence of the human beings with whom he dealt.”24 This respect would not only contribute to his friendships but also contributed to freedom for black slaves.
- Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (James Q. Howard Biographical Notes, May 1860)..
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 157-158 (Letter of Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, January 12, 1866).
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 181 (Letter from Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon January 31,1866).
- Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 354.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 165 (Leonard Swett’s letter to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 43 (William H. Herndon interview with John Hanks, June 13, 1865).
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 42 (Dennis F. Hanks interview with William H. Herndon, June 13, 1865).
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 122 (William H. Herndon interview with David Turnham, September 15, 1865).
- Charles H. Coleman, Abraham Lincoln and Coles County, Illinois, p. 115.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 85-87 (Philip Wheelock Ayres, Review of Reviews, February 1918).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 107 (James O. Cunningham, speech to the Fireland’s Pioneer Association, Norwalk, Ohio, July 4, 1907).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 361-362 (John M. Bullock, Century Magazine, February 1898).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 365-366 (John M. Bullock, Century Magazine, February 1898).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 543-547 (Frances Jacob Nickels, Good Housekeeping, February 1932).
- Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 16-17 (Letter to Fanny McCullough, December 23, 1862).
- Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 205.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 262 (Letter from Mary S. Vineyard to William H. Herndon, July 22, 1866).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 135 (Charles S. Zane, Sunset Magazine, October 1912).
- William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues, p. 364.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 207 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 6 (Memorandum, October 16, 1860).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 41-42.
- Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, (Letter from Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, January 12, 1866).
- William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues, p. 364.