The Women

“Our conversation during the Trip was Mostly concerning family affairs,” recalled longtime friend August H. Chapman of Mr. Lincoln’s journey to visit his step-mother in late January 1861. Mr. Lincoln said “she had been his best Friend in this world & that no Son could love a Mother more than he loved her.”1 There is little controversy over Mr. Lincoln’s love of his mother, but about Mr. Lincoln’s friendship for other women there has often been nothing but controversy. “Lincoln was a Man of strong passion for woman,” Judge David Davis told William Herndon. Mr. Lincoln’s conscience kept “him from seduction – this saved many – many a woman.” Most contemporary and scholarly opinions differ from Judge Davis’s.

“The consensus of Lincoln’s relatives and neighbors in Indiana, where he lived from ages seven to twenty-one, was that he was not much attracted to girls,” wrote historian Douglas Wilson in Honor’s Voice. ‘This was pretty much the reputation reported from his first years at New Salem, where he went to live when he was twenty-two.”2 According to Wilson, “Married women might provide Lincoln with congenial company outside the arena of courtship, but it was not without consequences.” Friends, such as Jack Armstrong, jested with Mr. Lincoln that he was having affairs with their wives.3

“Abraham Lincoln did not like women,” maintained psycho-biographer Michael Burlingame. ‘His stepmother, with whom he lived from his eleventh to his twenty-third year, recalled that he ‘was not very fond of girls,’ a conclusion supported by his stepbrother, who said that he ‘didn’t take much truck with the girls’ because ‘he was too busy studying.’ One schoolmate with whom he studied during his Indiana years, Anna C. Roby, testified from firsthand experience that Lincoln ‘didn’t like girls much’ and ‘did not go much with the girls’ because he thought them ‘too frivolous.’ Lincoln’s cousin Sophie Hanks, who lived with the Lincolns for several years during his youth, told her son that young Abraham ‘didn[‘]t like the girls[‘] company.’ Another of Lincoln’s cousins, John Hanks, who also stayed with the Lincoln family for many years, recalled that ‘I never could get him in company with women; he was not a timid man in this particular, but he did not seek such company.”4 But New Salem colleague J. Rowan Herndon suggested that the village’s women all liked Mr. Lincoln and he liked them.5 Burlingame wrote that Mr. Lincoln’s “attitude toward women in general was puzzling, especially his passivity in his dealings with them.”6

Historian David Herbert Donald observed that Mr. Lincoln “was extremely awkward around women. With the wives of old friends, like Mrs. Hannah Armstrong, he could be courtly, even affectionate, but he froze in the presence of eligible girls. At his store he had been reluctant to wait on them, and at Rutledge Tavern he was unwilling to sit at the table when a well-dressed Virginia woman and her three daughters were guests. Efforts of New Salem matrons to match him with a Miss Short and a Miss Berry failed completely.”7 Elizabeth Todd Edwards, who knew Mr. Lincoln before he married her sister Mary, said that Mr. Lincoln could “not hold a lengthy Conversation with a lady – was not sufficiently Educated &intelligent in the female line to do so – He was charmed with Mary’s wit and fascinated with her quick sagacity – her will – her nature – and Culture.”8

Mr. Lincoln appeared more comfortable in the social company of men. “When in company with Men & Women he was rather backward but with the Boys, he was always cheerful and talkative. He did not Seem to seek the Company of the girls and [when abou]t them was rather backward,” said an Indiana friend.9 Mr. Lincoln “always liked lively, jovial company, where there was plenty of fun & no drunkenness, and would just as lieve the company were all men as to have it a mixture of the sexes,” recalled New Salem’s James Short.10

Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “As a young legislator, he was, a colleague recalled, ‘very awkward, and very much embarrassed in the presence of ladies.’ A New Salem woman remembered that ‘Lincoln was not much of a beau and seemed to prefer the company of the elderly ladies to the young ones.’ Those more mature women included Hannah Armstrong, Nancy Greene, and Mrs. Bennett Abell, who were in effect surrogate mothers.”11

Even as a lawyer travelling along the Eighth Circuit, Mr. Lincoln could be awkward. Elizabeth Allen Bradner wrote that Mr. Lincoln was popular with women in Bloomington, but that in “another town on the circuit the old lady who kept the tavern always made a large bowl of custard for the middle of the table when the lawyers were her guests. Coming to the table on one of their visits Mr. Lincoln asked with a smile: “Davis, did you ever see anything keep like that? It looked just like that when we left last fall?’ Mr. Lincoln’s joke offended the old lady, and she made no more custard for the lawyers.”12

Mr. Lincoln admitted his social deficiencies. “The truth is I have never corresponded much with ladies; and hence I postpone writing letters to them, as a business which I do not understand,” he wrote Mrs. M. J. Green on September 22, 1860.13 Mr. Lincoln never “addressed another woman in my opinion, ‘yours affectionately,’ and generally and characteristically abstained from the use of the word ‘love,” William Herndon contended in his controversial speech on Mr. Lincoln’s relationship with Anne Rutledge in November 1866. “The word cannot be found more than half a dozen times, if that often, in all his letters and speeches, since that time. I have seen some of his letters to other ladies, but he never says ‘love.’ He never ended his letters with ‘yours affectionately’ but signed his name, ‘your friend, A. Lincoln.”14 And to one woman in Centralia, Mr. Lincoln said: “Howdo! Howdo! I don’t know how to talk to ladies.”15

“Political culture in Lincoln’s Illinois was a man’s world, and it was the world in which he operated continually,” wrote historian Robert McColley. “Lincoln learned quickly enough how to act in situations where he wished to act. The expanding but politically secondary world of upper-class women was of relatively little interest to him. He knew little of fashion, he declined to read novels, and more urgent affairs constantly claimed his attention.”16

But Mr. Lincoln’s story-telling appealed to male clients. Friend Abner Y. Ellis wrote that Mr. Lincoln himself discovered that “refined Ladies Could Never See Much of his humor.”17 Ellis observed him when he kept a store in New Salem in the early 1830s that Mr. Lincoln “disliked to wait on the Ladies.” Ellis observed that Mr. Lincoln was very shy around ladies and with a Virginia woman and her three stylish daughter stayed in New Salem for several weeks, Mr. Lincoln never ate at the same table.18 Still, wrote Ellis, he never saw Mr. Lincoln speak with disrespect about a woman.

“As a society man Abe was ‘singularly deficient’ while living in New Salem but he bore himself with a gentleman’s gallantry,” wrote psychobiographer Edward J. Kempf. “He never gossiped about ladies or circulated village scandal.”19 Mr. Lincoln’s behavior with women in New Salem was shy but correct. Historian William Lee Miller wrote: “Usually articulate, he had trouble talking in the company of eligible women, and made rather a point of becoming friends, as he moved out on his own in New Salem, with older married women – a domain of safety.”20 Mr. Lincoln “never indulged in gossip about the ladies, nor aided in the circulation of village scandal. For women he had a high regard, and I can testify that during my long acquaintance with him his conversation was free from injurious comment in individual cases – freer from unpleasant allusions than that of most men,” wrote William H. Herndon, his friend and law partner. “At one time Major [Samuel] Hill charged him with making defamatory remarks regarding his wife. Hill was insulting in his language to Lincoln who never lost his temper. When he saw a chance to edge a word in, Lincoln denied emphatically using the language or anything like that attributed to him. He entertained, he insisted, a high regard for Mrs. Hill, and the only thing he knew to her discredit was the fact that she was Major Hill’s wife.”21

Women were less likely targets for Mr. Lincoln’s humor than men – but they were not immune from his humor. Biographer Joseph E. Suppliger wrote: “Lincoln was fully capable of depicting women, or at least some of them, as ridiculous creatures. One day when the streets of Springfield were even more a muddy hog-wallow than usual, Lincoln and a friend amused themselves by watching a woman with flowing skirts and a fancy, plumed hat trying to make her way across the avenue by Hoffman’s Row. After initial success, she slipped and fell backward in the mire. At this point Lincoln quipped, ‘Reminds me of a duck.’ His companion, playing the straightman, inquired ‘How is that?’ Lincoln replied: “Feathers on her head and down on her behind.”22

Mr. Lincoln could be charming – especially as President. Actress Charlotte Cushman met with President Lincoln in 1861. At the suggestion of Secretary of State William H. Seward, she was make a request for a West Point appointment. She subsequently wrote Seward: “You advised my asking the President when, if I found him in a ‘pliant hour’ you would take care to keep the young man in your mind. When you did me the honor to present me, I was so completely taken up with him & his humor that I forgot my mission & came away.”23

Mr. Lincoln also had a keen sense of his own ridiculousness in his relations with the opposite gender. After his aborted courtship with Mary Owens in the mid-1830s, Mr. Lincoln wrote: “Others have been made fools of by the girls, but this can never with truth be said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance made a fool of myself.”24

Mr. Lincoln’s kindness toward women was as notable as his discomfort. Thomas P. Reep wrote: “When he was called upon to survey the original town of Petersburgh in February, 1836, he found that Hemima Elmore, the widow of an old friend who had been a member of his company in the Black Hawk War, had bought a little tract of land within the grounds to be surveyed and had built a home where she lived with her children. If the streets of Petersburg were to run straight north and south, a part of her house would be in the street.” Mr. Lincoln adjusted the street lines so they would miss the Elmore household.25

President Lincoln was a soft touch for women with a genuine case but was a hard case when it came those women who sought to manipulate him. Senator Lot Morrill recalled “that at one time when I went into the room to President Lincoln, there were two women from Baltimore there who had come to try to obtain the release and parole of a prisoner of war who had been captured, and was then confined at Point Lookout. One of them was the mother of the young rebel, and after detailing his alleged sufferings, wound up her sympathetic appeals with the usual finale of such interviews, a copious shower of tears. At this point the president, who had patiently listened to the recital, asked casually when and how the boy had gone into the confederate service? The mother with evident pride, quickly responded with the whole history: he had gone south early in the war, served in such and such campaigns, made such and such marches, and survived such and such battles.” At that point the President interjected: “And now that he is taken prisoner, it is the first time, probably, that you have ever shed tears over what your boy has done?” To the women’s silence, he said: “Good morning Madam, I can do nothing for your boy today.”26

Guard Thomas Pendel recalled: “One day a number of people were shown into the President’s office. Finally all left except two tall, gaunt Irish women, who were truly pictures of despair. They went up to Mr. Lincoln and said: ‘Howdy, Mishter President. We’ve cum to see yers, sir; to see if yers wouldn’t pardon our husbands out of prison, sir.’ This was said in whining, woe-begone voices, and well pretended looks of despair on their faces. ‘We would like to have yers pardon ’em out of prison, sir, so as to help support us, sir,’ they added, in wailing tones. The President sized them up. He was a great reader of human nature. Then, in same identical twang the Irish women had used, he said, ‘If yers hushbands had not been resisting the draft, they would not now be in prison; so they can stay in prison’. The two Irish women, without further words, turned away and left in double quick time.”27

Some Irish-American women were more successful. “A young Irishman, who was employed as a fireman on a railroad-train, had been, together with others, engaged in a riot, resulting from the draft; and his mother came to Washington to see Mr. Lincoln in his behalf,” reported journalist Lawrence A. Gobright. “She called, and waited at the Executive Mansion during three or four hours, several days in succession. She was successful in procuring an interview. Mr. Lincoln told her to call the next day; when she said that he had lost much time already, and besides, the porter would not let her into his room. ‘No difficulty about that,’ he replied; and he sat down and wrote a ticket of admission; and giving it to her said, ‘Present this at the door to-morrow, and you will be admitted.'”

She accordingly called the next day, when Mr. Lincoln, touched by the earnestness and eloquence of the old lady, inquired into all the circumstances attending the imprisonment of her son. He took immediate measures to effect the release – to pardon the rioter, much to the joy, of course, of the parent. And he said to her, if she, on her return home, would prepare the proper papers, he would pardon the other rioters. The woman was absent from Washington several months, and when she made her reappearance, Mr. Lincoln recognized her. The petition being in proper form, accompanied by the facts in the case, Mr. Lincoln extended the Executive clemency to the extent he had promised; and the old lady went away happy, showering blessings upon the head of her distinguished friend.28

Attorney General James Speed recalled how a woman came to the White House to see the President in July 1863 shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg. Her husband and her two sons had both joined the army – leaving her without support. She asked that one of her sons be discharged to return home. “I have two, and you have none,” muttered the President before he wrote detailed orders for the boy’s discharge. Several days later, White House doorman Edward McManus announced: “That woman, Mr. President is here again, and still crying.” She tearfully explained that she had followed the President’s instructions only to discover that her son had died of wounds suffered in the Battle of Gettysburg. Again, the President muttered: “I have two, and you have none.” And again, he wrote orders for the discharge of a soon. “And the woman, as if moved by a filial impulse she could not restrain moved after him and stood by him at the table as he wrote, and with the fond familiarity of a mother placed her hand upon the Presidents head and smoothed down his wandering and tangled hair,” reported Speed. “Human grief and human sympathy had overleaped all the barriers of formality, and the ruler of a great nation was truly the servant, friend and protector of the humble woman clothed for the moment with a paramount claim of loyal sacrifice.”29

Mr. Lincoln could be particularly hard on women of wealth and pretension. Pendel recalled: “One day a paymaster’s wife came in, very stylishly dressed, and said, ‘Mr. President, I would like my husband to be relieved at the front and some other man sent in his place.’ Mr. Lincoln looked up, and said, ‘Madam, I cannot do that. It would necessitate sending another paymaster in his place, so he will have to remain at his post.”30

Ward Hill Lamon noted that President Lincoln would scold some female visitors: “You would Kill me now if you Could – and still you are asking favors of me.” When they got up to leave, crying, he would have second thoughts and give them a pass, adding “Now if you go back South you will do some mischief – You would overturn the Government if you Could.”31 But persistence could pay off. General James B. Fry recalled a letter on which Mr. Lincoln had written: “On this day Mrs. ___ called upon me. She is the wife of Major ____ of the regular army. She wants her husband made a brigadier-general. She is a saucy little woman, and I think she will torment me till I have to do it.” Later, the woman’s husband received the appointment.32

Most women who came into contact with President Lincoln had relatively little acquaintance with Mr. Lincoln. Certainly, he had prominent female visitors – such as Quaker leader Eliza Gurney, black abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. But most of them came to the White House once or twice and then left. Then might be exposed to Mr. Lincoln’s wit – as when he supposedly greeted the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by saying: “So you are the little woman who made this great war.”33 Not all were impressed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton went to the White House with her husband and they “had a long talk with Abraham, he told us some good stories, he impressed me as a stronger & better man than I had from his official acts supposed him to be, but I am not in favor of his reëlection.”34

As President, Mr. Lincoln was isolated by the jealousy of his wife from much social interaction with women. According to Elizabeth Keckley who acted as seamstress and friend to Mrs. Lincoln, “Mrs. Lincoln’s love for her husband sometimes prompted her to act very strangely. She was extremely jealous of him, and if a lady desired to court her displeasure, she could select no surer way to do it than to pay marked attention to the President. Those little jealous freaks often were a source of perplexity to Mr. Lincoln.” 35

The jealousy of Mary Todd Lincoln certainly limited the potential of Mr. Lincoln to develop female friendships. There may have been some cause for jealousy as indicated by an incident early in the Civil War. President Lincoln visited the Army of the Potomac on in early April, 1863. On April 7, he visited General Daniel Sickles and the Third Corps. Sickles was apparently struck by the sadness of the Chief Executive and sought a way to lift his gloom. Sickles claimed he asked some women if to “make him more cheerful” they perhaps could “form a line of ladies and each of you give him a kiss.”

The only woman willing to plant the first kiss was Princess Salm-Salm, who worried that she was too short to reach the President’s face. According to General Sickles, “After I had formed the ladies in line, she went up to him, and sure enough he leaned down a little, and the other ladies followed her example with broad smiles and laughter. After that Lincoln was cheerful.” The wife of another General said that the idea for the kiss-attack came from the women themselves: “A glance from the Princess toward the ladies following in her train was all that was necessary. They quickly surrounded Mr. Lincoln, embracing and kissing him with eagerness and fervor, although it was not easy for them to reach up.”36

“As soon as he could collect himself and recover from his astonishment, the President thanked the lady, but with evident discomposure; whereupon some of the party made haste to explain that the Princess Salm-Salm had laid a wager with one of the officers that she would kiss the President,” reported journalist Noah Brooks.37 Princess Salm-Salm had married up – having graduated from farm girl to actress to circus-rider to the wife of a European noble. She accompanied her Austrian husband, who served as a Union staff officer.

Mrs. Lincoln was not happy when she was told about the kissathon by her tattle-tale son Tad. She blamed General Sickles, and was very cold when Sickles accompanied the family on a steamer back to Washington. President Lincoln, however, broke the ice by saying he had heard that Sickles, a notorious philander and admitted murderer, was very ‘pious” and “a great Psalmist. In response to Sickles’ denials, President Lincoln said: “Sickles, I have not only heard while in your camp that you are a Psalmist, but I have heard from the best authority that you are a Salm-Salmist.”38

In the amusement that followed Mrs. Lincoln forgave Sickles. The general subsequently recouped his status with Mrs. Lincoln and became a frequently visitor to the White House while recuperating from the amputation of his leg at the Battle of Gettysburg. Although Mrs. Lincoln strongly objected to any woman giving her attentions to Mr. Lincoln, she herself enjoyed and encouraged the attentions of many men who attended her salon in the White House Red Room.


  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 136 (Letter of Augustus H. Chapman to William H. Herndon, October 8, 1865).
  2. Douglas L. Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, p. 109.
  3. Douglas L. Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, p. 111.
  4. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 123.
  5. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 69 (Letter from J. Roan Herndon to William H. Herndon, July 3, 1865).
  6. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 314.
  7. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, p. 55.
  8. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 443 (Interview with Elizabeth Todd Edwards, ca 1865-1866).
  9. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 518 (Letter from David Turnham to William H. Herndon, December 17, 1866).
  10. Douglas L. Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, p. 109.
  11. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 124-125.
  12. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 122 (Elizabeth Allen Bradner, Bloomington Pantagraph, January 26, 1909).
  13. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 118 (Letter to Mrs. M. J. Green, September 22, 1860).
  14. Edward J. Kempf, Abraham Lincoln’s Philosophy of Common Sense: An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind, Volume I, p. 150.
  15. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Circuit, p. 37.
  16. Robert McColley, “Review Essay”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Summer 1996, p. 59.
  17. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 73 (Letter from Abner Y. Ellis to William Herndon, December 6, 1866).
  18. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 170 (Statement by Abner Y. Ellis, January 23, 1866).
  19. Edward J. Kempf, Abraham Lincoln’s Philosophy of Common Sense: An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind, Volume I, p. 112.
  20. William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues, p. 76.
  21. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 96.
  22. Joseph E. Suppliger, The Intimate Lincoln, p. 81.
  23. David Chambers Mearns, Largely Lincoln, p. 120-121.
  24. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 117 (Letter to Mrs. Orville H. Browning, April 1, 1838).
  25. Thomas P. Reep, Abraham Lincoln and the Frontier Folk of New Salem, p. 130.
  26. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 55 (Conversation with Lot M. Morrill, undated).
  27. Thomas F. Pendel, Thirty-Six Years in the White House, p. 17-18.
  28. L. A. Gobright, Recollection of Men and Things at Washington, p. 331.
  29. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 80-82.
  30. Thomas F. Pendel, Thirty-Six Years in the White House, p. 21.
  31. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 466 (William H. Herndon interview with Ward Hill Lamon, ca. 1865-1866).
  32. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 391 (James B. Fry).
  33. Charles Edward Stowe and Lyman Beecher Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life, p. 202-203.
  34. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 261.
  35. Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, p. 124.
  36. David Chambers Mearns, Largely Lincoln, p. 108-109.
  37. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time, p. 70.
  38. David Chambers Mearns, Largely Lincoln, p. 112.