Whittling was a common pastime for men in an era where most men carried a pocketknife and life moved at a much more leisurely pace.  Lincoln was among those who practiced this quaint hobby; there are recollections of him whittling as he listened to political and religious speeches, as he observed courtroom proceedings, and as he sat talking with friends. 

A recently unearthed letter from one of Lincoln’s Springfield acquaintances provides a charming anecdote of the future President’s fondness for whittling.

W.T. Scherr arrived in Springfield in 1847 as a young clerk in James L. Lamb’s store.  In this capacity Scherr saw Lincoln many times over the years and remembered him as “a jovial, full of fun man, a heap of jokes,” and one who was always whittling: “In court while most lawyers made notes, he with his retentive memory did not seem necessary to use these, but if could get a nice pine stick, soon had a nice pile of shavings about him.”

It was a mindless, relaxing habit, one that Lincoln engaged in with any piece of wood handy.  Occasionally this got him into trouble.  Scherr recalled: “Our counters were fine cherry, narrow beaded strips.  [Lincoln] was over 6 feet and sometimes would (if no customers by) squat on one, his long legs hanging over.  One morning he did so, out came knife, in moment he’d chip’d into a bead but I stop’d him, ‘Oh! Mr Lincoln this is our fine counter.’ He hopped off quick.”

It wasn’t the only time Lincoln carelessly destroyed someone’s property with this penknife.  Scherr related the following story in his letter:

“We got most our goods from New York and Philadelphia in large pine cases, one especial style called W case, being of uniform size.  The lid made of two pieces, tongue and grooved.  At that early day the farmers had but few barns or grainary, we sold the boxes for grain at $1.25, same as cost in the East.  The morning referred to Mr. Lincoln came, one [box] stood on pavement in front of store.  We took off the lids carefully and only tacked them on, leaving a small crack.  [Lincoln] passed ‘time of day.’ ‘How goes it boys?’ throwing himself at length, hips and elbow, left side on the box.

“The crack was too enticing, out came his knife chip came off one side of lid.  I told the two fellow clerks, ‘keep still, let’s see what he’ll do.’ Slap went a chip off the other side.  He then told us some of his yarns, until he had a hole cut into which could almost put a good size baby head. 

“I then exclaimed, ‘Oh! Mr. Lincoln look what you’ve done to our box.’ 

“He seemed entirely oblivious as to what had done. ‘Boys what do you do with these boxes?’

“I told him.

“‘What you get for them?’

 “‘Oh we get $1.25.’

“‘Well it will make kindling won’t it?’


“’Well, charge it to me, send it up to my house.’

“’I guess we don’t do that.  We can get anyhow $1.00 and you have entertained us enough for the difference,’ I said.”[1]

Lincoln continued his habit of whittling the rest of his life.  He even had a penknife in his pocket the day he was shot.  One wonders if the Civil War hadn’t kept his hands literally and figuratively full, if some of the chairs and tables in the White House wouldn’t have borne evidence of his knife.

[1] W.T. Scherr to Elliott, 8 February 1912, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Who doesn’t dream of finding another copy of the Gettysburg Address tucked in the pages of an old book at a flea market, or perhaps stumbling across Lincoln’s lost letters to his wife in a forgotten corner of a musty attic?   While it is reasonable to assume that all of Lincoln’s papers have been accounted for and there is nothing more to find, history suggests otherwise.  A tantalizing letter from Chauncey Black to David Davis written in 1870 raises the possibility that the Holy Grail of Lincoln studies – a journal kept by Lincoln during the Civil War – might exist, undiscovered.

Shortly after Lincoln’s death his law partner, William H. Herndon, started interviewing people who knew Lincoln.  He amassed a vast archive of letters and interview notes full of reminiscences of Lincoln with the intention of writing a biography of his dearly departed friend and mentor.  As Herndon described it: “I have spent…more than a thousand doll’s in getting the facts…I had advantages that no other man had or ever can have…Knew where to go – to whom to – what strings to pull, &c…the manuscripts are of incalculable value to any man who may wish to write a biography of Mr. Lincoln – no true biography can be written without them.”[1]

The biography was slow in coming, however.  Herndon’s fortunes took a turn for the worse after the Civil War and he found himself in dire financial straits.  Desperately in need of cash, he sold his precious manuscripts to another of Lincoln’s fellow lawyers, Ward Hill Lamon, for $2000.  Lamon also intended to publish a biography of Lincoln, and hired a man named Chauncey F. Black as his ghostwriter.

Black knew that David Davis was in possession of Lincoln’s personal papers, which had been packed up at the White House and shipped to Davis’s residence in Bloomington. (These papers now comprise the Robert Todd Lincoln collection at the Library of Congress).  Chauncey, no doubt relying on information provided to him by Lamon, wrote Davis asking for access to the papers.  In particular, he wanted access “to the Journal which Mr. Lincoln kept in sundry blank books during the whole, or at least the most critical part, of his administration.  Lamon thoroughly understands its character and value.  It is this which he most desires and which you have it in your power to furnish.”[2]

Needless to say, the implications of this letter to Lincoln scholarship are astounding.  Did Lincoln actually keep a journal during the Civil War?  Although he was an intensely private man and not known to keep a journal at any other point in his life, he did occasionally jot notes and lists down in blank books such as the one mentioned by Black.  It is entirely possible that he used such a journal as an outlet for the immense pressure placed on him by the Civil War.  Also, as historian Willard King pointed out, “Lamon’s assertion of its existence is entitled to weight – during Lincoln’s presidency no one but his family lived closer to the President than Lamon.”[3]

Davis, while unfamiliar with the journals in question, did not deny their existence.  He wrote to Black’s father: “the journal he speaks of is, doubtless, in the boxes, but I have no knowledge on the subject, for I did not superintend the packing of the boxes.”[4]

Lamon never put his hands on the journals, and neither has anyone else.  Their existence and location remains a mystery.  Did Lincoln actually keep such journals?  If so, what happened to them?  Were they lost in Washington D.C. during packing?  Where they lost somewhere in Bloomington while the papers were in the care of David Davis?  Did Robert Todd Lincoln remove and destroy them before giving his father’s papers to the Library of Congress?  The world may never know…but on the other hand, the world just might wake up one day to an exciting headline: “Lincoln’s Lost Journals Found.”

[1] William H. Herndon to David Davis, 20 February 1869, Davis Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

[2] Jeremiah S. Black to Davis Davis, 10 August 1870, Davis Papers, ALPL.  In Chauncey Black’s handwriting.

[3] Willard King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 275.

[4] David Davis to Jeremiah Black, 19 August 1870. Black papers.

In the winter of 1849-1850 the town of Boston was rocked by the murder of one of its most prominent citizens.  Dr. George Parkman belonged to one of the city’s wealthiest families and was personally rumored to be worth in the neighborhood of half a million dollars.  He was one of Boston’s best-known moneylenders and could often be seen walking the streets as he collected his rents.

The last time anyone saw Parkman alive was on November 23, 1849.  At 1:45 that afternoon a witness observed Parkman, clad in a purple vest and top hat, walking into Harvard Medical College.  He never came out.

Parkman’s family grew increasingly anxious as the days passed without sign of him.  They contacted the police and printed up thousands of fliers asking for information about him.  Then, on November 30, the janitor at Harvard Medical College made a grisly discovery: the dismembered remains of a human body, which had been bricked up in a wall behind the privy in one of the college’s dissection vaults.  The police were summoned, and a partially burned male torso was discovered locked in a trunk.  The coroner, with help from Mrs. Parkman, identified the remains as those belonging to George Parkman.

The main suspect in the case was Dr. John Webster, a professor at Harvard Medical College.  Deeply in debt, Webster had borrowed several hundred dollars from Parkman, using a collection of minerals as collateral.  Still desperate for cash, Webster also borrowed $1200 from Robert G. Shaw (father of the man who would one day lead Massachusetts’ 54th Regiment during the Civil War), using the same set of minerals as collateral for that loan, too.  Parkman had been furious when he learned of the collateral double-dipping and had gone to Harvard Medical College to confront Webster about it the day he disappeared.  

Webster was indicted for murder on January 26, 1850.  His trial began on March 19 of that year.  Because both the accused and deceased were prominent men in Boston, and because of the gruesome nature of the crime, the trial was sensational and generated massive interest in Boston and around the nation.  Thanks to the new technology of telegraphy, news of the trial was carried in papers around the country.  The newspaper Lincoln took, Springfield’s Illinois Daily Journal, was one of them.  On March 23, 1850 the Journal noted “a despatch from Boston, dated 20th March says – Webster’s trial commenced yesterday.”[1] 

Over the next two weeks the Daily Journal gave periodic updates about the ghastly trial.  A dispatch from Boston of the 22nd summarized the testimony pertaining to the identification of Parkman’s remains.  On the 27th the paper reported that “everything looks dark for Dr. Webster this morning,” as all the evidence seemed to indicate that the doctor was guilty of “a crime too fiendish for devils.”[2] On April 1st the Daily Journal described the trial’s closing arguments, which Webster listened to as “the perspiration rolled from his forehead in large drops, though he did not lose control of himself.”[3] Finally, on April 2, news came from Boston that Webster was found guilty and sentenced to hang.[4] John Webster was executed on August 30, 1850.

Lincoln was Springfield throughout the course of the Webster trial and no doubt would have read about it in the Daily Journal.  He might have had a particular interest in the case as an attorney who occasionally defended accused murderers.  It is clear that the subject of the Webster murder trial was talked about in the Lincoln home, because Lincoln’s seven-year-old son Robert took a macabre interest in Webster’s hanging.  The day after Webster’s death, one of Lincoln’s friends, David Davis, wrote home to his wife: “Poor Dr. Webster was hung yesterday.  It is terrible for his family.  Lincoln says that his little boy has been counting the days, that Dr. Webster has to live & Thursday he said that Thursday was the last night he had to live.  Rather singular that the event should so mark itself…on a child of seven years.”[5]

Two days later Lincoln, and perhaps the precocious Robert, read the Daily Journal’s account of John Webster’s last day on earth: how he breakfasted on tea and bread before ascending the scaffold with firmness; how only thirty people were permitted into the jail yard, but hundreds more watched from windows and rooftops; how a prayer was read and the prisoner was escorted to the scaffold, and finally, how at 9:40 a.m. “the last duty was performed” and “Webster died without a struggle.”[6]

[1] Springfield Illinois Daily Journal, 23 March 1850.
[2] Ibid, Springfield Illinois Daily Journal, 27 March 1850. 
[3] Springfield Illinois Daily Journal, 1 April 1850.
[4] Springfield Illinois Daily Journal, 2 April 1850.
[5] David Davis to Sarah Davis, 31 August 1850, Davis Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
[6] Springfield Illinois Daily Journal, 2 September 1850.

Abraham Lincoln was used to crisscrossing Illinois – the central portion of it, anyway – for his law practice, but in the late summer and early fall of 1858 his busy travel schedule grew downright hectic.  He was running against Stephen A. Douglas for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and his campaign schedule barely let up from the end of August to October. 

He was in a different town practically every day.  In addition to seven formal debates with Douglas, Lincoln made dozens of speeches on his own.  He especially liked speaking in a town the day after Douglas had spoken In September he wrote to William Fithian of Danville and told him he would be speaking there on September 22, the day after Douglas: “My recent experience shows that speaking at the same place the next day after D. is the very thing---it is, in fact, a concluding speech on him.”[1]

After a “fine and altogether satisfactory meeting”[2] in Danville, Lincoln traveled to Urbana, where he again spoke a day after Douglas, and then home to Springfield for a weekend at home.  On Monday the 27th he spoke in Jacksonville, and on the 28th left Jacksonville for Winchester.

While in Winchester, Lincoln stayed at a hotel operated by Robert E. Haggard.  Haggard, a 51-year-old native of Kentucky, had seven daughters who ranged in age from 9 to 26.[3]  One of these girls, 21-year-old Rosaline Haggard, was bold enough to approach Lincoln with a request that he sign her autograph album.  Evidently charmed by her youth, Lincoln wrote the following lines:

To Rosa---

You are young, and I am older;

You are hopeful, I am not---

Enjoy life, ere it grow colder---

Pluck the roses ere they rot.

Teach your beau to heed the lay---

That sunshine soon is lost in shade---

That now's as good as any day---

To take thee, Rosa, ere she fade.

Winchester, Sep. 28. 1858. A. Lincoln”[4]

All in all it was a kind of gloomy poem to write to a young girl.  Perhaps Lincoln had asked her if she had a beau or any plans to marry and Rosa confessed to a young man who was dragging his feet. 

The next day Lincoln addressed a crowd gathered at the Scott County Courthouse.  Before departing for Pittsfield on September 30th, Rosaline’s 19-year-old sister Melinda, or Linnie, also requested a few lines of verse from Lincoln.  As he had with Rosa, Lincoln obliged her with an original composition:

To Linnie---

A sweet plaintive song did I hear,

And I fancied that she was the singer---

May emotions as pure, as that song set a-stir

Be the worst that the future shall bring her.

Winchester Sep. 30 1858 A. Lincoln[5]

Rather less of a downer than the earlier poem, Lincon’s lines seem to suggest that Melinda had entertained the hotel’s company with her singing.

Autographs were a popular way for ever-sentimental Victorians to capture notes, poems, drawings, and sometimes even the hair of their friends.  The earliest surviving example of Lincoln’s signature in an album dates to February 23 of 1858, when he signed the first page of a book belonging to Henry Rankin, a law student in his office: “To-day, Feb. 23 1858, the owner honored me with the privilege of writing the first name in this book. A. Lincoln.[6]

Lincoln would sign his name to several albums as President of the United States, but never with the beauty and poignancy with which he composed his verses for the two Haggard sisters of Winchester, Illinois.

[1] Abraham Lincoln to William A. Fithian, 3 September 1858,  in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), III:85.
[2] Abraham Lincoln to Norman B. Judd, 23 September 1858, Collected Works, III:202.
[3] United States Census, 1850.
[4] Verses to Rosa Haggard, 28 September 1858, Collected Works, III:203.
[5] Verses to Linnie Haggard, 30 September 1858, Collected Works, III: 204.
[6] Abraham Lincoln to Henry B. Rankin, 23 February 1858, Collected Works, II;435.

Today Abraham Lincoln’s image is most familiar for two iconic traits:  his stovepipe hat and his beard.  He probably had been wearing the stovepipe hat throughout the 1850s (the hat at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum – one of only three in existence – bears a stamp from an 1850s Springfield hatmaker), but the beard didn’t appear on his face until right around the time he was elected President in late 1860.

Lincoln was under no illusions about his looks.  One story goes that when a political rival accused him of being two-faced, Lincoln dryly replied “If I had another face, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”  His homely looks were no problem when he was a relatively low-profile Illinois attorney.  When he became the Republican nominee for President, however, people all over the country were suddenly clamoring for images of him – they wanted to get a look at the man who would most likely be leading their country come November.

Thanks to advances in photography, printing, and lithography, it was now easier than ever to mass-produce images.  Pictures of Lincoln appeared on campaign buttons, banners, ribbons, pamphlets, posters, you name it.  And not all of his supporters were pleased with the results.

Most Lincoln buffs are familiar with Grace Bedell, the youngest Lincoln fan to suggest that his looks could use an overhaul. The eleven year old native of Westfield, New York wrote him a letter on October 15 hinting that Lincoln’s political outlook would be brighter if he grew a beard.  She wrote  “I have got 4 brother's 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.”[1] 

 Lincoln, at that time, read only a fraction of the incoming letters he received.  He employed a secretary to handle the flood of mail directed to him ever since he had captured the Republican nomination for Presidency, most of which were written by people either offering political advice or asking for a job.  Nevertheless, Grace Bedell’s letter somehow found its way into his hands, and Lincoln was charmed enough by it to write her a personal letter back.  He brought up the issue of a beard to the “dear little miss”: “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?”[2]

But Grace Bedell wasn’t the only person to suggest Lincoln grow a beard.  Campaign buttons and daguerreotypes featuring Lincoln’s angular visage were adorning the chests of Republicans everywhere, and these partisans were troubled by Lincoln’s sharp cheeks and thin neck, which no doubt attracted scorn and derision from Democratic observers.  Three days before Grace Bedell wrote her famous letter, a group of citizens calling themselves “True Republicans” took it upon themselves to write to Lincoln offering the very same suggestion:

To the Hon. Abm. Lincoln

Dear Sir

Allow a number of very earnest Republicans to intimate to you, that after oft-repeated views of the daguerreotypes; which we wear as tokens of our devotedness to you; we have come to the candid determination that these medals would be much improved in appearance, provided you would cultivate whiskers and wear standing collars.

Believe us nothing but an earnest desire that "our candidate" should be the best looking as well as the best of the rival candidates, would induce us to trespass upon your valued time

Your most sincere & earnest well wishers

True Republicans

 P. S. We really fear votes will be lost to "the cause" unless our "gentle hints" are attended to. T. R.[3]

The last photograph of Lincoln without a beard was taken on August 13, 1860.  Sometime after that, Lincoln visited his barber, an African-American man named William Florville.  As Florville sharpened his razor in preparation for a shave, Lincoln stopped him, saying “Billy, let’s them them a chance to grow.”  The first photograph of him with newly-sprouted whiskers was taken on November 25, 1860.[4] 

While Grace Bedell has generally been given all the credit for this decision, perhaps the truth of the matter is that Lincoln was being pressured from more than one direction to do something about his appearance.  His beard might well have been an early instance of a political public relations machine at work - "spinning" Lincoln's looks from those of a homely lawyer to those of a distinguished statesman.

[1] Grace Bedell to Abraham Lincoln, 15 October 1860, Detroit Public Library.
[2] Abraham Lincoln to Grace Bedell, 19 October 1860, in Roy P. Basler et al, eds., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 129.
[3] Anonymous to Abraham Lincoln, 12 October 1860, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection, Library of Congress.
[4] Lloyd Ostendorf, Lincoln’s Photographs: A Complete Album (Dayton, OH: Rockywood Press, 1998), 67.

Rebecca Pomeroy came into Abraham Lincoln’s life during the dark and unhappy period following the death of his son Willie of typhoid in February, 1862.  She was an army nurse dispatched by Dorothea Dix to take care of Mary Lincoln in her grief and Tad Lincoln in his own battle with typhoid.   Although he was not officially in her charge, the tenderhearted Nurse Pomeroy also provided comfort and encouragement to the President, drawing on her own experience with tragedy and steadfast faith.  In return, the Lincolns took an active interest in Pomeroy, her son, and her work at the Columbia College hospital.  

            Perhaps the most memorable instance of Lincoln visiting the sick and wounded troops at the hospital occurred on Sunday, May 18, 1862.  As she recalled in her biography, Lincoln took special pains to offer kindness, saying “Mrs. Pomeroy, I want to do something for you; what shall it be?  Be perfectly free to tell me what you want most, and if it is in my power, you shall have it,” to which the startled lady replied “If Mr. Lincoln would only come to Columbia College and see my boys, how much good it would do them!”[1]  Lincoln readily agreed.  He took with him Senator Orville Browning, who recorded the incident in his diary: “At 3 P M the President sent for me, and he and I rode out to the Hospital at Columbia College – Went all through it, and shook hands with and talked to all the sick and wounded”[2]

            In a letter written at the time, Pomeroy related the scene: “I was in my room at the time, and the surgeon in charge came and told me that the President would like to see me.  As I went to the door, lo and behold!  A great company of gentlemen were waiting for me to introduce them to His Excellency.  I was taken by surprise and did the honors of introducing him to all the surgeons, stewards, cadets, and the gentlemen that followed, as well as the nurses.  Then the Surgeon-General invited me to do escort duty to the President, by going all through the hospital, which I did, and then went out into the tents and performed the duty there.  The soldiers were called out by the officers, arranged in a straight line, and Mr. Lincoln, in his unpretentious way, with his hat off, shook hands with each one, asking his name and the name of his regiment and company. Such a scene will never be effaced from the memory of the soldiers as the lame, halt and withered came straggling into line at the unexpected beat of the drum.”[3]  Pomeroy even took the controversial step of introducing Lincoln to the hospital’s African-American kitchen staff.  Though several officers later expressed their disgust with Pomeroy’s egalitarianism, Lincoln reportedly greeted the help kindly, grasping their hands and asking their names.[4]

            The incident was commemorated in verse by a friend of Pomeroy’s, Mrs. E. J. Russell:

“A blessing on our President
Who came to see us all,
Best blessings on his care worn face
Is echoed from each hall. 

Yes blessings on our President,
From the over-worn & weary,
The desolate & comfortless,
To whom the earth is dreary. 

A blessing on his home & store,
Comes from the soldier hoary,
And from the man in middle life
The young man in his glory. 

To evry man, in evry words,
From fourth to lower story,
He gave the word of kind regard,
The “rebel” with the “tory.” 

A welcome had to all he gave,

Of every clime and nation,

The sable son, from off the wreck,

The “daughter” from the kitchen.


Blessings from the young & old,

“the nurse” hears without number,

As wrapping in the blanket folds,

They sink in peaceful slumber.”


            The poem is addressed to Mrs. R. R. Pomroy “through whom we received the honor of a visit from our President” and dated May 18th 1862.[5]

Rebecca Pomeroy’s relationship with the Lincoln family would continue throughout the war.  Lincoln’s assassination on April 14th ended the warm relationship between the woman he called “one of the best he ever knew” and the man she called “my dear friend, the President.”[6]  Pomeroy would return to Chelsea, Massachusetts, where she founded a home for indigent women and quietly lived out the rest of her days.  History would soon largely forget this woman, and she would become no more than a footnote in the story of Lincoln’s presidency.  In reality, however, she was a dear and trusted friend and confidant to both Lincolns who gave them strength through the darkest hours of the war.


[1] Anna L. Boyden, Echoes from the Hospital and White House: A Record of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomeroy's Experience in War-Times (Boston: D. Lothrop and Company, 1884), 93-94.
[2] Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, eds. The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume 1 1850-1864  (Springfield, Illinois: Illinois State Historical Library, 1925), 546.
[3] Ibid, 94-95.
[4] Boyden, 96.
[5] “Our President at C. C. Hosp.” by E. J. Russell, 18 May 1862. Rebecca Pomeroy Collection of the Winthrop Public Library, Winthrop, MA.
[6] Rebecca Pomeroy to Mrs. F, 2 May 1865, quoted in Boyden, 248.

By the summer of 1842 the United States was more than a year into John Tyler’s presidency, and both Whigs and Democrats considered Tyler a disaster.  They called him “His Accidency,” a reference to the fact that he had been unexpectedly elevated to the presidency when William Henry Harrison died a month after taking office in 1841.  Democrats didn’t care for Tyler in the first place because he had been elected on the Whig ticket.  The Whigs liked him even less: Tyler’s refusal to adhere to party policies got him kicked him out of the party.  In 1842 both parties were already thinking ahead to the next election.  The Whigs rallied around their leader, Representative Henry Clay, the clear frontrunner for the nomination.

The Democrats, by contrast, had no clear frontrunner.  Instead, half a dozen men had their eye on the presidential prize:  James K. Polk, Martin Van Buren, Lewis Cass, John Calhoun, James Buchanan, and Richard M. Johnson.  Of these six, former president Martin Van Buren had perhaps the best chance of a nomination, despite the fact that he had been defeated in the election of 1840.  To generate support for his 1844 candidacy, he planned a trip through the West in the summer of 1842 that would include stops in Chicago and Springfield.

 Illinois Democrats were beside themselves with excitement.  “Every one, male and female, rich and poor, wants to see Mr. Van Buren!” gurgled the Springfield Illinois State Register.[1] 

The Whigs, by contrast, were not impressed.  The Springfield Sangamo Journal gleefully reported news that Van Buren’s carriage had been upset on the National Road: “He was always opposed to that road, but we were not aware that the road held a grudge against him!”[2] while the Chicago American advised that Whigs refrain from showing Van Buren all but the most basic civilities.[3]

Abraham Lincoln probably had every intention of following this advice.  Goodness knows he was no fan of Martin Van Buren’s; in 1839 he delivered a blistering speech against Van Buren’s Sub Treasury scheme[4]; a year earlier, at a Whig barbeque, Lincoln had cried out “crucify him” when speaking of Van Buren.[5]  Nevertheless, by a strange twist of fate, Lincoln was drafted onto the Van Buren welcome wagon and wound up spending an evening of his life entertaining the man he had wanted to crucify four years earlier.

It seems that, on the way to Springfield, Van Buren’s travel was halted by impassably muddy roads some seven miles outside of town.  He and his companions had to put up for the night in the small town of Rochester, where the accommodations were terrible.  The Democrats were horrified – the aristocratic head of their party was stuck at a rustic tavern in the boondocks eating bacon and eggs.[6]  Determined to make the best of a bad situation, they decided to take the finer points of Springfield to Van Buren.  Accordingly, they departed for Rochester after having gathered the best food they could get their hands on - and Abraham Lincoln, the most entertaining man they knew.

Perhaps Lincoln agreed to go as a personal favor to some Democratic friends.  Perhaps he felt that any former President of the United States, regardless of party, deserved his respect.  Or perhaps he was simply curious to meet the man who had held the highest office in the land.  Whatever the case, Lincoln made the trip and for the first time in his life came face to face with a former President.

The evening passed in good cheer.  Van Buren entertained them with stories of the New York bar going back to the days of Hamilton and Burr.  Lincoln, having been “pressed into service” to entertain Van Buren, Lincoln “succeeded to admiration.”[7]  A fantastic storyteller, Lincoln pulled out all the stops and told his best stories. One guest at the party said that he had never passed a more joyous night.  Van Buren, the guest of honor, enjoyed himself tremendously in Lincoln’s company; his “laugh was ready chorus,”[8] and he later remarked that the only drawback to his enjoyment of the night was that his sides were sore from laughing at Lincoln’s stories for a week afterwards.[9]

The next day Van Buren rolled into Springfield and was greeted by a crowd of several thousand people, a procession led by the Springfield Guards, and a thirteen-gun salute by the Springfield Artillery.  Speeches were made, hands were shaken, and some were disappointed to find the ex-President “an open, frank, plainly dressed man” instead of a “dandy”.[10]  History does not record whether Lincoln showed up for these festivities, but it is likely that he did – after all, Democrat or no, Martin Van Buren had proved himself a man who could appreciate a good story, and tell one himself.

Postscript:  Van Buren was defeated for the Democratic nomination for president in 1844 by James K. Polk, who went on to beat Lincoln’s choice for office, Henry Clay.

[1] Springfield Illinois State Register 17 June 1842.
[2] Springfield Sangamo Journal 1 July 1842.
[3] Theodore Calvin Pease, The Centennial History of Illinois, Volume 2: The Frontier State, 1818-1848 (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1922), 275.
[4]Speech on the Sub-Treasury, [26] December 1839, in Roy P. Basler et al, eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1: 159-79.
[5] Vandalia Illinois State Register 19 October 1838.
[6] Charles Carleton Coffin, Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper & Bros., 1893), 122.
[7] Joseph Gillespie to William Henry Herndon, in Douglas Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 180.
[8] Osborn Hamilton Oldroyd, Matthew Simpson, and Isaac Arnold, The Lincoln Memorial (New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., 1890), 461.
[9] Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 74.
[10] Springfield Illinois State Register, 17 June 1842

August, 1844.  The presidential election between Henry Clay and James K. Polk was in full swing, and Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Springfield Whigs had a mission:

They needed to raise a pole.

The Democrats had already raised a pole a week earlier, and a crowd of appreciative ladies had come out to admire its size.  This would never do.  The Democrats certainly couldn’t get away with having the only pole in town.  So the Whigs set to work.

First they published an article in the Whig-leaning Sangamo Journal deriding the flag that topped the Democrat’s pole, as well as the orators who spoke at the pole raising, and finally the pole itself, implying that it needed to be “straightened.”[1]  Then they made plans to raise a pole of their own. 

It was the most spectacularly if unintentionally phallic symbol of a 19th century political tradition steeped in subtle assertions of masculine power: partisans would gather together to set up large wooden flagpoles, from which they would fly campaign flags sewn by enthusiastic local ladies.  This tradition has its roots in 1760s, when American colonists would raise “liberty poles” from which they would fly flags protesting the British Stamp Act and occasionally hang effigies of King George.[2]  The pole came to be known as a symbol of dissent against British rule, and then more generally as a symbol of liberty, freedom, and independence.  In the 19th century these liberty poles were co-opted by political parties to represent both that party’s commitment to the principle of liberty and that party’s political might.

The Whigs planned a meeting for the 3d of August and invited the entire county to witness the erection of their flag pole: “Let ever whig voter come.  Let the Ladies by their presence animate us in the cause of their country…Let them come from far and near, and they shall be welcome.”[3]

The 3d of August dawned bright and clear, and some five or six thousand loyal Whigs showed up in a festive mood to watch the raising of the massive ash pole.  All of a sudden, tragedy struck:  the derrick rigged to raise the pole collapsed, and John Brodie, who had been standing on it, was killed instantly. 

The party was immediately over.  As the newspaper reported, “the disaster threw a pall of gloom over the whole assembled multitude.  The arrangements for the day were abandoned.”  Brodie, a 42-year-old stonecarver originally from Scotland, was buried the next day.  The minister who presided over his funeral was the same man who had married Abraham and Mary Lincoln a year and a half earlier.[4]

Four days later the Sangamon Clay Club gathered to pay its respects to the late, lamented Mr. Brodie.  Abraham Lincoln was there; on his motions a series of resolutions were adopted mourning Brodie’s loss, cherishing his memory, making plans to commission a gravestone, and pledging to render assistance to the family of the deceased. 

In the end, the Whigs got their pole.  It was raised on August 24, in the midst of all the political hoopla so loved by our antebellum forbears: speeches were made, banners were waved, a flag was presented by the ladies, music was played and sung, and the whole evening was capped off with a fireworks display.[5]

A few days later the Whig paper could report with satisfaction: The Ash Pole erected by the Whigs of Sangamon…we believe to be the tallest pole, made wholly of ash, in the United States.  It is 214 ft. 6 inches in height.”[6]  If only John Brodie had lived to see it.

[1][1] Springfield Sangamo Journal 25 July 1844.
[2] Richard H. Thornton, An American Glossary (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1912), 536.
[3] Springfield Sangamo Journal 25 July 1844.
[4] Springfield Sangamo Journal, 8 August 1844.
[5] Springfield Sangamo Journal, 22 August 1844.
[6] Springfield Sangamo Journal, 29 August 1844.