Entire libraries could be filled with books about President Abraham Lincoln. Historians have rightfully praised his vision, intellect, humor, courage, and determination. Any study into the life of this extraordinary man would be incomplete without acknowledging that he was one of the biggest animal lovers to ever reside at the White House.
Lincoln’s compassion for animals dates back to his early childhood. Growing up in a place where the family’s food consisted of what could be raised or killed, he learned how to hunt while still a young boy. When he was 8 or 9 years old, he shot a wild turkey. Upon running to retrieve it, he saw it writhing and bleeding on the ground. The sight devastated the boy, and he was overcome with grief. He vowed never to hunt large game again.
Around the same time, he encountered a group of children who were torturing a turtle with hot coals. Young Abraham rushed in to defend the poor animal, with tears in his eyes, ready to take on all of the boys single-handedly, if necessary.
He later wrote about the turtle incident as an essay for school. Years later, in a political speech, Lincoln seemed to still be haunted by the memory of the mistreated turtle, when he compared tortured turtles wriggling out of their shells to crooked politicians wriggling out of their skins.
His love for animals was not limited to just the cute and cuddly ones. When his stepmother tried to kill a snake, young Abraham stopped her, saying, “No, it enjoys living just the same as we do!”
Taking on the cause of the littlest of God’s creatures prompted Lincoln to preach sermons to his family against cruelty to animals, reminding them that “an ant’s life was, to it, as sweet as ours.”
His compassion toward animals remained with him into adulthood. Once, when he was making a trip with several companions, they came upon some young birds that had been blow from their nest by a storm. Lincoln insisted upon stopping the journey for as long as it would take to collect the birds and locate their nest. While his companions laughed at him, Lincoln found their home and carefully returned the birds to safety. and chided him for delaying them as Lincoln searched the area for the young bird’s home. “I could not have slept tonight,” he told them, “if I had not saved those birds. Their cries would have rung in my ears.”
On another occasion, Lincoln was walking to a dinner party, dressed in his only suit. He saw a pig stuck deep in the mud, almost drowning. He didn’t want to ruin his clothes, so he kept walking. He gave one last look over his shoulder, however, and made eye contact with the poor creature. As Lincoln described it, the pig’s eyes seemed to be saying, “There now, my last hope is gone.” Lincoln’s clean suit lost the battle with his conscience, and he turned around and waded into the mud to free the pig. He was a little late to the dinner party, and he showed up in a muddy suit. He was satisfied, however, that the delay and the dirt were worth it.
The man who would be forever remembered as the Great Emancipator considered care for animals as an essential part of his character. “I care not for a man’s religion,” he once stated, “whose cat or dog is not the better for it… I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”
Among the animals that were fortunate enough to become members of the Lincoln family were dogs, cats, horses, turkeys, rabbits, pigs, and a goat. His dog Fido outlived the President but ended up sharing his fate when he was assassinated.
Lincoln carried his love of animals to the White House. He apparently found cats to be particularly calming. A friend recalled, “He would take one and turn it on its back and talk to it for an hour at a time.” Because of this love of cats, Secretary of State William Seward presented President Lincoln with two kittens as a gift early in his administration in August 1861.
Mary Todd Lincoln did not share the same exuberance toward animals as did her husband. One time, while dining at the White House, the First Lady was horrified to see the President feed his cat Tabby with a gold fork. She reprimanded Lincoln for using such an expensive utensil to feed a cat. He calmly responded, “If a gold fork was good enough for [former President James] Buchanan, it’s good enough for Tabby.”
Being the pet of the President of the United States certainly had its perks. Jip, the White House dog, was accustomed to having lunch with the President each day. “Jip was always in Mr. Lincoln’s lap to claim his portion first,” said a White House servant. “He was caressed and petted through the whole meal.”
When the White House stable caught fire, Lincoln was among the first on the scene. When he learned that six horses had burned to death in the fire, Lincoln reportedly openly wept.
When Lincoln was preparing to move to Washington, D.C. to assume the duties of the presidency, he had to say goodbye to an old friend. “Old Bob” was a driving horse he had acquired while practicing law. Old Bob transported Lincoln to handle cases throughout Illinois. Lincoln sold Old Bob to John Flynn, a Springfield deliveryman. By 1865, Old Bob had retired and was put out to pasture. He came out of retirement, however, to pay his final respects to his former master. Draped with a black mourning blanket trimmed with silver fringe and tassels, Old Bob took a place of honor in Lincoln’s funeral procession, immediately behind the hearse and in front of the carriage carrying Robert Todd Lincoln.
A good children’s book that illustrates the deep affection our 16th President had for animals is Abe Lincoln Loved Animals by Ellen Jackson. We recommend it with the caveat that as much as Lincoln loved animals, he also absolutely hated being called “Abe.”