Abraham Lincoln is one of the most-recognized figures in history. If you ask anyone to describe him, inevitably you will hear that he was tall, wore a stovepipe hat, and had a beard. Of those, the beard is the one that seems the most memorable.
The beard for which he would be remembered did not come along until late in his life. In fact, for 51 of his 56 years, he was clean-shaven. The suggestion for him to grow history’s most famous came from a most unexpected political advisor.
On October 15, 1860, an 11-year-old girl by the name of Grace Bedell sat down and wrote a letter to the Republican nominee for President of the United States. She said that Lincoln’s narrow face would be more attractive if he would grow a beard. In her letter, (original spelling and punctuation retained) she explained:
My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin’s. I am a little girl only eleven years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brothers 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 husbands to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you too but I will try and get every one to vote for you that I can. I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty. I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct to Grace Bedell Westfield Chatauque County New York. I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye. Grace Bedell
Lincoln received the letter and sent a reply to her on October 19. He wrote:
My dear little Miss.
Your very agreeable letter of the 15th. is received.
I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters. I have three sons — one seventeen, one nine, and one seven, years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family.
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?
Your very sincere well-wisher
Although he seems to have discounted the advice out of fear that people would call it “a piece of silly affection,” the letter appears to have made an impact on his thinking. Shortly after responding to the little girl, Lincoln started to let his facial hair grow. When he was photographed a little more than a month later, he had a full beard.
Whether Lincoln’s beard made any difference in the election of 1860 is doubtful. It did influence the creation of one of the world’s best-selling board games (as detailed in this article). By the time he arrived in Washington, D.C. to assume the presidency, Lincoln’s beard was already on track to become an inseparable part of his image. It also changed the appearance of politics for generations. Prior to Lincoln, no president had a beard. After Lincoln, only two presidents (Andrew Johnson and William McKinley) were clean-shaven for nearly fifty years, with all but Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft sporting full beards.
On his way to Washington, Lincoln made a stop in Westfield, New York, and used the occasion to meet and thank his pen pal. He spoke to the assembled crowd, thanking them for their support. Then, according to a newspaper account:
At the close of his speech [Mr. Lincoln] said: “During the campaign last Fall I received a letter from this place — and a very pretty letter it was too. It was written by a young girl whose name, if I remember rightly, was Bedell. Among many other things in that letter was a recommendation that I should let my whiskers grow, and it would improve my appearance. It was partly from that suggestion that I have done so. If that young lady is in this crowd I should very much like to see her.” An exceedingly pretty young girl, probably about fourteen or fifteen years old, was at once pointed out by bystanders, and a passage was soon cleared for her. She came forward, modestly. Mr. Lincoln stepped down from the car, advanced to meet her, and gave her a couple of hearty kisses.
Grace later recalled that he shook her hand and said, “You see? I let these whiskers grow for you.”
Although that would be the last time Lincoln and Bedell met, it would not be the final interaction. Four years after suggesting that he grow a beard, Grace again wrote to the president. This time, it wasn’t for advice; she needed a favor (original spelling and punctuation retained):
After a great deal of forethought on the subject I have concluded to address you, asking your aid in obtaining a situation. Do you remember before your election receiving a letter from a little girl residing at Westfield in Chautauque Co. advising the wearing of whiskers as an improvement to your face. I am that little girl grown to the size of a woman. I believe in your answer to that letter you signed yourself. “Your true friend and well-wisher.” Will you not show yourself my friend now.
My Father during the last few years lost nearly all his property, and although we have never known want.
I feel that I ought and could do something for myself. If I only knew what that “something” was. I have heard that a large number of girls are employed constantly and with good wages at Washington cutting Treasury notes and other things pertaining to that Department.
Could I not obtain a situation ther? I know I could if you would exert your unbounded influences a word from you would secure me a good paying situation which would at least enable me to support myself if not to help my parents, this, at present – is my highest ambition. My parents are ignorant of this application to you for assistance.
If you require proof of my family’s respectability. I can name persons here whose names may not be unknown to you. We have always resided here excepting the two years we were at Westfield.
I have addressed one letter to you before, pertaining to this subject, but receiving no answer I chose rather to think you had failed to recieve it, not believing that your natural kindness of heart of which I have heard so much would prompt you to pass it by unanswered.
Direct to this place.
Grace G. Bedell
Unlike her first letter, this one did not generate a response from Lincoln. Given his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief at this crucial time in the Civil War, it is unlikely that the president saw Bedell’s correspondence. If he had seen it, one can’t help but wonder if the Great Emancipator would have been moved to respond to his pen pal’s plea for independence.
Facial hair used to be important in Russia. No, you don’t understand. It was REALLY important! We know this because of the Russkaya Pravda (Rus’ Justice or Rus’ Truth), one of the primary sources of Old Russian Law. It dates back to the 12th century and was designed to protect Russian beards and mustaches.
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