EP 001: A Horrid Looking Wretch

EP 001: A HORRID LOOKING WRETCH Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What convinced Abraham Lincoln to grow his most famous feature? In this episode, we dive into the charming letters between the famous president and his youngest advisor. 

The 16th President of the United States is an iconic figure in the popular imagination. Born in 1809, Honest Abe is remembered as the man who kept the Union together through the American Civil War, and fought for the emancipation of slaves. A quick google search is enough to call up a list of achievements so long that even the most industrious among us begin to feel that we may need to spend a little less time Netflix-and-chilling and a little more time reading, writing, lawyering, and – if the 2012 action movie is to be believed – vampire hunting.

But no google search is needed for most folks to conjure up a picture of Abe’s most distinctive physical feature – the prominent beard that rather rejects his cheeks, and clings robustly instead to the determined line of his jaw.

Curiously, this was not always the case. Abraham Lincoln hailed from humble origins – a wooden cabin in Kentucky, where he helped his father plant corn and pumpkins. When a lawsuit challenged his father’s right to even this unassuming spot, the family uprooted to southwestern Indiana, where Thomas Lincoln – Abe’s father – hurriedly erected a small wooden shelter. By many accounts, this new ‘home’ had only three of the normally minimum number of walls, leaving the family exposed to wind and rain from one side, until something more permanent could be built. Many years later, the family undertook another move, this time to a new farm that his father had been able to acquire. Here, Abe decided that farming was not for him, and tried his hand at rail-splitting – the physically arduous task of cutting trees into logs and then logs into rails, which in turn, usually became fences. People commented on his physical strength, as well as the skill he showed in wielding an axe. The hardship and intense physical labour of farm life in the 1800’s led to many men giving up to nature when it came to their own faces. And fair enough – if you spend 16 hours a day fighting back the wild on your land, you might be rather less inclined to fight never ending battle of facial forestry.

Not so Abe. For most of his life, our well-bearded hero was actually completely clean-shaven. Even after turning his hand to the law, and whilst following the court by horseback or buggy as it travelled around to places too small and rural to have judges and courthouses of their own, Abraham Lincoln meticulously applied razor to chin.

As he became increasingly famous for his legal mind and political sensibilities, Lincoln’s contemporaries pulled no punches when it came to his appearances. Whilst running for the presidency in 1860, The Houston Telegraph described him as “the leanest, lankiest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms, and hatchet face ever strung upon a single frame”. The Charleston Mercury echoed the same idea, but wasted fewer words on it, contenting themselves with calling him “a horrid looking wretch.”

These exceptionally arbitrary criticisms of one of the great political minds of the day appear not to have cost Lincoln very much in the way of sleepless nights. But the sweet words of one Grace Bedell, herself only eleven, may have had far greater impact. Writing in her own, shaky hand, in 1860, this precocious little girl offered some heartfelt words of wisdom: 

Dear Sir

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 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will 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. My father is a going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to 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…

I must not write any more. Answer this letter right off

Good bye

Grace Bedell

Whether this was the final push Lincoln needed to give the whiskers a fair chance, we will never know. What we do know is that, shortly after winning the presidency, he instructed his barber to lay aside the razor and let the beard run its course. En route to his inauguration, Lincoln stopped off in Westfield to show little Grace his newest feature. Years later, she told the story.

“He climbed down and sat down with me on the edge of the station platform,” she recalled. “‘Gracie,’ he said, ‘look at my whiskers. I have been growing them for you.’ Then he kissed me. I never saw him again.”

The experience, presumably, was chaotic and overwhelming for the little advisor. But one imagines that she would have treasured the response that had arrived in the post several months previously. Whatever else we may remember about Abraham Lincoln, rail-splitter, lawyer, politician, and president, little Grace Bedell no doubt remembered only that the great man took the trouble to pen a letter back to an eleven year old, asking for her advice.

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.

A. Lincoln

1 thought on “EP 001: A Horrid Looking Wretch”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s