“My opponent has called me two-faced. I ask you, ladies and gentleman, if I had two faces do you think I would have chosen this one?” -Abraham Lincoln, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates
Tall, gangly, with a face that he himself described as “homely,” Abe Lincoln, our 16th and (I would argue) greatest president, cared little about his personal appearance except as a source of self-deprecating humor. So people became curious when, during his campaign for president in 1860, he suddenly grew a beard, having been clean-shaven all his life.
The idea was not his, but that of a young girl from Westfield, New York, who wrote the Republican candidate a letter this week (Oct. 15) in 1860 suggesting that he would have a better chance of being elected president if he grew a beard. The girl’s name was Grace Bedell, and having seen pictures of Lincoln on a campaign poster, she thought Lincoln’s face was too thin. “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s [sic] to vote for you and then you would be President,” she advised the candidate, adding that if he grew a beard she would convince her brothers to vote for Lincoln as well.
The letter, which he received at his home in Springfield, Illinois, greatly amused Lincoln, who promptly responded with his own letter. Since he’d never had whiskers, he wrote Grace, wouldn’t growing them now seem a “silly affectation?”
Affectation or not, Lincoln began growing a beard soon after, and as it happened, during the journey to Washington to assume the presidency, Lincoln’s train stopped at Westfield for an impromptu rally. Learning that Grace Bedell was in the crowd of well-wishers, the full-bearded Lincoln reportedly greeted her by saying, “You see, Grace, I let my whiskers grow for you.”
Lincoln kept his beard until the day he died, and it is the bearded Lincoln who graces the five-dollar bill and penny, and who watches over the nation’s capital from the Lincoln Memorial. Indeed, thanks to Grace Bedell it is the bearded Lincoln who is the most recognized American political figure in the world.
Which prompts a few musings. First, how styles have changed. No president has had facial hair since William Taft in 1913, and today it would be considered a political liability. Second, how civil and political rights have changed. The ladies would “tease their husband’s to vote” because, being females, legally they could not. And finally, how postal service has changed. Lincoln’s reply to Grace was written on October 19, meaning that — way back in 1860 — her letter, written on the 15th, traveled all the way from New York to Illinois in just four days.