Grace Bedell’s Letters to Lincoln – Part 1 More Than a Cute “Whiskers” Story

Statues of Abraham Lincoln Meeting Grace Bedell in February, 1861.

During the campaign of 1860, presidential-candidate Abraham Lincoln opened a letter from Grace Bedell, an eleven-year old girl from Westfield (Chautauqua County), in western New York.

And he was never the same.

As we know, Abraham Lincoln went on to unimaginable, historic heights, while Grace Bedell’s “moment of fame” became just a cute story in his legend.

But that view undersells Bedell. She’s more than that – much more.

This letter and another, that she wrote to Lincoln in 1864, actually show a politically savvy young woman with a drive to become economically self-sustaining. However, beneath the text of both, the tone is one of a girl/woman trapped by 19th Century customs.

This will be a two-part post. Part 1 covers Bedell’s 1860 letter. Part 2 examines her letter to Lincoln in 1864.

The Backstory

Most of us are aware of the story of Grace.

Her letter to Lincoln, 157 years ago on October 15, changed the face of American Civil War history – literally – and it led Lincoln to one of his many historic “firsts” – the first president to enter that office with a beard.

Lincoln responded to her letter five days later on October 19, 1860. His reply answered her questions of him, but it ended with a question of his own.

President-elect Lincoln Begins His Beard Nov, 1860
(Photo by Samuel J. Aultschuler)

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]

Despite his initial trepidation, Lincoln decided to follow Bedell’s advice, and a month later, in November, he began his iconic beard.

By the time his inauguration train made an unscheduled stop in the tiny village of Westfield, NY in February of 1861, Lincoln’s beard was in full bloom. He stepped from the train to meet his ‘Little Correspondent.’ [2]

President-elect Lincoln with his new beard in full February, 1861
(Photo by Christopher S. German)

She later recalled, He climbed down and sat down with me on the edge of the station platform. ‘Gracie,’ he said, ‘look at my whiskers. I have been growing them for you.’ Then he kissed me. I never saw him again.” [3]

Bedell’s first letter, retrospectively,  was a powerful agent of change that actually led Lincoln to several other presidential “firsts” besides his beard. Lincoln followed the political advice of an eleven year old, and he stopped his presidential inaugural train in Westfield just to meet and thank her – both unparalleled (and unacknowledged) presidential “firsts.”

But what does this letter show about Grace Bedell?

Her First Letter – 1860

Overall, Grace Bedell’s  most famous letter was very unusual for an eleven year old female or male in 1860 for several reasons.

Many children, especially girls, during this time were illiterate. Education was still a privilege of those who were financially well off. Also, since women were not allowed to vote, young girls usually ignored the political process, and they most certainly did NOT write fan letters with political advice to candidates running for president!

So, unusual from those standpoints, Bedell’s motivation for writing her letter further demonstrated her unique interest and her savvy understanding of the political process. It also indicates a creative, if not prescient mind for a child of that period. 

Here’s what prompted this famous letter.

Her father returned from the fair with a campaign trinket that had Lincoln’s and Hamlin’s faces framed by wooden fence rails. Enamored of the jugate but worried about its affects politically, Bedell decided to write a letter to this ‘great man.’

Oct 15. 1860

 

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. [4]

Her now famous suggestion to Lincoln of growing ‘whiskers‘ was an astute but unusual campaign idea for the times – no president from Washington to Buchanan wore one. However, Bedell understood that appearances played a role in political appeal. As she told him, ‘if you will let your whiskers grow…you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers…’ [4]

Though women were a non-voting segment of the population, …they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and then you would be President,’ she reasoned. [4] Her cute explanation of the potential effect of women’s opinions on the election of 1860 revealed the effect of women, as a passive demographic, in the political campaigns of the time. 

Women influenced the voting habits of the male members of their families more than politicians recognized at the time – even little sisters. Her recognition that she had influence as a political force was WAY ahead of her time. “I have got 4 brother’s and part of them will vote for you any way…I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you,”  she promised Lincoln. [4]

The letter also displays Bedell’s uncanny understanding of or instinct for campaign tactics.

Her pledge to “try and get every one to vote for you that I can,’ [4] recognized the importance of canvassing for local votes.  Besides her recommendation for changing his image on the campaign

This may be the campaign picture to which Grace refers in her letter.

jugate, Bedell even gave Lincoln an assessment of the campaign poster’s overall design: I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty.” [4]

In the 21st Century, there are entire businesses devoted to just those areas of campaign tactics that this eleven year old girl, in 1860, felt were important issues for her candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to understand.

At the end of her campaign advice, Bedell wrote:

…if I was a man I would vote for you to… [4]

The first five words ‘if I was a man…’ expressed the savvy understanding of her limitations as a participant in the American political process – and her desire to be included.

Summary

Grace Bedell’s 1860 letter to Lincoln paints a portrait of 19th Century politics from a woman’s point of view. It also discloses that little girls and women were definitely a potent, albeit passive influence on the election process. And, if nothing else, the letter displays a creative, prescient mind asking to be included.

But just a heart-warming story about “whiskers?” No, Grace Bedell’s letter is a far deeper commentary.

In 2007, a researcher discovered Bedell’s next letter to Lincoln. [5] In this, a more mature young woman provided Lincoln (and history) another candid insight – her view of the social and economic restraints facing intelligent, independent, single women of the times.

Food for thought.

Mac

Works Cited

[1] “To Grace Bedell – October 19, 1860.” Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln. v.4: p. 130. Retrieved Oct. 16, 2017 from https://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/lincoln4/1:186?rgn=div1;singlegenre=All;sort=occur;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=grace+bedell

[2] Pauli, Hertha Ernestine (1952). Fritz Kredel (illustrator). Lincoln’s Little Correspondent. New York City, NY: Doubleday and Company.

[3] “Woman Urging Lincoln’s Beard Passes in West.” Schenectady Gazette. Schenectady, NY: Daily Gazette Company. November 4, 1936. p.17 (col 3).

[4] The entire text of Grace Bedell’s Letter to Lincoln is found in “Annotation to Lincoln’s Letter to Grace Bedell – October 19, 1860.” Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln. v4: p131. Retrieved Oct. 16, 2017 from https://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/lincoln4/1:186.2?rgn=div2;singlegenre=All;sort=occur;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=grace+bedell

[5] Hadsall, Joe. “Writing to President Lincoln.” The Joplin Globe. November 6, 2007. Retrieved October 16, 2017 from https://archive.is/20130127114044/http://www.joplinglobe.com/local/local_story_309205053.html

 

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