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They Knew Lincoln

edited by Diana Loski

(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

In the 152 years since the world lost Abraham Lincoln, it seems that history remembers the 16th President chiefly for the terrible war over which he presided and the tragic and tumultuous manner in which he died. He was nevertheless a brilliant and thoughtful man who adhered deeply to principle. There were many who knew him – although few knew him well. A private man who had many melancholy moments but rose above them to lead a broken nation in spite of the horrors of war which were blamed on him – here are the memories of some who claimed an acquaintance with Abraham Lincoln:

He was not peculiar or eccentric, and yet a shrewd observer would have seen that he was decidedly unique and original. Although imbued with a marked dislike for manual labor, it cannot be said of him that he was indolent. From a mental standpoint he was one of the most energetic men of his day.” 1   – William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield


“He loved animals generally and treated them kindly.” 2 – Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, Lincoln’s stepmother

“As he shot up [in growth], he seemed to change in appearance and action. Although quick-witted and ready with an answer, he began to exhibit deep thoughtfulness, and was so often lost in studied reflection we could not help noticing the strange turn in his actions. He disclosed rare timidity and sensitiveness, especially in the presence of women, and although cheerful enough in the presence of the boys, he did not appear to seek our company as earnestly as before.” 3 – Indiana childhood friend David Turnham

“His favorite place of study was a wooded knoll near New Salem, where he threw himself under a wide-spreading oak, and expansively made a reading desk of the hillside. Hàere he would pore over Blackstone day after day, shifting his position as the sun rose and sank, so as to keep in the shade, and utterly unconscious of everything but the principles of common law. People went by, and he took no account of them; the salutations of acquaintances were returned with silence, or a vacant stare; and altogether the manner of the absorbed student was not unlike that of one distraught.” 4 – Squire Godbey

"In 1837…Mr. Lincoln obtained a license to practice law. He lived fourteen miles in the country, and had ridden into town on a borrowed horse, with no earthly goods but a pair of saddle bags, two or three law books, and some clothing which he had in the saddle bags. He came into my store…set his saddle bags on the counter, and asked me what the furniture for a single bedstead would cost. I took slate and pencil, and made calculation, and found the sum…would amount to seventeen dollars in all. Said he, ‘It is probably cheap enough; but I want to say that cheap as it is I have not money to pay. But if you will credit me until Christmas, and my experiment here as a lawyer is a success, I will pay you then. If I fail in that I will probably never be able to pay you at all.’ The tone of his voice was so melancholy that I felt for him. I looked up at him and I thought then as I think now, that I never saw so gloomy and melancholy a face.” 5 – Joshua Speed

“The fall after his arrival at New Salem, Lincoln was a neighbor of mine, and performed many kind acts during a time that sickness was prevailing in the neighborhood. At one time my own family, consisting of nine persons, were all sick except myself. I was unable for several weeks to do any work, and we were without means and in much distress. I was walking past Lincoln’s boarding house one day when he came out and asked me about my family. I told him my little girl was dead. He appeared much affected. When I came back he handed me ten dollars, probably all the money he had in the world.” 6 – Mentor Graham

“He would listen and gaze on her [Mary Todd, his future wife] as if drawn by some superior power. He…scarcely said a word…he could not hold a lengthy conversation with a lady – was not sufficiently educated and intelligent in the female line to do so.” 7 – Elizabeth Edwards

“He was in the habit, when at home on Sunday, of bringing his two boys, Willie and Thomas – or Tad – down to the office to remain while his wife attended church. He seldom accompanied her there. The boys were absolutely unrestrained in their amusement. If they pulled down all the books from the shelves, bent the points of all the pens, overturned inkstands, scattered law papers all over the floor, or threw the pencils in the spittoon, it never disturbed the serenity of their father’s good nature. Frequently absorbed in thought, he never observed their mischievous but destructive pranks – as his unfortunate partner did.” 8 – William Herndon

“His skin was shriveled and yellow. His shoes, when he had any, were low. He wore buckskin breeches, a linsey-woolsey shirt and a cap made from the skin of a squirrel or coon. His breeches were baggy, and lacked by several inches meeting the tops of his shoes, thereby exposing his shinbone, sharp, blue, and narrow.” 9 – childhood friend Katie Roby

The following quote alludes to the likely illegitimacy of his mother’s birth, the child of the unmarried Lucy Hanks. According to Herndon, Lincoln’s maternal grandfather was a wealthy Virginia planter:

“Lincoln seemed to be painfully impressed with the extreme poverty of his early surroundings, and the utter absence of all romantic and heroic elements. He communicated some facts to me concerning his ancestry, which he did not wish to have published then, and which I have never spoken of or alluded to...'Why Scripps,’ said he, ‘it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of me or my early life.” 10 – J.L. Scripps

“He was never ashamed so far as I know, to admit his ignorance upon any subject, or the meaning of any word, no matter how ridiculous it might make him appear.” 11 – Joshua Speed

“Lincoln’s power of memory was certainly very great; if he had been by any casualty deprived of his sight, his own memory would have supplied him with an ample and varied library. He used to say that it was no evidence of his partiality for a bit of literature that he remembered it for a long time. For example, he once recited to me a long and doleful ballad, the production of a rural Kentucky bard…and when he had finished, he added, with a deprecatory laugh, ‘I don’t believe I have thought of that before for forty years.’” 12 – Noah Brooks, Journalist.

“Mr. Lincoln says that he must laugh sometimes or he would surely die.” 13 – White House staffer William O. Stoddard

“Probably no family that ever lived in the Executive Mansion was so irregular in its methods of living as were the Lincolns…When Mrs. Lincoln, whom he always addressed by the old-fashioned title of ‘Mother’, was absent from the home, the President would appear to forget that food and drink were needful for his existence…On one such occasion, I remember, he asked me to come in and take breakfast with him, as he had some questions to ask. He was evidently eating without noting what he ate; and when I remarked that he was different from most Western men in his preference for milk for breakfast, he said, eyeing his glass of milk with surprise, as if he had not before noticed what he was drinking, ‘Well, I do prefer coffee in the morning, but they don’t seem to have sent me in any.’ Who ‘they’ were I could only guess.” 14 – Noah Brooks

“For I well know how deeply grieved the President feels over any coolness of mine…fortunately for both my Husband and myself…our lives have been eminently peaceful [in marriage].” 15 – Mary Todd Lincoln

“Mr. Lincoln had in his great heart no place for uncharitableness or suspicion; which accounts for his singular indifference to the numberless cautions so earnestly and persistently pressed by friends upon him who knew the danger to which he was hourly exposed.” 16 – Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard.

“Whatever may be the impression entertained generally of the mental characteristics of Mr. Lincoln, one fact begins to be displayed most strikingly in every important aspect of his official career. His strong common sense guards him from all extravagance, and his wonderful intuitive knowledge of the feeling and wish of the people is at once the cause and justification of the fullest public confidence. It is derived from many sources: his humble origins and early struggles – his daily intercourse with all classes in the laborious pursuit of his profession – his purity of purpose and earnest democracy of sentiment.” 17 – John Hay

“As [George] Washington’s name grows brighter with time, so it will be with Lincoln’s. A century from today that [2nd] Inaugural will be read as one of the most sublime utterances ever spoken by man. Washington is the great man of the era of the Revolution. So will Lincoln be of his, but Lincoln will reach the higher position in history.” 18 – William H. Seward

“At the White House all was solemn and sad. We saw Lincoln’s boy [Tad] standing at the foot of the stairs. He had been looking out the window. ‘Oh, Mr. Welles,’ he said, ‘who killed my father?’ Neither Speed nor myself could restrain our tears.” 19 – Gideon Welles

It is important to remember as we study those who influenced our history, that Abraham Lincoln was just a man, and yet for all his eccentricities, flaws, and sorrowful beginnings, he remains an amazing example as to how to rise above it all, and do something unforgettable – just as he did – as those who knew him best have attested.

Sources: Boritt, Gabor, ed. The Lincoln Enigma . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Brooks, Noah. Washington D.C. in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era . Edited by Herbert Mitgang. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1971 (reprint, originally published in 1958). Burlingame, Michael, ed. Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press . Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997. Burlingame, Michael and John R. Turner Ettinger, editors. Inside the Lincoln White House: The Complete Civil War Papers of John Hay . Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997. Conroy, James B. Our One Common Country . Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2014. Garrison, Webb. Curiosities of the Civil War . Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1994. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln . New York: Simon &Schuster, 2005. Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln . Edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006 (Reprint, originally published in 1889). Lamon, Ward Hill. Recollections of Abraham Lincoln . Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1994 (Reprint, originally published in 1895 by A.C. McClurg and Company). Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln . New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War YearsAbraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years . New York: Galahad Books, 1993 (Reprint, originally published in 1954). Warren, Louis A. Lincoln’s Youth: Indiana Years . Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2002 (Reprint, originally published in 1959). Wilson, Rufus Rockwell. Intimate Memories of Lincoln . London: Forgotten Books, 2017 (Reprint, first published in 1893).

End Notes:

1. Herndon, p. 40.

2. Warren, p. 38.

3. Herndon, p. 29.

4. Sandburg, p. 33.

5. Wilson and Davis, pp. 589-590. Joshua Speed was likely Lincoln’s closest friend.

6. Boritt, p. 25.

7. Oates, p. 53.

8. Herndon, pp. 257-258.

9. Garrison, p. 243.

10. Herndon, pp. 1-2.

11. Wilson and Davis, p. 589.

12. Brooks, pp. 76-77. Brooks was a reporter for The Sacramento Daily Union. He lived in Washington and covered Lincoln’s Presidency. He had known Lincoln since 1859.

13. Burlingame and Turner, p. 111.

14. Brooks, pp. 245-246.

15. Boritt, p. 54.

16. Lamon, p. 275.

17. Burlingame, p. 59. John Hay and John Nicolay were Lincoln’s twosecretaries during his time as President.

18. Goodwin, p. 701.

19. Conroy, p. 288.



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