Dear Mr. Lincoln …


The great majority of those who wrote to Lincoln wanted something: autographs, photographs, jobs, interviews, portrait sittings, locks of hair, government business. A political supporter asked Lincoln to send him new footwear because “Yesterday I worked for you all day, and wore out my boots.” James Buchanan wrote to see if his successor had found a history of France he had left behind in the library of the Executive Mansion. A group of Indiana officers who had survived Antietam and Fredericksburg asked that their wives be allowed to visit them before they went into battle again: “And we promise you sir, that we will not fight the less courageously because we have lately seen them. We will not falter on the day when it ‘rains lead and iron’ because the kisses of our wives are still warm upon our lips, instead of 20 months old.”

Squabbling officers demanded that Lincoln intervene in their quarrels. With Maj. Gen. David Hunter, who had declared himself “mortified, humiliated, insulted and disgraced” because he had been given a small command in Kansas when mere brigadiers were leading larger armies elsewhere, Lincoln was characteristically patient: “I…am sincerely your friend; and if, as such, I dare to make a suggestion, I would say you are adopting the best possible way to ruin yourself. ‘Act well your part, there all the honor lies.’ He who does something at the head of one Regiment, will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred.”

Most dispiriting, perhaps, were the wheedling letters from his own relatives. “Astonishingly,” Holzer writes, “not a single surviving letter from any member of the extended Lincoln or Todd families ever brought an unencumbered greeting, a birthday or holiday salutation … even a straightforward wish for the President’s health or success.”

The haughty Todds were especially demanding. Though most were Democrats who had refused to vote for Lincoln (some even supported the Confederacy), they all seemed to think themselves entitled to special treatment from their kinsman in the White House. When Lincoln delicately turned down a request from one of his wife’s cousins to become postmistress of Springfield, she wrote back that if the actual job could not be given to her, just the “benefits” would do. A brother-in-law who sold dry goods begged the President for insider information—“a little notice or a hint that things was likely to be brought to a close in our troubles”—so that he wouldn’t be left with too much war-related inventory on his shelves when the shooting stopped. Lincoln did not reply, but he did appoint one of his wife’s cousins brigadier general of volunteers, and he made another brother-in-law commissary of subsistence at Springfield, then had to transfer him hastily to Chicago when rumors of personal profiteering threatened a scandal.

His in-laws may not have voted for him, but they all seemed to think they deserved jobs—or at least salaries.

Abraham Lincoln was a deeply passionate man who had disciplined himself to be dispassionate when making judgments; once, handed an intemperate letter from an old ally who had grown angry at him, he stuffed it back into its envelope, then scribbled on the back, “I understand my friend … is ill-natured—therefore I do not read his letter.”

No President had a thicker skin, perhaps because no President ever had a surer sense of his own place in history or a better built-in gauge of what ultimately mattered and what did not. When an actor named James Hackett sent him a copy of a book he had written on Shakespeare, Lincoln somehow found the time to write a thank-you note in which he dared venture his opinions about the playwright. He said that he had read several plays — Lear, Richard HI, Henry VIII, Hamlet , and Macbeth —“perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader” and added, “Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing, ‘O, my offense is rank’ surpasses that commencing, ‘To be, or not to be.’”

Puffed up to have a presidential letter of his very own, the actor immediately had it reprinted beneath the proud heading “A Letter from President Lincoln to Mr. Hackett.… Printed not for publication but for private distribution only, and its convenient perusal by personal friends.” Not surprisingly one of those personal friends gave it to a newspaper, and Democratic editorialists then had a fine time mocking the Rail-splitter’s pretensions as a theater critic. An embarrassed Hackett then wrote the President again, apologizing for having allowed their private correspondence to become public.

“Give yourself no uneasiness,” Lincoln replied. “My note to you I certainly did not expect to see in print; yet I have not been much shocked by the newspaper comments upon it. Those comments constitute a fair specimen of what has occurred to me through life. I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice, and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it.”