July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
For generations, Americans reserved their most fervent “landmark reverence” for those rooms that could boast George Washington— not Abraham Lincoln—slept here.
But that was before the so-called Lincoln Bedroom in the White House assumed, just about the time of his 188th birthday this year, the status of national shrine. And oddly, the sudden transfiguration was attributable not to any new discoveries about the chamber itself or its contents, but to revelations that President Clinton had allegedly violated its hallowed ambience by inviting a procession of more or less unsavory guests to camp out there.
Suddenly, Lincoln’s nineteenth-century plea for “charity for all” was being mocked as an open sesame for friends of the current President to snuggle beneath a counterpane that now seemed no less sacred than the shroud of Turin. The truth is, whatever rankled press and public about President Clinton’s bulging guest list for the Lincoln Bedroom, excluded from the reasons should be the promiscuous invasion of an American hero’s most private space. Among the few famous Americans who never slept in the Lincoln Bedroom is Abraham Lincoln himself.
That is, unless he fell asleep at his desk. During the Civil War, this was the place where the President worked, not dozed. In fact (notwithstanding a flood of recent misinformation from White House spokespeople and historians alike), it was never his bedroom at all. With appealing simplicity, Lincoln called it “the shop.”
Today’s ground-floor Oval Office did not exist in Lincoln’s White House. The second- floor room that is currently, and misleadingly, furnished with the now-famous eight-foot-long rosewood bed (which Lincoln probably never used himself, and certainly not in this part of the mansion) functioned as his place of business. Mary Lincoln ordered the bed, along with two armchairs, four wall chairs, a washstand, a bureau, and a sofa from William Carryl & Bro. of Philadelphia on May 29, 1861, paying the grand sum of eight hundred dollars for the entire inventory. But none of the pieces were ever employed in the office while the Lincolns lived and worked there.
Instead, next to the window overlooking the Washington Monument, then an unsightly, unfinished stump, stood Lincoln’s “second hand mahogany upright” desk. To his clerk it looked as if it had come “from some old-furniture auction.” Here Lincoln read his mail, wrote letters, and filed his own papers in pigeonholes. In one compartment marked “Assassination” he even preserved death threats (a file, incidentally, that vanished after his murder).
In the center of the once-modest room with the ugly, dark green wallpaper and stained carpet was a plain table surrounded by a suite of simple chairs, their backs so low that the towering Lincoln could not have leaned backward in any of them without toppling over. Here he presided over cabinet meetings and war councils. But ministers and generals were not the only people who enjoyed access to his office.
Here, too, for five exhausting hours a day, two days each week, Lincoln greeted an endless stream of visitors—more in a month than any modern President could possibly welcome in an entire term. Lincoln’s were not specially invited guests. They were members of the general public who lined up outside his office door for the chance briefly to see their Chief Magistrate: to ask favors, plead for jobs, or appeal grievances; to demonstrate crackpot inventions, offer hectoring suggestions, or issue bitter denunciations. They contributed no money to gain entry. But no matter how weary or preoccupied, Lincoln seldom canceled what he jokingly called his “public-opinion baths.” He believed the throngs of ordinary citizens helped “renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage out of which I sprung.” If he did not like what a guest said to him—or how he said it—the President simply seized the offending visitor by the collar and ushered him into the outside hall.
Not that Lincoln ever invited any of these folks to sleep over. If an old friend or relative showed up unexpectedly, the President might provide a cordial greeting and brief reminiscence, but no bed and breakfast. Once, his prairie cousin, Dennis Hanks, who had known him longer than any living man, showed up unannounced. Surprised but not particularly pleased, Lincoln gave him his old watch chain (admirers had just presented the President with a better one) and, after a brief chat, showed him the door. Unlike his current successor, he did not particularly enjoy being reminded of the old days.
Larger things happened in this room too. Here Lincoln first resolved to resist secession, steeled, he confided, by the portrait of Andrew Jackson staring down from above the hearth. Here he wrote some of the most soaring words in American political literature: the “new birth of freedom” of the Gettysburg Address, the “malice toward none” of the second inaugural. And here, on January 1, 1863, he signed his greatest act, the Emancipation Proclamation—his hand trembling so, after hours spent greeting New Year’s guests downstairs, that he worried lest future generations study his shaky signature and conclude, incorrectly, that he wavered.
In a sense then, the true, vivid legacy of this historic site has indeed been demeaned—but not by recent overnight guests. Long before, it was corrupted by Truman-era redecorators who blithely transformed Lincoln’s “shop” into a combination theme park and guest room. (A history buff, Truman himself conceived the idea of moving the bed here to create the now-infamous guest quarters.) Today’s sleepovers hardly violate the private sanctum of a national saint. Ironically, and apparently unknowingly, they renew a tradition of access to a room once fully open to the American people.
Some have persuasively suggested that tradition should now be expanded: the White House should aggressively search for and reacquire both the old pigeonhole desk (sold long ago, its current location unknown) and the cabinet table (among those who believe they own the original are the Baldwin Museum of Connecticut History in Hartford and the Concord Free Library near Boston). Then the original pieces could be reinstalled, alongside the cabinet ministers’ chairs, so ordinary Americans might again be invited up to see the simple surroundings in which Abraham Lincoln labored at an unimaginably complex job. After all, this room was once the site of bustling activity, not of privileged rest. Perhaps it should be so today, its furnishings again looking just as an observer described them at the end of the Great Emancipator’s first term: “too ricketty to venerate.”
True, Lincoln probably was embalmed on the bed that was eventually moved and enshrined here. But fake history should not be.