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Dear Mr. Lincoln …

June 2024
6min read

The mail he received reminds us anew of how little praise he received, and how philosophically he bore abuse

On March 3, 1865, the day before Abraham Lincoln was to be sworn in for the second time as President, a New York private named William Johnson, just one of the thousands of Federal troops who had voted for their Commander-in-Chief, mailed him a gift, along with a painfully scrawled (and spectacularly misspelled) letter:

“mister ole Abe.

“herbi Plese find inclosed won (1) Pare of reeinlistment Stripes I am a vetren which hev Bin warin sed Stripes, thinkin that as how U had reeinlisted i thot i wood Cut em Off & Send em to U hopin they ma cum handy, they Cost Forty (40) Sents i wood send U A pare with gold Stuf on the Ege of em if I cood git em them wons Costs A good Ele more tho. hev em Sode on with Blu thred.

“my Resins For Sendin em is these Firstly U Air my Stile of A man & Besides is Onist. Seconly U Air intitled to Sed Stripes For inlistin Again & things is verry hi now. I mus put Out my lite in a fu minuts. dont let up on them jonnys A Darn bit lle sta by U til the darn Cuses is used up for won … [ P.S. ] i Rote this On A hull Sheat Becos the Captin says it is Bisness Stile & this is Bisiness.”

Friendly letters like that one surely pleased Lincoln. He was as interested in evidence of his own popularity as any other politician and would go to Ford’s Theatre carrying in his wallet nine complimentary newspaper editorials that had cheered him when the battlefield news was bad. But on the evidence offered in Harold Holzer’s fascinating new compilation, Dear Mr. Lincoln: Letters to the President (Addison Wesley, $25), friendly letters were few and far between. What is remarkable about this collection is how little praise Lincoln got and how much abuse he endured without complaint.

Better than 250 letters arrived every day in the second-story office Lincoln liked to call his “shop,” and there were specially labeled pigeonholes in his upright desk for such influential and frequent correspondents as Horace Greeley and “W & W”—the prominent New York politicians Thurlow and Fernando Wood. But his secretaries—a tiny, shifting cast of young men headed by John Hay and John G. Nicolay—sifted through the rest of what one of them remembered as a “very curious department of American literature” in search of the handful of letters the President actually needed to see.

Some letters accompanied gifts. A Washington resident sent Lincoln a “highly reputed” laxative as “[t]his is the season when you and I are apt to be afflicted with disordered bowels.” Others sent him hand-knitted socks, a pair of live eagles, and a “mammoth Ox” named “General Grant,” meant to be auctioned off for the benefit of wounded sailors. And when a repentant (but carefully anonymous) Brooklyn citizen returned to him $860, which he had stolen from the government before “the Holy Spirit” made him see the error of his ways, the President carefully wrote out his own receipt: “Received, March 5,1863, of A. Lincoln, President of the United States the sum mentioned within, in ‘Green-backs.’”

There was a scattering of letters of encouragement too, including one from the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, who told Lincoln he was the “Heir of the thought of Christ and of [John] Brown, you will pass down to posterity under the name of the Emancipator more enviable than any crown and any human treasure!” And there were threats on Lincoln’s life: “May the hand of the devil strike you down before long—You are destroying our country[.] Damn you—every breath you take.”

Lunatics wrote regularly. So did harmless eccentrics and a host of inventors eager for Army contracts, including one from Illinois who claimed to have devised a “cross-eyed gun” with divergent barrels with which he offered to arm a body of cross-eyed soldiers so that they could proceed down the Potomac “to clean out the Rebels from both sides of the river at once.” He added: “I know enough cross-eyed men to make a regiment, and by thunder, Mr. Lincoln, I’m cross-eyed enough to be their colonel.”

There were letters criticizing Lincoln’s manners too. A New Yorker wrote from his Wall Street office to warn that officers were muttering about the President’s lack of military bearing: “They say when you are on horseback, and platoons of men marching by you, that you lean about and turn your head to talk with people behind you, when they claim that you should sit erect & talk to nobody and look straight at the saluting soldiers. … For God’s sake consult somebody, some military man, as to what you ought to do on these occasions … you will do well by paying more attention to your manners and make less effort at wit and story telling—All well enough in private but publicly it is a nuisance. … [B]e a gentleman and courtly in your manners when you ought to be. …”

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.”

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