1. He hated the name “Abe.”
We reflexively call Lincoln “Abe,” in keeping with the familiarity we feel for our beloved 16th president. But we wouldn’t have called him that to his face. He had wanted to escape rural poverty to achieve respectability, and had a formidable sense of his own dignity. So he didn’t like the diminutive Abe. At his law office, according to historian David Herbert Donald, he called his younger partner William Herndon “Billy”; Herndon called him “Mr. Lincoln.” His wife, too, called him “Mr. Lincoln”; before they had children and he began calling her “Mother,” he addressed her as “Puss,” “little woman,” or “child wife.”
2. He was afraid of women.
Especially when he first showed up in Springfield, Illinois, as a young man, Lincoln lacked social graces. One girl declared him as “thin as a beanpole and as ugly as a scarecrow!” His eventual sister-in-law Elizabeth Edwards said he “Could not hold a lengthy Conversation with a lady—was not sufficiently Educated & intelligent in the female line to do so.” Mary Owens, who rejected his offer of marriage in the 1830s, later explained that he “was deficient in those little links which make up the great chain of woman’s happiness.” Lincoln himself attested, “Women are the only things that cannot hurt me that I am afraid of.”
3. He made people cry.
As a young politician, Lincoln hadn’t yet taken “with malice toward none” to heart. He was a harsh and cutting polemicist. At a political event in Springfield, he took after one Jesse Thomas. “He imitated Thomas in gesture and voice,” according to one account, “at times caricaturing his walk and the very motion of his body. Thomas, like everybody else, had some peculiarities of expression and gesture, and these Lincoln succeeded in rendering more prominent than ever. The crowd yelled and cheered as he continued. Encouraged by these demonstrations, the ludicrous features of the speaker’s performance gave way to intense and scathing ridicule.” Thomas left the platform in tears, and Lincoln eventually apologized.
4. He almost fought a duel with cavalry broadswords.
One target of Lincoln’s ridicule, a Democrat named James Shields, challenged him to a duel. As the challenged party, Lincoln had the choice of weapons and picked “Cavalry broad swords of the largest size, precisely equal in all respects.” Notably, Shields was five-eight or nine, and Lincoln was about half a foot taller, with extraordinarily long arms. Asked afterward why he choose these weapons, he said, “I didn’t want the d—d fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols.” Once the parties arrived at the designated dueling ground, the dispute was “adjusted” and the swordplay avoided. Embarrassed by the episode, Lincoln never liked to talk about it afterward.
5. He liked to carry documents in his hat.
When he was a local postmaster as a young man, he tucked letters into his hat and delivered them to people who didn’t pick them up. As a lawyer, he once had to apologize to a client for not replying to a letter in a timely manner, but “when I received the letter I put it in my old hat, and buying a new one the next day, the old one was set aside, and so, the letter lost sight of for a time.” According to his law partner William Herndon, Lincoln spent a month preparing his famous House Divided speech in 1858. He wrote notes on “slips, put these slips in his hat, numbering them, and when he was done with the ideas, he gathered up the scraps, put them in the right order, and wrote out his speech.”
6. He preached in favor of ants.
In a frontier environment that would have appalled the ASPCA, Lincoln was an animal lover. As a boy, according to a friend, he “would write short sentences against cruelty to animals.” His stepsister remembered him giving a mini-sermon, “Contending that an ants life was to it, as sweet as ours to us.” When he was older, his fellow lawyers laughed at him when they were out riding the circuit and he stopped to help baby birds who had fallen from their nest. He explained, “I could not have slept tonight if I had not given those two little birds to their mother.” In the White House Mary Todd objected to him feeding the cat at the dinner table with the official flatware. “If the gold fork was good enough for Buchanan,” he quipped, “I think it is good enough for Tabby.”
7. He didn’t smoke or drink.
Lincoln didn’t drink. Alcohol made him feel “flabby and undone.” He didn’t smoke or chew tobacco, either. He loved to tell the story of sharing a trip on the railroad with a friendly gentleman from Kentucky who offered him sequentially a plug of tobacco, a cigar and a glass of brandy, but couldn’t entice Lincoln with any of them. The Kentuckyian told him, “See here, my jolly companion, I have gone through the world a great deal and have had much experience with men and women of all classes, and in all climes, and I have noticed one thing.” What was it? “Those who have no vices have d—d few virtues.”
8. He hated farming.
As soon he could, he left his father’s farm never to return. In the White House he told a story capturing the uncertainty of agricultural life. He remembered as a boy planting seed in a big field on a Saturday afternoon: “The next Sunday morning there came a big rain in the hills, it did not rain a drop in the valley, but the water coming down through the gorges washed ground, corn, pumpkin seeds and all clear off the field.” All that work for naught. At a time when yeoman farmers were romanticized, he would have none of it. In an 1859 address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee, he said he wouldn’t engage “in the mere flattery of the farmers, as a class. My opinion of them is that, in proportion to numbers, they are neither better nor worse than other people.”
9. He jumped out a window to save a bank.
Hoping to foster a cash economy, Lincoln was a friend of the banks, and particularly the state bank of Illinois. In 1840, when Democrats in Illinois sought to shut it down through a parliamentary maneuver, Lincoln’s Whigs tried to deny them a quorum. When Lincoln realized Democrats were on the verge of scaring up enough members, he tried to escape the statehouse—through a window. The sergeant-at-arms refused orders to give chase: “My God! gentlemen, do you know what you ask? Think of the length of Abe’s legs, and then tell me how I am to catch him.” A Democratic newspaper lampooned Lincoln by saying a resolution would soon be introduced to add a third story to the state house “so as to prevent members from jumping out windows! If such a resolution passes, Mr. Lincoln in future will have to climb down the spout.”
10. He envied Stephen Douglas.
Douglas and Lincoln came up together in Illinois politics and moved in the same circles. Before Mary Todd married Lincoln, she flirted with Douglas. Long before the famous debates, Lincoln and Douglas were tangling on the issues of the day. But by the mid-1850s Douglas was a nationally prominent senator and potential presidential candidate. Lincoln was out of office with no immediate political prospects. He wrote in an unsparing note to himself, “Twenty-two years ago Judge Douglas and I first became acquainted. We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me, the race of ambition has been a failure—a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success.”
11. He really didn’t have close personal friends.
For all Lincoln’s tenderheartedness and his homespun charm, he could be remote. Lost in thought, he would sometimes pass people he knew on the street without acknowledging them. His friend and supporter David Davis said that he “was not a social man by any means: his Stories—jokes &c. which were done to whistle off sadness are no evidences of sociality.” Davis called him “the most reticent—Secretive man I Ever Saw—or Expect to See.” According to Herndon, Lincoln’s mentor John Stuart said “he has been at L’s house a hundred times, never was asked to dinner.” His secretaries in the White House, John Nicolay and John Milton Hay, said that when it came to familiarity with Lincoln “there was a line beyond which no one ever thought of passing.”
Rich Lowry, Editor at National Review, is the author of “Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream—and How We Can Do It Again” on-sale June 11 from Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
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