Sunday, April 26, 2009

Old Abe Lincoln Grows A Beard

16th of 45 excerpts from Lincoln by David Herbert Donald:
Formidable problems faced the President-elect. At the news of his election, disunion erupted in the South. On November 10 [1860] the South Carolina legislature unanimously authorized the election of a state convention on December 6, to consider future relations between the state and the Union. Eight days later Georgia followed suit. Within a month every state of the lower South had taken the initial steps toward secession. Northerners were divided over how to deal with the crisis. Some few thought the dissatisfied states should be allowed -- even encouraged -- to go in peace. A much larger number favored a new agreement in the spirit of the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 that would keep the Southern states in the Union. At least as many others opposed any concessions to the South.

The United States government had no policy to deal with this crisis. President James Buchanan was torn between his belief that secession was unconstitutional and his conviction that nothing could be done to prevent it. The lame-duck Congress was controlled by the recently formed Republican party, a still imperfect fusion of former Whigs, former Democrats, and former members of the American party. With experience only as an opposition party, Republicans had never before been called on to offer constructive leadership.

All eyes now turned to Springfield, where an inexperienced leader with a limited personal acquaintance among members of his own party groped his way, on the basis on inadequate information, to formulate a policy for his new administration. . . .

Visitors did not know what to make of the President-elect. He surprised even his old friends by growing a beard. During the campaign some New York "true Republicans." worried that Lincoln's unflattering photographs would cost the party votes, suggested that he "would be much improved in appearance, provided you would cultivate whiskers, and wear standing collars." A letter from an eleven-year-old girl in Westfield, New York, named Grace Bedell promised to get her brothers to vote for Lincoln if he let his beard grow.

. . . by the end of November he was supporting a half beard, which he initially kept closely cropped. No one knew just what to make of the change. Perhaps it suggested he was hiding his face because he knew he was not ready to be President. Or maybe it demonstrated the supreme confidence of a man who was willing to risk the inevitable ridicule and unavoidable puns like "Old Abe is . . . puttin' on (h)airs." or possibly it hinted that the President-elect wanted to present a new face to the public, a more authoritative and elderly bearded visage. Or maybe the beard signified nothing more than that the President-elect was bored during the long months of inaction between his nomination and his inauguration.

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