The Girl Behind Lincoln’s Beard: Grace Bedell’s Impact on a President

  • Time to read: 9 min.
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Imagine the streets of 1860s America, where the clatter of horse-drawn carriages blends with fervent political discussions in town squares. The nation stands on the brink of monumental change. In the midst of this era emerges a lanky, tall figure, Abraham Lincoln. But the Lincoln of this period isn’t the bearded statesman we instantly recognize on the five-dollar bill. No, this Lincoln is clean-shaven, his face revealing every contour of thought, concern, and aspiration for a nation divided.

Now, add to this tapestry a seemingly inconspicuous detail: a handwritten letter. It’s not a political manifesto or a revolutionary decree. It’s a simple suggestion, penned with the earnestness of youth, by an 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell. Could it be that this child, in her innocent wisdom, influenced the iconic look of one of America’s most revered presidents?

Join us on a fascinating journey back in time, as we unveil how a young girl’s heartfelt advice intertwined with the legacy of a nation’s leader, resulting in one of the most recognized presidential beards in U.S. history.

The America of the 1860s

As dawn broke over the 1860s, America was in the throes of transformation. Picture cobbled streets bustling with newsboys shouting the latest headlines, women in layered petticoats, and gentlemen in waistcoats and top hats. The iconic steam engine was gaining ground, forever changing the way people traveled. Technological innovations like the telegraph were rapidly reshaping communication. Yet, amidst this backdrop of progress, the undercurrents of political unrest and division were palpable, setting the stage for the Civil War.

In the world of fashion and grooming, beards were making a distinct mark. It wasn’t just a style statement but a symbol of masculinity and maturity. For politicians, the beard (or the lack of one) could be a strategic choice, playing into public perceptions and image crafting. The majority of U.S. presidents before Lincoln had opted for a clean-shaven look, adhering to the grooming standards of their times. Lincoln, too, followed this tradition, presenting a visage free of facial hair during his initial political campaigns.

Public perception of a beardless Lincoln was varied. His towering height, combined with his clean-shaven face, made him a subject of both admiration and ridicule. Cartoonists had a field day, often exaggerating his long limbs and defined cheekbones. Yet, behind this facade was a man of profound intellect and empathy, grappling with decisions that would shape the nation’s destiny.

Enter Grace Bedell. An observant young girl, she watched and listened to the world around her, absorbing the political fervor and the public’s opinions. What she did next was a blend of audacity and innocence, proving that sometimes, impactful suggestions can come from the most unexpected sources.

Grace Bedell: The Young Visionary

In the quaint town of Westfield, New York, Grace Bedell lived a life typical of young girls in the 19th century. Surrounded by the simple pleasures of rural living, Grace Bedell was attuned to the buzz of the outside world, thanks largely to her father’s affinity for politics. On any given evening, their home echoed with tales of political rallies, speeches, and the looming presidential elections. Abraham Lincoln’s name frequently punctuated these discussions.

Grace, with her youthful curiosity, often stared at Lincoln’s portrait, which featured prominently in campaign materials. She noted his tall, imposing stature, his intense eyes, and the stark contours of his face. It was during one of these contemplative moments that a thought struck her: wouldn’t Mr. Lincoln look kinder, more approachable, perhaps even more presidential with a beard?

But Grace wasn’t one to just muse and move on. She believed in the power of communication. Taking pen to paper, she began composing a letter, her handwriting neat but filled with the unmistakable waver of youthful enthusiasm.

“Dear Sir,” she began, addressing a man who was, at that time, one of the most talked-about figures in the country. In her letter, Grace politely pointed out that Lincoln’s face, though honest and kind, was thin and lean. A beard, she mused, would offer a softer appearance, making him more appealing to women. She even went on to suggest that her four brothers would vote for him if he grew whiskers! And to seal her argument with a dose of charm, she promised to try and convince her cohorts at school to rally for his cause if he considered her suggestion.

Now, just pause and think about that for a moment. An 11-year-old little girl, amidst the political tumult of 1860s America, decided to give grooming advice to a potential president. It was audacious, endearing, and incredibly insightful.

The Letter that Changed a Face

It’s quite remarkable to consider that in an era devoid of social media influencers and the 24-hour news cycle, a single piece of handwritten correspondence could ripple across public consciousness in such a profound way. But Grace’s letter was no ordinary note—it was both a reflection of and a testament to the pulse of the times.

“Hon A B Lincoln…” the letter began, a formality that was likely instilled in Grace by her teachers. In her words, one could sense a blend of childlike innocence and a surprising depth of understanding. “I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you.” How’s that for a negotiation tactic? Grace subtly pointed out the importance of image in politics, even in those days.

She went on, detailing her perception of Lincoln’s visage, “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be elected President again.” In her mind, whiskers equaled a double win for Lincoln: an appeal to both women, who might persuade their husbands on voting matters, and men, who might see whiskers as a sign of distinguished maturity.

Grace even ended her letter with a personal touch, asking if Lincoln would be kind enough to send her a portrait of himself, a request both brave and cheeky.

News of this correspondence soon began to spread. While today’s viral phenomena are propelled by tweets and shares, back then, it was the whisper of townsfolk, the chatter in local taverns, and discussions at community gatherings that did the trick. The story of a young girl advising a presidential candidate on his appearance was too delicious a morsel for the public to resist.

As the tale of the letter spread, many awaited Lincoln’s response, if there was to be one at all. After all, presidential candidates were busy people, weren’t they? But Lincoln, with his characteristic wit and wisdom, was not one to overlook the insights from a potential young voter.

Lincoln’s Response and a Nation’s Gaze

When Grace’s letter reached President Abraham Lincoln, he might’ve been in the midst of crucial campaign strategies or policy discussions. His life was an endless series of speeches, meetings, and long train rides. Yet, something about this young lady and her letter made him pause. Perhaps it was the genuine concern of a young citizen, or maybe it tickled his well-known sense of humor. Whatever the reason, Lincoln responded.

In his letter, the potential president addressed young Grace with a tone that was both kind and contemplative. “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?” Lincoln mused. His words showcased a humility and self-awareness that endeared him to many.

As days turned into weeks, those who had caught wind of this delightful exchange started to notice something. The clean-shaven Lincoln, whose face had been a familiar sight in campaign posters and newspapers, was gradually changing. Whiskers began to appear on his previously bare cheeks. The transformation was gradual, but undeniable.

As Abraham Lincoln embarked on his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C., people flocked to the train stations, eager to catch a glimpse of their new leader. And when the train stopped in Bedell’s hometown of Westfield, New York, Lincoln had a special request. He wished to meet the young girl who had so candidly advised him on his appearance.

In a moment that would etch itself into historical lore, Lincoln stepped off the train, his new beard now a defining feature, and sought out Grace. “You see?” he remarked, pointing to his whiskers, “I have let these grow for you.” The crowd around them erupted in cheers, and Grace found herself momentarily speechless, perhaps realizing the magnitude of her influence on such a great man.

The bearded Lincoln would go on to become one of the most iconic images of American history. His visage, with that distinctive beard (sans mustache), would be immortalized in photographs, paintings, and sculptures. All thanks to a candid piece of advice from an observant young girl.

More Than Just Facial Hair: The Legacy of Lincoln’s Beard

While the story of Grace Bedell’s letter and Lincoln’s subsequent beard growth is undoubtedly charming, it also carries deeper implications about the nature of leadership, public image, and the voices that leaders choose to heed.

A Testament to Lincoln’s Character

By choosing to grow a beard in response to a young girl’s suggestion, Lincoln demonstrated a kind of humility and openness to feedback that is rarely seen in leaders. It was not about vanity; it was about connecting with the people he was to serve. In heeding Grace’s advice, Lincoln displayed a willingness to listen to even the youngest of his constituents, showcasing a democratic spirit that would come to define his presidency.

The Symbolism of the Beard

Beyond the immediate appeal to voters, the beard became a symbol of Lincoln’s wisdom, maturity, and steadfastness during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. As he navigated the nation through the Civil War, the beard served as a constant reminder of Lincoln’s dedication to unity and his commitment to the people.

Grace Bedell: The Power of Youth

Grace’s story reminds us that age does not limit the capacity for insight or influence. At just 11 years old, she recognized the potential power of appearance in politics and was unafraid to voice her opinion. Grace’s actions remind us that young voices, when raised with conviction, can resonate at the highest echelons of power.

The Beard in Popular Culture

Today, depictions of Lincoln are incomplete without his signature beard. From monuments like the Lincoln Memorial to appearances on currency and in movies, the beard is an essential part of his image. This universally recognized feature serves as a lasting testament to the profound ways in which public image can shape and be shaped by societal perceptions and expectations.

Conclusion: More Than Just Whiskers

The story of Abraham Lincoln’s beard, influenced by a candid letter from young Grace Bedell, offers a fascinating glimpse into 19th-century American culture and politics. It wasn’t just about a shift in facial fashion; it was about the symbiotic relationship between a leader and his people.

As Lincoln adapted his personal appearance based on the counsel of a young girl, it spoke volumes about his character — his humility, his connectedness, and his innate understanding of public perception. In a period of deep national uncertainty, these whiskers and subsequent iconic beard stemming from a little girl’s very agreeable letter, symbolized hope, wisdom, and an unwavering commitment to unity.

FAQ: Grace Bedell and Lincoln’s Beard

Did Lincoln keep his beard throughout his presidency?

Yes, after growing it in response to Grace’s letter, Lincoln maintained his beard throughout his presidency until his untimely assassination in 1865.

Were there other U.S. Presidents before Lincoln who sported beards?

No, Abraham Lincoln was the first U.S. president to wear a full beard, while in office. After him, several presidents chose to wear beards or mustaches, but Lincoln started the trend.

How did Grace Bedell react to Lincoln’s assassination?

Grace was deeply saddened by Lincoln’s assassination. She cherished the memory of their interaction and the profound impact her letter had. Later in life, she often recounted the story to her children and grandchildren.

Were beards popular among Civil War soldiers?

Yes, beards became increasingly popular during the Civil War era. Many soldiers grew beards, possibly due to the practicality (lack of regular shaving supplies in the field) and the fashion trends of the time.