Girl's Letter Changes Face of Lincoln

A little girl wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln urging him to grow "whiskers."

ByABC News via logo
January 16, 2009, 5:16 PM

Jan. 17, 2009— -- The town of Westfield, N.Y. remains, in some ways, as it was back in 1860. Rural and Republican.

But in those days, women couldn't vote. Republicans were the brand new party opposed to slavery, and an 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell saw something that bothered her when her Republican dad showed her a campaign poster showing the young Abe Lincoln running for president.

Presidential fashion fact: The first 15 presidents had no facial hair. Not one had a beard. No goatees. No moustaches. Not even a bit of stubble.

And then came Lincoln. So the question is: Why Lincoln, who just before the White House had no beard? What made Abe go first?

The tale has been passed down through various children's books through the years. Grow a beard, Grace Bedell wrote in a letter to the candidate.

"You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you," she wrote.

What were the chances that letter would even reach Lincoln, who was then four states away in Illinois?

"If you look at the dates, Grace Bedell wrote her letter to him on October 15, 1860, and he answered her four days later," says retired school teacher, John Wolfe.

"She was amazed," says Westfield historian, Marybelle Beigh. "It was snowing the day that she opened it. The snowflakes made splotches on it. And everyone says, 'Oh, no. those are tear drops. She was crying!'"

In Lincoln's response, he wrote, "My dear little Miss: 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 now?"

It sounded like Lincoln was saying "no" to Grace, that he would not grow whiskers. But in the end, he did.

Lincoln soon started a beard and by the time he was elected, it was and would remain in statues, on $5 bills and on classroom walls as the "Lincoln look" he is known for.

In the Feb. 20, 1861 edition of the local Westfield Republican newspaper, a small item tells of Abraham Lincoln traveling by train to Washington to be inaugurated and stopping in Westfield, N.Y. There was one person in particular he wanted to meet.

"Well I know that there's a young lady from this place that had written to me," he said, according to Beigh, "and would she by any chance be here in the crowd?"

As written in the article, "She was soon brought forward, and Lincoln stepped from the car, shook hands with her, kissed her, and asked her how she liked the improvement she advised him to make."