This guest post is by Manuscript Division historian and Civil War and Reconstruction specialist Michelle A. Krowl.
On February 13, 1861, James A. Garfield was in Columbus, Ohio, serving Portage County in the Ohio State Senate. There he had the opportunity to meet Abraham Lincoln for the first time, when the president-elect stopped in Columbus on his train journey through the north before reaching Washington, D.C., for his March 4 inauguration.
President-elect Lincoln favorably impressed the state senator, far more than Garfield anticipated. To his friend Burke Hinsdale, Garfield wrote on February 17, Lincoln “has a peculiar power of impressing you that he is frank—direct—and thoroughly honest. His remarkable good sense—simple and condensed style of expression—and evident marks of indomitable will—give me great hopes for the country.” To his wife Lucretia, Garfield expressed a similar sentiment. Garfield admitted that despite some lingering doubts about Lincoln, “there is a look of transparent, genuine goodness which at once reaches your heart, and makes you trust and love him.” “He has the tone and bearing of a fearless, firm man,” he continued, “and I have great hope for the government.”
Although Lincoln’s character won him over, Garfield found the president-elect’s physical appearance less inspiring. “He has been raising a respectable pair of dark brown whiskers—which, it is said improve his looks,” Garfield told Hinsdale, “but no appendage can ever render him remarkable for beauty.” He mentioned Lincoln’s new beard to Lucretia as well, noting, “notwithstanding all their beautifying effects he is distressedly homely.”
Many of Abraham Lincoln’s contemporaries remarked on his “homely” looks. Lincoln himself poked fun at his “poor, lean, lank face.” As a man in public life, Lincoln’s appearance might be considered fair game for comment. In his letter to Lucretia, however, Garfield also offered his unflattering assessment of Lincoln’s wife, Mary. “His wife is a stocky, sallow, pug-nosed plain lady, and I think has much of the primitiveness of western life,” Garfield wrote. “He stands higher, on the whole in my estimation than ever. She considerably lower.” Meow!
To her credit, Lucretia Garfield did not allow her husband’s catty remark to go unchallenged. “Don’t you think you were rather severe on poor Mrs. Lincoln?” she replied on February 21. “You were not called on to admire her beauty if she possess none of course, but must you place her lower in your estimation because she lacks it?”
Perhaps chastened by his wife’s rebuke, or simply distracted by other subjects, Garfield’s next letter to Lucretia said nothing about Mary Lincoln or her appearance.
Given the fame of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, any similar correspondence about the Lincolns would be of historical interest. That the authors in this case were themselves a future United States president and first lady only adds to the appeal of the Garfields’ exchange. Unfortunately, residence in the White House was not all the two couples would have in common. Both Mary Lincoln and Lucretia Garfield became widows after assassins’ bullets killed their husbands in 1865 and 1881, respectively.
Those tragedies lay in the future, though. In February 1861, Lucretia Garfield came to Mary Lincoln’s defense, telling her husband, in essence, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
Will you also help transcribe Garfield’s correspondence? A crowdsourced transcription campaign of the Garfield family’s correspondence launched on November 1, 2022. Visit the By the People campaign site “To Be Preserved”: The Correspondence of James A. Garfield for more information and to participate in the transcription effort.
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