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LINCOLN'S PERSONAL APPEARANCE
Na recent conversation with an esteemed friend, an en
terprising, successful business man, I expressed an
ardent, long-cherished wish, that there might be given to the public, correct information concerning the personal appearance of Abraham Lincoln.
"What difference does it make,” inquired my friend, "whether he was gawky, awkward and homely, as is generally believed, or of superior physical construction, rare grace of movement and great beauty, as you so confidently claim? We know what he said and what he accomplished, why should we care to know how he looked and acted ?”
Without seeming to notice this remark, and with an apology for the abrupt digression, I said: “Did I ever tell you that during all the years of my residence in Washington, there was on one of the panels of the rotunda in the Capitol, a magnificent picture of 'De Soto Discovering the Mississippi' with the Stars and Stripes floating over his head?”
"Is it possible?” exclaimed my friend in great astonishment. “The American flag in the picture of an event that occurred more than two hundred years before there was an American flag! Why was such a caricature permitted to disfigure the wall of that beautiful room?"
“Why not,” I answered, “what difference does it make? We know that De Soto, the Spanish explorer, did discover the Mississippi in 1541, but why should we care what ilag appears in a picture commemorating that event!"
"We should care," was the answer, “for a historical picture should be true to the facts."
"It certainly should," I replied, "and the picture of the personal appearance of Abraham Lincoln as he is seen in the public mind should also be true to the facts, and that picture as now seen by the world is shockingly false. The De Soto picture as first painted was during later years made historically truthful by the appearance of the Spanish flag where the stars and stripes had been.”
At this point my friend and I came into perfect accord and he has since been enthusiastic in his desire and effort to cause the public to understand that between the inner and the outer Abraham Lincoln there was complete harmony; that the spirit and character which for half a century have been the admiration of the world were not more beautiful and pleasing than were his physical construction and appearance.
To the work of showing that such was the case, I am devoting the succeeding pages of this chapter. My own personal observations of Mr. Lincoln's appearance and bearing will be given in connection with statements of persons who were for years closely associated with him, and from the testimony of art as interpreted by some of the most competent experts. This, it is hoped, will introduce to the reader Abraham Lincoln, as he actually looked and acted.
Mr. Lincoln's great height was the first of his physical characteristics to be noticed when coming into his presence. This never lost its impressiveness. At the first, and all subsequent meetings with him, seeing him alone or in a small or large company, looking upon him from a distance or in his immediate presence, at bright noonday or in the dim twilight, the first and abiding impression was a sense of his imposing height.
His exact height according to the measurement by Carpenter, the artist, was six feet three and a half inches "in his stocking feet,” or six feet four and a half inches with his boots on.
He appeared to be two or three inches taller than that when standing upon a platform delivering an address. John G. Nicolay, who for years knew Mr. Lincoln intimately in Illinois and was his chief private secretary during his Presidency, says: “It must be borne in mind that Lincoln's height was extraordinary. A six-footer is a tall man. Put four inches on top of that and you have a figure by no means common. There are few such men in the world."1
Mr. Lincoln was as erect as an Indian, with not the least inclination to stoop at the shoulders as so many writers have stated. As Gutzon Borglum, the distinguished sculptor, says, "his neck does not rest on his shoulders. It rises from them with an erectness and an alertness that is unique.” This feature of Mr. Lincoln's construction accentuated his great height and contributed largely to the impressiveness of his appearance. I never saw him at close range without being impressed by the absence from his neck of wrinkles, as if it were pressed down upon his shoulders, and also the peculiar branching out and downward into the shoulders of strong, bracing sinews like the swelling out of the roots of a sturdy oak. This is seen in the famous life-mask bust by Leonard W. Volk. Mr. Lincoln's unusual height always lingered in the memory of those who saw him, after other features of his personal appearance were forgotten. The climax of his stature was his massive coronal of jet-black hair which covered his marvelous head.
In describing Mr. Lincoln's appearance as he rode down Broadway, in New York, on his way to Washington to be inaugurated as President, Dr. Theodore L. Cuyler says: “He stood up in a barouche, holding on with his hand to the seat of the driver. His towering figure was filled out by a long blue coat and a heavy cape which he wore. On his bare head rose a thick mass of black hair—the crown which nature gave to her king The great patriot-president moving slowly on toward the conflict, the glory and the martyrdom that were reserved for him still remains in my memory as the most august and majestic figure that my eyes have ever beheld.”
Dr. Henry Eyster Jacobs evidently shared Dr. Cuyler's impressions for he speaks of Lincoln “as the tallest and the 1 The Century, Vol. 20, p. 932. Recollections of a Long Life, pp. 141-142.
grandest man in the procession.” The impression made by Mr. Lincoln's height upon the brilliant young journalist when he first met him is revealed as follows by Mr. James R. Gilmore of the New York Tribune: “Mr. Lincoln was exceedingly tall, and so gaunt that he seemed even above his actual height of six feet four inches; but he was not, as very tall men often are, ungainly in either manner or attitude. He had an air of unstudied ease, a kind of careless dignity that well became his station.”
Mr. Thomas D. Jones, a Cincinnati sculptor, went to Springfield in December, 1860, to make a bust of the newly elected President, and in 1871 published in the Cincinnati Commercial an account of his first view of Lincoln at that time, which Nicolay copied in an article in the before-cited Century Magazine, as follows: “He was surrounded by his nearest and dearest friends, his face illuminated, or in common parlance, lighted up. He was physically an athlete of the first order. He could lift with ease a thousand pounds, five hundred in each hand. In height six feet four inches, and weighed one hundred and seventy-six pounds. He was a spare, bony and muscular man, which gave him that great and untiring tenacity of endurance during his laborious administration."
In the same article Mr. Jones quotes Mr. Lincoln, who was usually so disinclined to speak of himself, as saying: “All I had to do was to extend one hand to a man's shoulder, and with weight of body and strength of arms give him a trip that generally sent him sprawling on the ground, which would so astonish him as to give him a quietus."
The sculptor adds, “Well might he send them sprawling, his arms were very long and powerful and his great strength and height were calculated to make him a peerless antagonist.”
Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, although he had been for four years intimately associated with President Lincoln, as a member of his Cabinet, states in his diary that he had no realization of his great strength until he saw his bare arms as he lay upon his dying bed.