Meeting Abraham Lincoln

At a gathering just after Christmas last year, someone brought up the idea of how many handshakes might separate you from a famous person: i.e., you might have shaken the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of Muhammad Ali. It’s a nice idea: it makes you feel close to greatness, or close to someone who otherwise would be very distant in time or in personal fame. I then told my story about Abraham Lincoln and shook the hand of each person standing in the small circle near a very broad fireplace with a hearth of uneven, worn bricks. We were in a house whose age is hard to pinpoint exactly because of contradictory architectural features, but which was built sometime between 1790 and 1830. I told them they were shaking the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln.

I can say that I am only three handshakes away from Lincoln, although it would be more accurate to say one handshake and two handclasps, since I did not shake but clasped my mother’s hand for the fifty-seven years that I knew her and she did not shake but clasped her great-grandfather’s hand for the fourteen years that she knew him. He was the one who shook Lincoln’s hand, traveling to Springfield, Illinois, to do so. But there are at least four differing versions of this event, which makes you wonder about the accuracy of any historical account. Clearly, this meeting with Lincoln is something that certain members of my family have been proud of ever since it happened, but no one has it quite the same. Even old Grandpa Bent, the man himself, may have had some of it wrong.

My mother’s was probably the hand I held most often of anyone whose hand I have ever held. She herself held many hands when she was a little girl, because she was born into a family of three older brothers and an older sister as well as her widowed mother. Upon the death of her great-grandmother, when she was three years old, her family moved into the large house of her great-grandfather Bent, and there was one more, an old man, who, though he could be hard-hearted and mean-spirited, no doubt also held her hand, even kindly.

Clinton DeWitt Bent was named for DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York State in 1817, the year he was born in Sterling, New York. At the time of his birth, as his newspaper obituary was to point out, “Monroe was president of the United States, Napoleon Bonaparte was spending his days at St. Helena and Abraham Lincoln was a boy eight years of age.” The population of the entire United States was less than nine million. (Thus the year 1817, though it is close to two hundred years in the past, is only two handclasps away from me, even though I am still only middle-aged.)

Clinton DeWitt Bent grew up in Sterling, married, and had three daughters. When the daughters were adolescents, the family went by covered wagon out to Iowa, where, two generations and some forty-seven years later, my mother was born. “He didn’t talk much about the trip out here,” said another of his great-grandchildren, “except that Grandma was afraid of the wolves.” In Iowa he planted orchards of fruit trees and became known as a highly skilled fruit grower.

The house was a large brick one of two stories with central halls upstairs and down and a tall Scotch pine by the front windows. In the front yard, also, grew a cherry tree that gave white cherries, and on the south wall a special variety of apricot. The orchard contained peach and apple trees.

When my mother was four years old, her mother went back to work teaching in the local public school, and my mother was left in the care of the old man, who was known by all the family as Grandpa Bent, though he was grandfather only to some of them. At the time he would have been eighty-nine or ninety.

He was a teetotaler, a staunch Episcopalian, and tight-fisted, driving hard bargains even with his own family. His great interests, besides managing his money, seemed to be politics, education, religion, and the raising and breeding of fruit.

Some of his and my mother’s activities during the day we know about, and some we can guess. They walked every morning to the post office, one half mile or so away, probably hand in hand, to collect his mail, including his copy of the Congressional Record. He spent some part of each day tending his orchard, with my mother tagging along behind. He would wheel out a large, heavy wheelbarrow to collect broken or trimmed branches for his fireplace. He had made the wheelbarrow himself out of the wood from an oak cask. He would sometimes wheel my mother in it as they went through the orchard.

Sometimes he did complicated grafting work: he would graft several kinds of the best peaches onto one good trunk, thereby producing several varieties on a single tree. He would gather honey from his hives, a black veil hanging from his straw hat, his cuffs buttoned over his gloves, operating a bellows-like “smoker.” The cellar of the house was used as a storeroom for fruit and vegetables, and to keep the extra equipment of the bee-keeping activities. It smelled of apples in the fall and winter, and decaying potatoes in the spring and early summer, overlaid with beeswax and bee smoke.

Indoors, his little great-granddaughter would help the old man in small ways. When he was chilly, he would ask her to bring his sweater, saying, “Fetch my wampus!” (He was a man of few words, a frequent admonition being, “Take care!”) We know that he spent a good deal of time in his room, reading his Congressional Record and the Bible, as well as another publication he subscribed to, the Prohibitionist. The old man consistently voted for the candidate of that party, when there was one, and when he died, he left most of his money to the cause. For decades, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century—a time when the citizens of the young nation were attempting to reconsider and refine its character—the temperance movement was strong: upright citizens were supposed to be teetotalers and Iowa was a dry state.

Grandpa Bent’s room was the former parlor, off the dining room. It contained a massive four-poster spool bed, a hard-coal stove, and a screen before the fireplace depicting a boy in a yachting cap and short jacket helping his mother wind wool. Some of the pictures on the wall were framed with pine cones, others with carved wood. There was a cherry highboy and a corner whatnot with souvenirs from far-off places given him by another of his granddaughters, a missionary in the Philippines.

In this parlor at four o’clock every afternoon he would peel and eat an apple, an unvarying habit even when, by late spring, before the early summer crop came in, the apples were small and wrinkled. He attributed his longevity in part to his daily apple and in part to his meager diet.

When my mother’s family first moved in with him, he ate dinner in the dining room with the five children and their mother, but he was not always pleased with the children’s manners. My mother’s mother liked them to be sociable and talkative at dinner, and she had also elicited a promise from him that only she would “speak to” the children. He would sit in silence glowering at them when they committed a breach of manners. Eventually his dinners were brought to him on a tray in his own room, whether by his choice or hers is not clear.

One could say that an interest in politics had evidently run in his family, to judge by his parents’ naming him after Governor Clinton. On the other hand, the country itself was so young in 1817—only about forty years old—that a lively concern with the government of the country would be deeply inherent in everyday life. The first five presidents of the United States, after all, had been Revolutionary Patriots. Still, he seems, on the evidence of his subscription to the Congressional Record and his unfailing habit of voting in presidential elections, to have been particularly keen or dedicated. By the time he died, at age ninety-nine, he had voted in twenty presidential elections. This was a record at the time, and would have been hard to surpass even today, of course. He was taken by carriage to the polling place for the last time just nine days before his death. In this last election he voted for the Prohibition candidate, declaring that he wanted to cast his twentieth vote for president against the whiskey evil. (Three years after his death, Prohibition was enacted.)

It was his keen interest in the business of government that led him to seek out Abraham Lincoln. Although, in each election, he favored the temperance candidate, he had heard good reports of Lincoln, and wished to meet him face-to-face in order to form his own opinion of him. This much, at least, seems clear. In our family lore, however, there are at least four different accounts of this meeting, which is where the writing of history reveals itself to be so complicated.

The briefest comes in a letter written forty years or so ago by the same great-grandson, who had heard about Grandma Bent and the wolves during the journey out west by covered wagon:

Grandfather Bent told me the story of how he happened to vote for Abe Lincoln. He went to Springfield and spent the afternoon visiting with Mr. Lincoln. He came away convinced that he would vote for him. They really valued their voting rights in those days.

This account, since it is the sparest, is also generally in agreement with the others, except that afternoon becomes evening in the expanded versions. My mother’s mother tells a longer version that does not contradict this brief version, but we can’t be sure how reliable she was. Her reports of her life, in the pages she left behind, are sometimes colored with a positive view that my mother found false, as she says: “I have wished that Mother had been more realistic in her account.” My mother’s mother, for example, describes her grandfather Bent as “the sunniest, dearest old man that could be desired. ‘He was no more trouble than a canary-bird,’ I used often to tell people, and it was true. He was a fine-looking old gentleman with regular features and a full white beard. With kindly blue eyes that twinkled with fun most times when he looked at you.” My mother says: “How can she describe her grandfather Bent as always full of fun? . . . When he was my babysitter I remember him as laconic, to say the least.” We know from other sources about the glowering at the dinner table, the hard bargains over land rental with a certain nephew, the intolerance for drinking liquor. With due skepticism, then, here is account number two, by my mother’s mother:

Grandpa loved to tell us of the time that he had gone to see Abraham Lincoln in Springfield Illinois. He went to the house and Mrs. Lincoln let him in, he said. Lincoln was out but she invited Grandpa to come in and wait till he returned.
         The story was quite a long one as Grandpa told it. He had heard and read much of this great man, he said, but wanted to talk with him personally before voting for him.
         But after this visit and the conversation had with Lincoln, he told us that he was convinced that his vote would be well cast for “Honest Abe.” Then Grandpa finished the story, always exactly the same way:
          “I looked up at the tall man, I had to look way up to him, and I said, ‘Well, Mr. Lincoln, I hope you get to be president, and that you will be as much better than the rest of us as you are taller.’ He laffed, and thanked me, and—”

Now my mother herself has a different account of the meeting. She was a sharp woman and had a gift for telling anecdotes and great consistency from one telling to the next. But she was also a romantic and a proficient short-story writer accustomed to condensing and reshaping and adding the occasional flourish. She may have been tempted to alter and embroider in this case, too. Her account includes afternoon and evening both.

Before the 1860 election he was undecided, so hitched up his horse and traveled to Springfield, Illinois. There he waited all afternoon in the outer office while pleaders for appointments made their pitch. Then Lincoln, learning how far he had traveled just to give disinterested thought to his vote, invited him home to spend the evening. At the end of the visit Grandpa stood below his tall host on the porch steps saying goodbye. Looking up at Lincoln he said, according to the story, “I hope you will stand as far above the other presidents in history as you stand above the common man in stature.”

She goes on to comment, “I myself never heard any such eloquence from Grandpa. By the time I knew him he was as economical with his words as with his money.”

The last version comes from the newspaper obituary published at the time of his death. This is perhaps the most dependable version, since the writer was a trained journalist who had interviewed Bent directly. But perhaps it is not, since that interview had taken place a few years before, and the writer was remembering the facts as best he could. The journalist places the meeting with Lincoln a number of years before the date that my mother gives, at a time when, according to him, Bent was still living in New York State:

Owing to the death of his father and the poor health of his eldest brother, Clinton DeWitt was early called upon to manage the home farm in New York. During this period he came to Chicago to attend a political convention and went from there to Springfield, Illinois, where he also attended a convention. After the convention he was invited by Mr. Abe Lincoln to go home with him for supper and he was entertained for several hours by Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. In speaking of this visit a few years ago to the writer, Mr. Bent said that at that time he was greatly impressed by Mr. Lincoln and after enjoying his hospitality for several hours he bade him good bye with words something like this as nearly as we can remember. “Mr. Lincoln I thank you for your kindness and some day this nation is going to hear from you.”

In this version, the rhetorical flourish at the end is reduced to a plain understatement, more in keeping with the character of the man as my mother remembered him. But there is no question of simply “hitching up his horse” to go this distance. In fact, when I imagine it, I wonder that a busy farmer and father of three children would travel from New York State all the way to Illinois to attend a political convention.

I had thought there was a fifth version, but then my own memory is not entirely reliable. I may be imagining a fifth, or it may exist and I may still come across it. In fact, a fifth version is the one produced by my own faulty memory. After only a few months without looking at the other versions, my memory had already worked its own changes, and my story was that Bent had not traveled from New York State, but from his home in Iowa, and that he had looked in on Lincoln in Springfield because he happened to be nearby at a livestock market. Why I supplied a livestock market in place of a political convention I don’t know, unless it seemed more likely—except that he raised fruit, not animals.

*

On the other side of my family there is another chain reaching back to Lincoln, this time via three handclasps and the touch of Lincoln’s hand, not upon an ancestor’s hand but upon his own hat brim as his eyes rested, at least, on the eyes of that admiring ancestor. The ancestor leaves behind two descriptions of what amount to sightings of the president.

Sidney Brooks was my father’s great-great-uncle, or, to give the links of the chain as they naturally came together, my father’s grandfather’s uncle. He was born in 1813, four years before Grandpa Bent. A tall man with a pleasant face and a more agreeable personality than Grandpa Bent, he was described by friends, in tributes paid after his death, as modest, diffident, cordial, full of intellectual and natural curiosity, entertaining, and a fine and dedicated teacher. Although his family, which lived in the town of Harwich on Cape Cod, was more inclined toward mercantile and banking concerns than education, he himself felt a strong compulsion to go on with his schooling, and his father agreed to support him, though ready cash for such a thing was scarce. At the age of twenty, Sidney enrolled in Phillips Academy at Andover. To get there from his home in Harwich, he had to go either by fishing boat or by the “Brewster Packet” around the Cape to Boston and then by stagecoach overland. After completing his studies at Andover, he went on to Amherst College, graduating in the class of 1841 at the rather advanced age (by our standards, probably not theirs) of twenty-eight. (The last part of his trip to Amherst, later, was also by stagecoach, in this case from Worcester.)

After he graduated, Sidney returned to the Cape and worked for three years as a schoolteacher, then founded and built his own seminary in Harwich. After twenty successful and fulfilling years directing the school and teaching, he was forced, for financial reasons that are not fully explained, to leave the seminary, selling it to the town. With his wife and fellow teacher he went off to take charge of a school ship anchored in Boston Harbor called the George M. Barnard on which the pupils learned the arts of navigation and the handling of a ship. School ships at the time could function either as reformatories for juvenile delinquents or simply as secure training institutions for poor boys who would otherwise roam the streets. It is not clear which sort Sidney’s ship was. His friends variously refer to the pupils as “rough boys” and “waifs.” Sidney calls them “bad boys,” but we don’t know how seriously he means it. Certainly he misses his seminary and refers to himself as being “imprisoned” in the school ship.

Before occupying his new position, however, he had a brief experience of the Civil War. Being fifty-one, he was exempt from military duty, but wished to give more personal service in the defense of “our Country’s rights and human emancipation.” He therefore joined, in July of 1864, the U.S. Christian Commission, a Northern civilian organization of volunteers mainly funded by donations from local church congregations and providing the soldiers with food, clothing, medicines, and bandages, as well as spiritual sustenance.

Communications being what they were, he and his group of fifteen or twenty journeyed all the way to the Gettysburg area by train and wagon before finding out that not all of them were needed there. Most of the wounded soldiers, besides, were Confederate, and Sidney evidently hoped to have a chance to tend his own townsmen. He therefore joined a contingent that went on, or back, to Washington, D.C., where they were needed. This is where he had the good fortune, as he clearly regarded it, of seeing Lincoln at first hand, though from a distance.

His opinion of Lincoln, and that of most of his fellow townsmen, may be inferred from one of his descriptions of the years leading up to the war: “And now the thrilling events of ’61 drew crowds to the Post Office at every arrival of the mail, and now the newspaper was sought at the close of school and the evenings consumed in reading and telling the news. Then our Sabbath day services and our Fast Day services were more solemn and fervent than usual, then the heaven-directed acts of President Lincoln began to be admired and discussed and his noble qualities to shine forth.” It surely would have appealed to Sidney that Lincoln was a man of simple habits. It would have appealed to both Grandpa Bent and Sidney that the president was a devout Christian and supporter of the cause of temperance, rarely touching alcohol himself—since Sidney, like Bent, was to become a committed advocate of temperance and eventually a prohibitionist.

While in Washington, Sidney wrote home regularly to his wife, sometimes using a barrel head as a desk. His letters would have been of interest to all his family and shared among them—his wife, his older brother, his four sisters, three of whom still lived at home (only one, Sarah, did not approve of Lincoln, whose religious beliefs differed from hers in what she felt were important respects). A series of these letters was also published in the local Harwich Republican. He reported both encounters with Lincoln in the same letter, dated July 25.

The first encounter (note: a barouche was a four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage; horse cars were streetcars pulled by horses; and the platform he stepped out on was the open-air platform at the back of the streetcar):

July 25. I had been seeking an opportunity to see the President. He goes out to his country residence every night, and the road that he takes is the same by which I go to my hospital. He was sometimes too fast and sometimes too slow for me. He rides in a barouche, escorted by 20 men finely mounted on black horses. Riding home in the horse cars one night some little frolicsome girls in the car exclaimed, “Uncle Abe.” I roused up just in time to see the tail end of his cavalcade. The next time I did better, saw him coming, stepped out upon the rear platform, looked straight into the barouche where were both the President and his wife. He touched his hat to me, but I was so intent on my object that I forgot all propriety and did nothing but gaze. He is as thin as a hatchet, but really a good looking man.

Since Sidney was, to judge from his own narration of his life and from the testimonials offered by friends, conscientious and naturally courteous, his forgetting his manners on this occasion shows the extent to which a famous or prominent figure ceases to be entirely a human being, but is reduced to something of an object, even to a person of sensitivity. Also striking, of course, are Lincoln’s accessibility and the affection of the “frolicsome girls” who call him Uncle Abe.

His accessibility, and the accessibility of the White House, are even more startling in Sidney’s second account, in which he sees the president leave the White House to set off with his cavalcade. Sidney’s word “piazzi” is one he uses elsewhere, too, eccentrically, for what we call a portico or colonnade. His description of the “negro” should be seen in the following context: he and his fellow Harwich townspeople were generally abolitionist and for the previous nearly twenty years had been holding lively debates about the slavery issue. Sidney himself called slavery a “disgrace” and described enjoying the company of one Mr. Jones, “a colored man of the deepest hue and a noble Christian” who “lectured in the Church and enlightened us much on the cruelties of the system.” He speaks with respect of Mr. Jones, though with high awareness of the unresolved issues of a black man’s acceptance into white society: “Mr. Jones was more than once a guest of ours, nor did my wife object to his sitting at our table and at receiving his benediction.” The black man in the following passage, as he depicts him, is more picturesque. As for the White House, it was an earlier, far more modest version of the present building, and was described by a contemporary journalist, Noah Brooks (no relation to Sidney), as being open to “the multitude, washed or unwashed” for their “free egress and ingress”—in fact, certain members of the public, on visits to the place, were so bold as to snip off bits of curtains, curtain pulls, and even carpet in order to carry them home as souvenirs. Sidney’s account of the second sighting:

Last Saturday I took it more leisurely. Leaving my hospital at 4 o’clock I visited the White House. Went into the “East Room” which is always accessible and the “Green Room” which leads out of it. The East Room is very magnificent. Very rich looking paper covers the walls. Eight or ten very large mirrors, three splendid chandeliers and a carpet, patterned expressly for the room, are the prominent features in the picture of it now in my mind’s eye. I was very much pleased with the White House. From the avenue it appears like a plain moderate size mansion. It was not until I had paced it in front that I could form a correct idea of its size. It is 180 feet in the main body. Shrubbery and trees of most graceful form crowd close around the front side which faces a beautiful lawn sloping and undulating to the Potomac.
          While I was there the escort of cavalry arrived. The President’s carriage was brought up under the lofty piazzi and quite a crowd of persons with the same object that I had gathered around.
          A pleasant episode to the main performance occurred, which, as it shows so plainly the character of President Lincoln I will describe. A very tall and intelligent looking negro very black, with large and dusty feet, supporting himself with a very long walking stick, an excellent model as I thought for a painter or sculptor, walked up the steps, across the spacious area under the piazzi to the door and wished an interview with the President. The porter haughtily turned him off, stating the utter impossibility of his seeing him at that time. Apparently pacified, he sat down in a distant corner. The horsemen were drawn up, the Captain, ready to give the word of command, the President took his seat in the carriage. To the surprise of all, at that instant the tall negro was on the opposite side[,] his arm already around the back of the seat[,] leaning over in the most familiar manner. The President told the driver to hold on, gave the negro a moment of patient attention[,] smiled and replied in a gracious manner. The negro seemed to urge his case, the President began to gesture with one hand as he spoke as if to convince the applicant that he could do nothing in the matter, then he raised both hands and very emphatically but very kindly repeated his gesture with both hands, ordered his man to drive on, saluted the crowd and was off. A burst of admiration arose from the company, [the negro] appeared greatly pleased, and we all retired feeling, I am sure, that another good lesson had been learnt.

It is not perfectly clear what lesson Sidney believed had been learned from this episode—perhaps something more about Lincoln’s patience or evenhandedness. It is interesting that what moved the spectators, evidently, was Lincoln’s manner of refusing a petition and dismissing the petitioner, and that even the disappointed petitioner appeared pleased.

Sidney evidently wrote both descriptions down almost immediately, or at least within a few days. He is so particular about the details that it is hard not to believe they are correct. Whether they add to our knowledge of Abe Lincoln is another matter.

The two men from the two sides of the family, Grandpa Bent and Sidney, were both intent on meeting or seeing President Lincoln, but their motives, springing directly from their different characters, were not the same. Grandpa Bent had a certain righteous sense of his own position and power as an informed citizen and voter and wished to interview Lincoln to see whether Lincoln met his standards of probity and integrity. His persistence was rewarded by a visit of several hours in Lincoln’s home, which satisfied him. Sidney was more modest in his sense of himself and his rights, and already convinced of Lincoln’s worth; he wished only to lay eyes directly on a man he admired as a leader of strength and conviction whose beliefs coincided with his own. There is always a fascination exerted by the physical person of a prominent political figure, especially a United States president, even if he is a mediocre or bad one. In this case the president was a great or at least a good one (except in the opinion of some, like Sidney’s sister Sarah).