The Real Reason That Abraham Lincoln Grew A Beard

Even President Abraham Lincoln, "Honest Abe," and "the Great Emancipator" himself can allow vanity to impact his decisions. The tall, awkward-looking man with the thin face and large nose now has a recognizable visage — after all, our 16th president is on the penny and one of four American leaders on Mt. Rushmore — but, before he donned his towering top hat and beard, Lincoln allegedly grew facial hair because of a letter he received.

At the time, he was a Republican nominee vying to become the leader of the United States against John C. Breckinridge. An 11-year-old fan thought he could lose because his face frequently looked so grim, according to Time Magazine. This is why Grace Bedell sent him a letter on October 15, 1860, that offered him the key to winning the presidency. She told him that she would urge her four brothers — some who committed to voting for him — to select him as president if he would let his "whiskers grow." She went on to explain her rationale: "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, and then you would be President."

Not only did Abraham Lincoln write Bedell back, but he began growing his beard. By the time he appeared at his 1861 inauguration, it had already gotten thick and long — a distinctive style he'd wear for the remainder of his life. 

A winning look — the birth of Lincoln's beard

On the way to the celebration, Lincoln's train stopped by Bedell's Westfield, NY, hometown. According to, the president greeted Bedell and told her, "You see, I let these whiskers grow for you, Grace."

So did the letter change the course of history? Maybe not. After all, Lincoln was beardless when he won the 19th presidential election on November 6, 1860. But it was certainly a good public relations move. Cartoonists and news writers relentless abused him as he ran for president. The Atlantic reports that the Houston Telegraph wrote that he had "the leanest, lankiest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms, and hatchet face ever strung upon a single frame. He has most unwarrantably abused the privilege which all politicians have of being ugly." Ouch. 

That wasn't the only publication to criticize him. The Charleston Mercury, according to the book, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen C. Guelzo, said that Lincoln was a "horrid-looking wretch...sooty and scoundrelly in aspect; a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman."

After winning the election, President Lincoln visited his barber and told him he wanted to grow the beard. According to Biography, it's unknown if Bedell's letter got to him. "Lincoln may have felt a beard could help set him apart from clean-shaven presidential predecessors like James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce," per the site. 

And just like that, President Abraham Lincoln became the first U.S. president to sport a full beard.