As Election Day nears, candidates will be out shaking as many hands as possible to indicate to the voters that they are approachable and just ordinary folks. Baby kissing, once fashionable for candidates, has lost much of its early charm. The declining appeal probably can be traced to greater awareness of how germs and disease are spread by both hand shaking and kissing. Barack Obama describes how George W. Bush handled the problem:
“Obama!” the President said, shaking my hand. “Come here and meet Laura. Laura, you remember Obama. We saw him on TV during election night. Beautiful family. And that wife of yours — that’s one impressive lady.”
“We both got better than we deserve, Mr. President,” I said, shaking the First Lady’s hand and hoping that I’d wiped any crumbs off my face. The President turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the President’s hand.
“Want some? the President asked. “Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds.”
Not wanting to seem unhygienic, I took a squirt.
Lacking both hand sanitizer and a fully developed concept of germs and disease, Lincoln thought of hand shaking as a symbol of trust and friendship. In formal receiving lines, kid gloves were worn that provided some protection against direct transfer of germs from palm to palm. But many of Lincoln’s handshake encounters were without gloves, exposing skin to skin.
Elbridge Atwood, a Springfield resident, wrote to his sister on August 5, 1860, describing an upcoming political rally: “at least all creation are coming and some of the rest of mankind, I pity Old Abe for he will have to stand and shake hands all day. He is a first rate fellow to shake hands, and every body likes to shake hands with him.”
Lincoln seems to have had hands of steel, hardened by his frontier experience. On November 24, 1860, Hannibal Hamlin wrote to his wife, complaining about being in a receiving line with president-elect Lincoln: “They came by thousands. For two hours and a half it was a continuous shaking of hands. My hand is sore indeed and I began to doubt if all the bones in it had not been squeezed out.”
The greatest marathon hand shaking by the President is recorded by the Commissioner of Public Buildings, Benjamin Brown French. Describing the reception following Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address as “the largest reception I ever saw,” French offered these observations: “From 8 till ¼ past 11 the president shook hands steadily, at the rate of 100 every 4 minutes — with about 5,000 persons! Over, rather than under, for I counted the 100 several times, and when they came the thickest he was not over 3 minutes, never over 5. It was a grand ovation of the People to their President, whom they dearly love.” Lincoln performed another marathon exhibition of hand shaking a month later at the Depot Field Hospital at City Point, Virginia. Wanting to show his appreciation for the soldiers’ sacrifice for their country, Lincoln shook an estimated 5,000 hands. Theodore Roosevelt holds the record for shaking hands on the traditional New Year’s Day White House reception. Approximately 8,513 individuals were greeted by Roosevelt’s hardy hand shake on January 1, 1907.
Even Lincoln’s hand grew sore on occasion. Leonard Wells Volk recalled that while making a plaster casting of Lincoln’s hands “the right hand appeared swollen as compared with the left, on account of excessive hand-shaking the evening before.” The most famous incident of a sore hand concerns the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln planned to sign the document before the New Year’s reception of dignitaries, but errors in the text required that it be rewritten. The corrected document was delivered to the Executive Mansion after Lincoln had shaken hundreds of hands. Lincoln picked up a pen to sign it but stopped because his hand had small tremors after three hours of shaking hands. When the tremors subsided, he picked up his pen and signed the document, declaring, “I have never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.”
Much less frequent than hand shaking, although more appealing to Lincoln, was the opportunity to kiss young ladies on the cheek. When the president-elect’s train stopped in Westfield, New York, Grace Bedell, the 11-year-old girl who had written to Lincoln to suggest that he grow a beard, was rewarded both by a hand shake and a kiss. Bedell recalled that Lincoln told her, “You see I let these whiskers grow for you Grace.”
Benjamin Brown French also documents a marathon kissing session after the Second Inaugural ceremonies. “In the procession,” wrote French in his diary, “was a sort of triumphal car, splendidly trimmed, ornamented and arranged, in which rode thirty-four young girls. On our return, the girls all alighted, & I took them in and introduced them to the President. He asked to be allowed to kiss them all, & he did so. It was a very interesting scene, & elicited much applause.” There are no accounts indicating if Lincoln’s whiskers tickled any of the young ladies.