Among the oldest liberties assigned to themselves by government officials is the franking privilege. In Europe it applied to the monarch and highest courtiers. In the U.S. in Lincoln’s day, it allowed a President, his private secretary, a Cabinet member, First Lady, Member of Congress, and a few others to send mail for free. The ‘frank’ is simply their signature written on the envelope where a stamp or seal would normally go.
Lincoln used this privilege often enough, for official business of course. ‘A. Lincoln / M.C.’ (for Member of Congress) appears on a few surviving envelopes from the years 1847-1849. While president, he and his office sent out scores of franked missives each week, and some of these survive, too, though most recipients (then as now) tossed out envelopes. Among the rarest of this type are envelopes with black mourning borders, used for a few weeks after Willie Lincoln died in 1862.
A new type came to the attention of the ALPLM this year. In 2010 we acquired two empty envelopes, both addressed in a fine hand to Hon. John T. Stuart /Springfield/Illinois and sent by free frank “From the President of the United States/ Priv. Sec.” and the signature of John G. Nicolay. As private secretary to the president, Nicolay signed many hundreds of these. The postmarks confirm the privilege: ‘Washington, D.C., FREE’ and the respective dates, March 22 and May 8, 1861.
Who was sending these? The address line is not the hand of Nicolay, nor his assistant John Hay, nor those of Abraham, Mary, Robert, nor even the precocious Willie Lincoln. (Mr. Nicolay did frank Willie’s outgoing letters.) Should one suspect Nicolay of abusing the franking privilege for some friend? Nothing we know of this scrupulous and tireless Bavarian-born public servant, orphaned at 14, suggests that he did anything but work hard his whole life.
Furthermore, no letter by Abraham or Mary to her cousin John was known to date from those weeks. So, who else had this access?
The answer: Mary’s cousin, and Stuart’s cousin also, Elizabeth Todd Grimsley. Married to a man who died young, who never quite provided for her in the manner a Todd might expect, she did need a hand. She traveled with and moved into the Executive Mansion alongside the Lincolns on March 4, 1861. In addition to helping the family get settled, and using her schoolgirl French — as did Mary Lincoln, one night in dinner conversation with the Danish minister to the U.S. — ‘Lizzie’ Grimsley was trying to get appointed as a postmistress. President Lincoln alone had the power to appoint her.
It was not her sex or her inside track that gave him pause; he named more than 400 women to such an office. As Lincoln wrote to Stuart on March 30, “The question of giving her the Springfield Post-office troubles me,” because he had just given out jobs to two relatives of Illinois’s junior senator, Lyman Trumbull, and people already criticized Lincoln’s penchant for appointing his old friends as well as Mary’s relations to federal positions. Stuart advised that Lincoln ought not “let the case of Cousin Lizzie trouble … you.” Mainly, cousin Lizzie was too slow: one Beecher Todd had just been named postmaster of Lexington, Ky., and one Washington newspaper jested that 100 Todds were in the city looking for jobs.
Postmasterships were by far the largest category of federal jobs before the war broke out. Applicants and recommenders barraged Lincoln with mail (postage paid) in pursuit of these positions, and ‘Cousin Lizzie’ was after all a loyal Kentuckian, the type of person Lincoln wanted to see in office, anywhere, as war neared. A Buchanan-era Democrat who held the Springfield job, however, kept it till mid-August, when Lincoln appointed someone else. Cousin Lizzie had felt since May that she overstayed her welcome, but confided to cousin John that her own brother as well as Mary Lincoln “insisted” or “urged and urged” her to stay.
Yet once the Springfield job was filled, cousin Lizzie left the White House, after a six-month stay. One of the franked letters to cousin John had indeed discussed the post-office matter, and thus vaguely counted as ‘government business.’ Whether she was qualified to be a postmistress, we will never know. But she did demonstrate that she knew how to use the mails, and presumably did pay for many stamps — after she had left Washington.
A side note to this story for collectors: her two letters to cousin John were donated to what is now the ALPLM in 1937. How many hands did the envelopes pass through before being now reunited with the letters?