During his life Lincoln was well known as “Old Abe,” but in 20th-century America he was often remembered for his boyishness. That sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. For one thing, “Old Abe” never meant “old” chronologically. He was barely 40, says biographer David Donald, when the phrase took off in Illinois as an indicator of his “weather-beaten appearance” and his wealth of experience on the stump and the courthouse circuit.
And before long, “Old Abe” turned into a term of endearment as much as a reference to his leathery looks or his legal expertise. “Old Abe” meant “good old Abe”: it implied “original” and “unique” as much as wrinkled or venerable.
When journalist Lloyd Lewis, in his popular 1929 book Myths After Lincoln, called 56-year-old President Lincoln “joyous as a boy,” he was signaling his originality too, and his unpredictability. You never knew when the distant or brooding Lincoln might break into a sprightly display. Ironically, “Old Abe” may have stuck as a moniker because Lincoln defied chronological pigeonholing: the adult public man kept confounding expectations about age-appropriate behavior. He was careless about many things mature people were supposed to dwell on.
Lewis got the image of Lincoln’s boyish joy from an account published in 1887 of Lincoln’s euphoric afternoon in Richmond, Virginia, on April 4, 1865. Union troops had retaken the Confederate capital the day before, and Lincoln, surrounded by thousands of admiring black southerners, strode up the hill from the downtown dock to Jefferson Davis’s “White House,” newly occupied by Union General Godfrey Weitzel.
As Lincoln got within a few blocks of his destination, a Union officer named Thomas Thatcher Graves came upon the presidential party and offered to guide them the rest of the way. Lincoln was “walking with his usual long, careless stride,” Graves remembered in an 1887 article, “and looking about with an interested air and taking in everything.”
Once inside the mansion, Graves recalled, Lincoln sat down in Jefferson Davis’s chair, but his curiosity soon got the better of him. He jumped up and in “a boyish manner” bounded off to investigate the upstairs living quarters. Indoors or out, in Graves’s recollection, Lincoln was entranced by everything around him.
Naval officer John Barnes was present inside the mansion, too. He published his recollection of the scene two decades after Graves did, and he portrayed a very different Lincoln sitting in Davis’s chair. He remembered the president looking “pale and haggard,” and “utterly worn out with fatigue.” Barnes said Lincoln “sank down … in the chair almost warm from the pressure of the body of Jefferson Davis.” This Lincoln was too wiped out from his uphill trek through the dusty, smoky downtown to do anything but plop down and plead for a glass of water.
Whether the president was as joyous as a boy or plumb tuckered out, this remembered Lincoln was confirming a vital point made by northern journalists in 1865: he hadn’t sat down in Jefferson Davis’s chair in a huffy, arrogant manner. His motives were wholly innocent, like those of an elated child or a bedraggled oldster.
Thus, he couldn’t possibly have behaved in an imperial or vindictive way, as one might expect of a conquering commander-in-chief. Southern whites reading these accounts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries could rest assured that on April 4, 1865, Lincoln had done nothing to disrespect Jefferson Davis.
Other “boyish” episodes like the one described by Thomas Thatcher Graves may have been recorded in the late 19th century, if not also during Lincoln’s presidency. He was often called “as simple as a child,” or “as gentle as a woman,” but some observers may have gone further, anticipating Graves by detailing specifically “boyish” behavior. Describing him as a lovable boy carried a moral charge of innocent striving and blameless action.
In 20th-century American popular culture — especially in the dark days of the 1930s and early 1940s — frequent appeals were made to the virtue of boyishness, to the uncorrupted and youthful male spirit nurtured in rural or small-town America. John Ford pressed an Abe Lincoln of that description into service in his 1939 film Young Mister Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda.
This wholesome, pristine Lincoln, along with his cinematic companion of 1939 — the Lincoln-loving Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — offered hope for defending and redeeming a threatened Republic. Both young men were poised for greatness: accomplished enough to perform heroically in provincial courtroom or U.S. Senate, but uncorrupted by the treacheries of power politics.