When Lincoln Was More a Politician Than an “Honest Abe”

He resorted to a dirty trick to embarrass a rival

Abraham Lincoln photographed shortly after the presidential election in November 1860, by Alex Hesler of Chicago, at Lincoln's home in Springfield, Illinois. Historic Images of the Smithsonian

When Abraham Lincoln was on the 1860 campaign trail, he received the advanced sheets of a biography being written about him by journalist John Locke Scripps. In one chapter, Scripps claimed that Lincoln had studied the ancient Greek historian Plutarch.

The Classics, including Plutarch, were a part of the curriculum taught to young boys growing up in the West, and Scripps just assumed that Lincoln would have read him as well. But Lincoln wasn’t familiar with Plutarch, and the idea that the biography—the first one ever to be written about Lincoln—might incorrectly lead people to believe that he was versed in the scholar didn’t sit well with him. So Lincoln came up with a solution: he would make Scripps’ story true by reading Plutarch.

After studying up on the historian, the future president then summoned for Scripps. During what must have been a tense conversation, he informed the journalist of his error:

“That paragraph wherein you state that I read Plutarch's 'Lives' was not true when you wrote it for up to that moment in my life I had never seen that early contribution to human history; but I want your book, even if it is nothing more than a campaign sketch, to be faithful to the facts; and in order that that statement might be literally true, I just secured the book a few days ago, and have sent for you to tell you I have just read it through.”

The campaign trail anecdote dovetails nicely into Lincoln’s lasting legacy as “Honest Abe.” He got the nickname years earlier in Illinois. It was there, in New Salem, where the gawky young man with distinctive features famously held down his job as a store clerk (and later, store manager, postmaster, surveyor, and State Assemblyman), and meticulously doled out exact change—even, as the stories go, following customers out the door if he accidentally shortchanged them. But though it was in his capacity carefully counting coins that he earned his nickname, it was only in death that Lincoln’s unflappable reputation for honesty cemented.

The lore of Lincoln was forged by the president’s two private secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, Joshua Zeitz writes in Smithsonian. “The boys,” as Lincoln called them, constructed the image of modern Lincoln in their role as his official biographers. This, Zeitz argues, is why today’s schoolchildren get to know Lincoln as “the sage father figure; the military genius; the greatest American orator; the brilliant political tactician; the master of a fractious cabinet who forged a ‘team of rivals’ out of erstwhile challengers for the throne; the Lincoln Memorial Lincoln.”

Hay and Nicolay weren’t the only ones who flamed the president’s mythos. Lincoln’s longtime law partner William Henry Herndon spent 20 years writing a biography of Lincoln just to sort fact from fiction when it came to his old friend. Still, even in his 1892 book, The Life of Lincoln, Herndon philosophizes: “There was something in his tall and angular frame, his ill-fitting garments, honest face, and lively humor that imprinted his individuality on my affection and regard.”

Honest face aside, Herndon’s biography also makes the observation that Lincoln was “the most ambitious man I ever saw or expect to see.” That statement is a more useful jumping off point to explore the 16th president. For all his greatness, Lincoln was human. So as Gabor Boritt notes in The New York Times, while Lincoln held dearly to the Shakespeare phrase that great people ''have pow'r to hurt and will do none,” the sharp rhetoric skills that carried him from a childhood of rural poverty to the presidency also helped him bend the truth when the situation called for it.

Here's one occasion when Honest Abe wasn’t quite so honest:

It was the summer of 1842, and the State Bank of Illinois had gone bottom up. Paper currency was rendered worthless and the bank announced it would only accept gold or silver—currency that the average citizen didn’t have.

The state auditor who supported the bank and made the decision that tax collectors couldn't collect paper currency to settle debts was a Democrat named James Shields. In the late 1830s, Lincoln had served with Shields on the Illinois state legislature. The Whig and the Democrat seemed to enjoy a congenial relationship with one another at the time.

But after Shields' decision, Lincoln was incensed, and he asked his friend, the editor of the Sangamo Journal, for a favor: the ability to publish under a penname. A series of “Aunt Rebecca” letters followed. Under the guise of a farmer, Lincoln, who authored at least one of the letters (Mary Todd and her close friend Julia Jayne also tried on the “Aunt Rebecca” hat), proceeded to attack Shields’ politics, not to mention his person.

The second “Aunt Rebecca” letter, which Lincoln admitted to writing, parodies Shields, and has him act like a cad as he addresses a group of young women. The letter reads, in part, “Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you at all. Too well I know how much you suffer; but do, do, remember, it is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting.”

As Michael Burlingame chronicles in Abraham Lincoln: A Life, the letters got so cutting that Shields began to be laughed at in the streets. Shields demanded to know the author’s identity and called for an apology and a retraction. In a letter to Lincoln, he wrote, "I have become the object of slander, vituperation and personal abuse, which were I capable of submitting to I would prove myself worthy of the whole of it."

Lincoln ultimately admitted to the pseudonym. While accounts differ on what exactly happened next, on September 22, 1842, the two met up near Alton, Illinois, with plans for a duel. Before they could come to blows, mutual friends managed to get the two to work out their differences peacefully.

This wasn't the first nor would it be the last time that “Honest Abe” stretched the truth. Odds are, though, Lincoln likely wouldn’t have taken offense to being called out for the times he didn’t quite live up to his reputation. Later in life, on the subject of criticism he said, “I should regret to see the day in which the people should cease to express intelligent, honest generous criticism upon the policy of their rulers.”

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