The daily routine of the President of the United States has
changed dramatically in the 130 years since Lincoln served as
chief executive. Nowhere is this more apparent than in public
accessibility to the President. Today, the public is all but excluded
from direct contact with the commander-in-chief. Only those who
hold and/or distribute power or wealth are allowed the privilege
of communicating directly with the Oval Office.
Such was not the case in Abraham Lincoln's day. Anyone, from the highest public official to the common citizen, could show up at the White House and vie for an interview with Lincoln. And the people came in droves. Elected and appointed officials sought or offered counsel; many appeared asking for favors or patronage jobs; a good number of citizens asked for Lincoln's aid in military matters: seeking freedom for a sick prisoner or a pardon for a court-martialed serviceman; others just came to look, to meet and shake hands with the President. We can consider it our good fortune that many of those who met with Lincoln made record of their experience.
In Meeting Mr. Lincoln: Firsthand Recollections of Abraham Lincoln by People, Great and Small, Who Met the President, Victoria Radford compiles twenty-seven such recollections. Drawn from a number of sources, these reminiscences record not only the applicant's impressions of Lincoln himself, but also the machinations and difficulties involved in getting to see the President in the first place.
While the process of meeting Lincoln was technically "open" to all individuals, the President only had so many hours he could devote to personal interviews. Thus, there was some prioritizing that went on. Elected and military officials were usually bumped to the head of the line, meaning common folk with no "connections" were kept waiting. Often, applicants had to return to the White House day after day, waiting for their few minutes of time with the President in the public reception rooms.
One would have better luck of a quick meeting if they had connections. A card or letter from an old acquaintance of the President proved a key to Lincoln's attention for many. The assistance of a member of Congress helped some. And Lincoln's fondness for children and young people proved valuable for younger applicants.
Once someone had been granted an interview with the President, their chances for getting what they were seeking was very good. Lincoln's compassion and willingness to help anyone in need are legendary. He regularly granted leaves, pardons, and discharges to those seeking them. In chapters titled, "Lincoln's Mercy" and "Lincoln's Kindness", Radford relates this softer side of Lincoln's nature. Other chapters cover "First Impressions" and "Lincoln in Carpet Slippers." The latter segment relates Lincoln's homespun nature and his informal attitude toward his appearance.
In all, Meeting Mr. Lincoln is a thoroughly enjoyable compilation of first-person reminiscences by people who met the
great Lincoln. It left me wanting to read about more such encounters.
A word must be said as to publisher Ivan R. Dee's production of this book. To paraphrase the late Alfred A. Knopf, it is just as economical to produce an attractive book as it is to make an ugly one. Ivan R. Dee's effort to produce an attractive book succeeded. The reader is treated to a cloth spine and a blindstamped signature of "A. Lincoln" on the front cover, which make for a very handsome production.
Taken as a whole, Meeting Mr. Lincoln: Firsthand Recollections of Abraham Lincoln by People, Great and Small, Who Met the President makes for a very handsome production as well as an interesting look at the public perceptions of Abraham Lincoln.