Wrestling in Lincoln’s White House

Abraham Lincoln, circa 1858, by Abraham Byers, Beardstown, IL, Courtesy of Creative CommonsAbraham Lincoln, burdened as only a commander in chief could be in the midst of terrible civil war, beset by feuding or reluctant generals, harried by restive dis-unionists in border states, beleaguered by constituents petitioning for pardons or pleading for favors, under continual threat of assassination, and struggling with bouts of melancholy, found respite in his young sons’ play at the White House.

The White House, just two-stories tall at the time of Lincoln’s presidency, featured a broad, flat roof that young sons Willie and “Tad” annexed as a playing field. Their babysitter, Julia Taft, recalled how the boys once contrived a circus there. The boys dressed as matrons in old bonnets and silks and charged the staff a nickel to hear them sing “Old Abe Lincoln Came Out of the Wilderness.” They commandeered the White House attics, too. There they found the communication hub, the original bell system controlled by a series of levers and cables, that, when tugged at, caused the Secretary of State, the doorman, and probably the servants, Pinkertons, and frantic messengers, as well, to come running to answer the calls.

The cabinet members fumed at the interruptions and pranks and even the gardener called them “wildcats.” The boys once doused dignitaries with a fire hose, for example, and later they drilled the White House serving staff like troops. And although a string of tutors quit in exasperation, the President and Mrs. Lincoln remained remarkably tolerant of the boyish behavior that eyewitnesses and historians described as “rambunctious,” “rollicking,” “spontaneous,” and “imaginative.”

Julia Taft, Courtesy of Illinois State Historical LibraryTheir playful imaginations at work, the boys once woke the weary chief executive with “Indian war whoops.” They set up a prisoner of war camp and interned a neighborhood cat and a patient dog. Another time, Julia Taft’s two brothers joined Tad and Willie in a wrestling match with the President. Hearing the racket, the nanny rushed to quell it, but opening the door, “beheld the President lying on the floor with the four boys trying to hold him down.” Noting the President’s “broad grin” and turning to leave, the responsible, self-possessed girl heard Tads’ taunt: “Julie, come sit on his stomach!”

We can imagine Julie’s eye-rolling. But remember, of the 16 men who had served in this nation’s highest office, this was the President who most enjoyed wrestling, a high-spirited tussle and public spectacle that his fellow self-reliant citizens of the West—Kentucky and Illinois—also took a great deal of pleasure in. In fact, Lincoln had long since established his reputation for physical strength by besting the leader of the Clary’s Grove boys, a gang of frontier toughs and braggarts, in a renowned grappling match that took place in the small town of New Salem, Illinois in 1831. A lanky 6’4” and 185 pounds and toughened by hard work, Lincoln is said to have lifted burly Jack Armstrong over his head in a decisive move that gained the respect of the village and made the two contestants fast and good-humored friends.

Lincoln reading to Tad, Feb. 1865, Courtesy of Creative CommonsIf the experience of a rough-and-tumble frontier life added to a lack of formal schooling to shape Lincoln’s indulgent attitudes toward his sons’ rambunctious behavior, the wisdom he gained from political wrangling served him well, too. The future president learned to indulge his political opponents, skillfully drawing out their weaknesses while building his celebrated strength of character that in modern parlance we now call “emotional intelligence.”

The kind of wisdom born of contest and give-and-take never comes easily, however. The hard experience of a lifetime, the demanding play of politics, was written in the man’s own famous, craggy features. When in a celebrated debate that took place during the senatorial campaign of 1858, his opponent, Steven Douglas, called him “two-faced,” Lincoln deflected the force of the insult with a nimble, self-deprecating retort. “I leave it to my audience,” Lincoln replied, pausing for effect, “If I had another face, why would I be wearing this one?”