Lincoln was an odd-looking creature, even for that time.
Today, at six-feet-four-inches, he would be considered tall, but back then he was considered a giant if you take into account the gradual growth of the American male over the last 150 years.
Not only that, he was very skinny, and became even more so as his war-torn administration progressed through the years; gawky would be a proper term for his physical appearance today.
His voice was high-pitched, especially for a man of his size.
His beard, which started growing free after being elected President, in combination with his big nose and heavy jutting eyebrows led cruel people on more than one occasion to call him a gorilla, baboon, or ape.
In addition, he was from the west (Illinois was a frontier state at the time), and the Eastern elite considered him crude, unpolished, unsophisticated, uneducated, and ill-mannered; known to tell vulgar stories and jokes, sometimes to the amusement of nobody but himself.
His clothes were also ill-fitting, with trousers often exposing his socks, coat too short, and oversized bowtie often a mangled mess.
Now, if you were to take stock of yourself in comparison to Lincoln after this description, how might you stack up?
Chances are you would seem to have an advantage over Lincoln in the ability to impress others.
Everybody in Washington D.C. at the time of his election thought so, too, but what no one took into account at first glance was Lincoln’s complete package.
Contemporaries who wrote about their encounters with Lincoln all mention some aspect of the physical appearance, but they also took note of his charm, charisma, disarming wit, self-deprecating humor, great humility, substantial intelligence, humane empathy, heartfelt sympathy, and political savvy.
More than one acquaintance wrote about how they were taken aback by their initial sight of his ugliness, but afterward came away feeling as if he or she were Lincoln’s friend, supporter, or even a member of his family – a few even claimed him quite handsome after their first meeting with him.
Other first encounter reports describe Lincoln as everything from a good man to someone that God himself had sent to save the United States of America.
Lincoln’s awkwardness and homeliness even worked to his advantage.
He was not a handsome “slick” politician with tailored suits, but he was a hard-working, effective one who provided well for his subordinates, and especially his army, in both resources and support.
For many military volunteers, he seemed more like an uncle or friend from their own hometown rather than a Washington bigwig.
One soldier wrote of the time Lincoln was inspecting the troops on a horse too small for him:
“…trousers gradually worked up above his ankles, and gave him the appearance of a country farmer riding into town wearing his Sunday clothes.” However, the troops he passed along the way “were so lost in admiration of the man that the humorous aspect did not seem to strike them…cheers broke forth from all the commands, and enthusiastic shouts and even words of familiar greeting met him on all sides.” [i]
The people who worked for Lincoln were obviously not inspired by the way he looked, but they did feel they had almost everything they needed to be successful.
What was Lincoln’s big secret to success? It was just Lincoln being Lincoln, and that was enough.
- A small-town prairie lawyer rises to national prominence and gets elected President.
- People underestimate him at their own peril.
- Lincoln is loved for who is; not the image he projects.
- The hearts of the people are with Lincoln, even in times of despair.
- The President is able to persuade his people much more easily than the average leader.
Be true to your nature. Other people will appreciate you for who you are, and will follow you if they are allowed to believe in you. Few people are as amazing a person as Lincoln was, but if we have even a fraction of what he had to offer, that’s probably really good.