Looking back even further, a letter signed by Abraham Lincoln may offer insight into the perils of interpreting private presidential consolations in a broader public light. And the controversy around Lincoln’s letter is still unfolding.
How Lincoln wrote a letter (or did he?) to a woman who lost five sons at war (or did she?)
During his time in office, Lincoln encountered more wounded soldiers than any other president, partly because of the Civil War’s proximity. He also spent several summers living in a cottage at the north end of the District of Columbia that was next door to an army hospital and a veterans’ retirement home. On his daily commute to the White House, carts carrying the wounded often clogged the roads.
“Seeing the wounded was part of his everyday life,” said Erin Carlson Mast, the chief executive of President Lincoln’s Cottage, a historic site and museum.
This exposure made Lincoln particularly empathetic about the sacrifices of soldiers, according to historians, academics and contemporaneous accounts. But that empathy may have led to a huge historical misunderstanding.
In November 1864, a letter “signed by A. Lincoln” was sent to Lydia Bixby of Boston, who was recognized as “the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.”
As was somewhat common for prominent correspondence at the time, the letter was published in a newspaper, The Boston Evening Transcript. The letter read:
Executive Mansion, Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
I have been shown, in the files of the War Department, a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
The letter resonated with a weary population divided by war, and was quickly reproduced in other newspapers across the North. It appeared in The New York Times on November 26, 1864, amid other sober developments from the war’s many fronts.
The legacy of the Lincoln-Bixby letter would far outlive its writer and recipient. Indeed, the controversies began many decades later. For two weeks in August 1925, a drama played out in the pages of The Times as a Bixby descendant went looking for the original copy of the text. This led to renewed interest (and scrutiny) of the famous correspondence, culminating in an exclusive Times report that two of the famous Bixby boys did not die during the war.
In the coming decades, the story would keep evolving. A 1933 Times editorial was among the first speculation that the letter was actually written by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay. Multiple pieces of reporting and books were dedicated to resolving the question of the letter’s authorship and the fate of the Bixbys. As recently as July 2017, a team of forensic linguists published research they believed confirmed Hay as the author.
The circumstances of the Lincoln controversy are far different from those surrounding Mr. Trump. But the long drama around Lincoln’s correspondence shows that when private offers of condolence become public, they can mutate into an entirely different conversation.