Lincoln from Postmaster to President

Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

A dedicated public servant, Lincoln’s first civil service position began at the age of twenty-four as the postmaster of the New Salem, Illinois post office.

The Man Needed For The Times

At the First Day Ceremony for the release of the Prominent Americans Issue Abraham Lincoln postage stamp, Assistant Postmaster General Richard Murphy stated, “It has been the fortunate destiny of the United States that when the gravity of the times demand great men for leadership, great men appear on the stage…The appearance of Abraham Lincoln as our sixteenth president is certainly the best example of this truism.”

The founding fathers of the United States chartered our nation, its laws and its essential governing institutions. President Abraham Lincoln guided the nation through a civil war and kept the work of the founding fathers from falling apart.

Lincoln’s political career illuminates a dedicated public servant with four terms in the Illinois House of Representatives, one term in the US House of Representatives, and finally serving as the sixteenth president of the United States. However, Lincoln’s first civil service position began at the age of twenty-four as the postmaster of the New Salem, Illinois, post office. He was appointed to this position on May 7, 1833. The following year he won election to the Illinois House of Representatives. In 1836, Lincoln won reelection to the State House and with the closing of the New Salem Post Office, ended his tenure as Postmaster. With his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Lincoln became the only president of the United States to have previously served as a town postmaster.

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, near Hodgenville in Hardin Country, Kentucky. The Lincoln family moved to Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana, in 1816. Two years later when Lincoln was nine years old, his mother Sarah died. The family moved again in 1830 to Illinois, where Lincoln resided until moving to Washington, DC, in 1861.

His entire pre-presidential political career involved representing the people of Illinois, leading to the state’s official slogan “Land of Lincoln.” Though Illinois played a vital role in Lincoln’s life, it can not be forgotten that the state of Kentucky is the president’s birthplace.

Lincoln's Kentucky birthplace has been showcased on numerous worldwide postage stamps and event envelopes.

Lincoln Birthplace National Monument

Lincoln was born on the 300 acre Sinking Springs Farm. A replica of his original one-room log cabin home is located inside the monument.

Postmaster Lincoln

On May 7, 1833, Lincoln was appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois. In this position, "Honest Abe" would carry letters in his top hat for the chance encounter with their intended recipients. In addition to a salary, his position as Postmaster entitled him to send and receive mail free of charge and receive free delivery of one newspaper. Lincoln worked as New Salem’s postmaster for three years until his election to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1836.

Lincoln was the only president to be appointed and serve as a town postmaster. Harry S. Truman was also appointed to be a town postmaster, but immediately signed over the position's pay and responcibilities to another individual. Documentation of Lincoln's work as postmaster of New Salem exists. The Official Registrar of the United States indicates that Lincoln received $55.70 in pay in 1835, along with $19.48 for a quarter of a year's worth of work two years later.

The cover shown here celebrates the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s appointment as postmaster of New Salem. It was postmarked in Springfield, Illinois, a crucial political center for Lincoln during his political life. The cachet depicts an image of the president with three buildings above his head, his log cabin, the Illinois State Capitol Building, and the White House. A facsimile of Lincoln's signature appears at the far left of the envelope. Scout Richard Holt carried this envelope to Springfield, Illinois, via the Lincoln Trail in New Salem before arriving at its final destination, the office of South Dakota’s Governor Tom Berry.

Illinois State Capitol Building in Springfield

The 1858 Senate Race

During Lincoln's developing political career, slavery grew as an even more divisive issue. One area of controversy centered on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed settlers to determine whether their future states would allow slavery or be free states. Intended as a compromise, the resulting tensions and violence surrounding the issue of slavery split the Democratic Party and led to the dissolution of the Whig Party.

A member of the Whig Party, Lincoln eventually joined the new Republican Party, a group founded by anti-slavery Democrats and members of the Know Nothings.

In 1858, as a Republican, Lincoln ran against Stephen Douglas for a seat in the US Senate. While Lincoln opposed slavery, Douglas supported allowing the people to determine their will via popular sovereignty. Many viewed this as a concession to the slave holding Southern states. Thousands flocked to see the men passionately argue about important national topics. Eventually, Douglas emerged the victor.

The Post Office Department issued four stamps between 1958 and 1959 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. The third stamp of the series, issued on August 27, 1958, commemorated the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The Post Office Department dedicated the stamp at Freeport, Illinois, a city where the two politicians had one of their many famous battles. The image, based on a painting by Joseph Boggs Beale, shows Lincoln speaking to a crowd while Douglas stands behind him. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced 114,860,200 4-cent Lincoln-Douglass Debates commemorative stamps.

"Those Who Deny Freedom To Others..."

Abraham Lincoln’s national stature increased greatly following his 1858 US Senate race against Stephen Douglas. This new celebrity status was particularly evident among Republican Party members. Throughout 1859, Lincoln received numerous invitations to speak to crowds all over Illinois and the Midwest.

On April 6, 1859, Lincoln wrote a letter to a group in Boston celebrating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. The primary addressee was H.L. Pierce, a political activist from Boston and a future Republican US congressman. In the letter, Lincoln declined the group’s invitation to attend the festivities, but the correspondence also included remarks on the ironies of the transformation of America’s political parties and concluded with some thoughts on the issue of slavery. “This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.” This quote includes some of Lincoln’s most famous words on the topic of human freedom before coming to the White House.

Honoring Lincoln In His Own Words

On November 19, 1960, just thirteen days after the 100th anniversary of the 1860 Presidential Election, the Post Office Department issued a stamp featuring Abraham’s Lincoln’s famous words “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”

The stamp was the fifth of the American Credo Issue which included stamps featuring famous quotes from George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Francis Scott Key. The Post Office Department stated that the goal of the series was to “re-emphasize the ideals upon which America was founded and to honor those great Americans who wrote or uttered the credos.” The Lincoln stamp resembles the other stamps issued earlier in the series, containing the quote and the signature of the honored individual. A seated figure representing freedom with an olive branch also adorns the Lincoln stamp.

The Post Office Department issued the stamp at the twelfth annual National Postage Stamp Show, sponsored by the American Stamp Dealers Association. The dedication for the stamp occurred at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The National Urban League, an organization that advocates economic and educational advancements among African Americans, sponsored the event in conjunction with their jubilee celebration.

The 1860 Republican Nomination

Even though he lost the 1858 Senate race, Lincoln was an appealing politician for the newly formed Republican Party. His debates with Douglas demonstrated his principled nature and intelligence. He quickly became popular in the eyes of the public.

In 1856, the Republicans had selected John C. Fremont as their presidential candidate. Despite the fact that he was admired for his explorations in the west, he failed to win the election. The party now looked to the widely respected Abraham Lincoln for the 1860 election. At the party's convention in Chicago, "Honest Abe" became the next presidential hopeful. Seasoned US Senator from Maine, Hannibal Hamlin was selected to be Lincoln’s running mate. Such a selection brought “geographic balance” to the ticket.

The 1860 Presidential Election

Four men ran for president in 1860: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, John Bell, and John Breckinridge. Lincoln’s Republican Party was more united in comparison to his competitors, and he ran a vigorous campaign filled with parades and other activities.

Lincoln received almost 40 percent of the popular vote with over 1.8 million votes. This resulted in Lincoln receiving 180 votes in the Electoral College. His main national competitor in terms of votes in the Electoral College was the Southern Democrat candidate John Breckinridge, the incumbent Vice President under James Buchanan. Breckinridge received 18 percent of the popular vote and 72 votes in the Electoral College. Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democrat nominee received the second highest percentage of popular votes, 29.5 percent, but finished last in the number of votes in the Electoral College at 12. Douglas and Lincoln competed against each other intensely trying to win the votes of populations in northern states. Unfortunately for Douglas, Lincoln took the majority of the states they each heavily contested.

Many different northern companies printed stationary for the campaigns during 1860. Typically, Lincoln was depicted more often than his competitors. This cover postmarked in Utica, New York was used to promote Lincoln’s presidential campaign. It portrays the “beardless Lincoln” surrounded by wreaths and an eagle. The image of a log cabin refers to the presidential candidate’s humble roots in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Lincoln is chopping wood for a rail fence on the envelope, proclaiming him as a “rail-splitter.” Such representations showed that he was strong and energetic, characteristics that the candidate wanted the public to observe. The cover also gives the names of both Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin. These campaign covers were very popular during the campaign. Only small pins worn on clothing with the names of the candidates had a wider distribution.

An 1860 Abraham Lincoln campaign cover

Campaign covers (envelopes) were very popular during the 1860 campaign. Only small pins worn on clothing with the names of the candidates had a wider distribution.

A Suggestion For Lincoln

Less than three weeks before the 1860 election, an eleven year old girl from Westfield, New York, named Grace Bedell wrote a letter to the Republican Party presidential candidate. In her letter, Bedell told Lincoln that after seeing a picture of him from a campaign poster that her father brought home, she was inspired to write to him. She wrote, “I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you anyway and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you...you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.”

Earlier in Grace Bedell’s letter she asked Lincoln if he had any daughters. In his reply four days later, Lincoln addressed this question first: "My dear little Miss…I regret the necessity of saying that I have no daughters. I have three sons..one seventeen, one nine, and one seven, years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family. As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now? Your very sincere well wisher A. Lincoln"

Grace Bedell got a chance to see for herself if the “whiskers” she suggested fitted Abraham Lincoln as she expected. While en route from Springfield, Illinois, to his inauguration in Washington, DC, President-elect Abraham Lincoln stopped in Grace Bedell’s hometown of Westfield, New York. At the stop, Lincoln asked if he could meet Miss Bedell. After coming up from the crowd, Lincoln told her, “you see I have let these whiskers grow for you, Grace.” (Scott 2106)

The image of President Lincoln with his youngest son Tad featured on the Nation of Readers stamp was based on a photograph taken by Matthew Brady. Tad was seven years old when Lincoln responded to Grace Bedell's letter and Lincoln's beard, evident in the stamp and photo, was a direct consequence of their exchange.

Lincoln Wins in 1860

Lincoln won the presidency in November 1860, and was inaugurated on March 4, 1861.

This stamp features a portrait of Lincoln painted by George Healy right after Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election. This was one of the last images produced from life that portrayed the Lincoln without a beard. The 1-cent Lincoln Sesquicentennial stamp was issued February 12, 1959. (Scott 1113)

Lincoln Wins Again in 1864

Amidst the bloodshed and chaos of the Civil War, the Union faced a presidential election. President Lincoln ran for a second term but replaced Vice President Hamlin on the ticket with Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat. This critical segment of the Democratic Party supported the war effort and the Republicans sought to gain their support in the 1864 election. Lincoln and his running mate supported a quick end to the war, the abolition of slavery and reconstruction of the southern states following the end of hostilities. Lincoln’s opponent, General George McClellan, ran as the nominee for the Democratic Party, which wanted to end the war and accommodate the Confederacy. President Lincoln defeated General McClellan in the election winning twenty-two states to McClellan’s three.

This 1864 presidential election campaign cover featuring President Lincoln and his nominee for Vice President Andrew Johnson as the "Union Standard Bearers for 1864"

The Assassination

On the evening of April 14, 1865, President Lincoln, his wife and two friends attended a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC. During the performance, a Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth entered the President's box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head.

The wounded Lincoln was immediately taken across the street to Petersen House where he died in this room the following morning.

East Room of the White House

In April of 1865, the East Room was filled with mourners surrounding the body of President Lincoln after his assassination.

In April 1866, the Post Office Department issued a 15-cent black Lincoln stamp. The stamp is usually categorized as a regular issue intended to pay the first class rate to France or Prussia. Many believe with its release so soon after Lincoln’s death and in a black color indicated that it was issued as a commemorative mourning stamp. Up until this stamp issue, the persons featured on American stamps had been dead for several years, if not decades.

Even after Lincoln's untimely death, his legacy—as preserver of the Union and destroyer of the institution of slavery continued to impact the United States.

Smithsonian's National Postal Museum
Credits: Story

Created by:

Alexander T. Haimann
Collections Specialist,
Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Clifford R. Haimann
Research Intern,
Smithsonian National Postal Museum

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