"Too Ricketty to venerate."(The Truth about the Lincoln Bedroom)(room in White House Used by Abraham Lincoln)

By Holzer, Harold | American Heritage, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

"Too Ricketty to venerate."(The Truth about the Lincoln Bedroom)(room in White House Used by Abraham Lincoln)


Holzer, Harold, American Heritage


For generations, americas reserved their most fervent "landmark reverence" for those rooms that could boast George Washington--not Abraham Lincoln--slept here.

But that was before the so-called Lincoln Bedroom in the White House assumed, just about the time of his 188th birthday this year, the status of national shrine. And oddly, the sudden transfiguration was attributable not to any new discoveries about the chamber itself or its contents, but to revelations that President Clinton had allegedly violated its hallowed ambience by inviting a procession of more or less unsavory guests to camp out there.

Suddenly, Lincoln's nineteenth-century plea for "charity for all" was being mocked as an open sesame for friends of the current President to snuggle beneath a counterpane that now seemed no less sacred than the shroud of Turin. The truth is, whatever rankled press and public about President Clinton's bulging guest list for the Lincoln Bedroom, excluded from the reasons should be the promiscuous invasion of an American hero's most private space. Among the few famous Americans who never slept in the Lincoln Bedroom is Abraham Lincoln himself.

That is, unless he fell asleep at his desk. During the Civil War, this was the place where the President worked, not dozed. In fact (notwithstanding a flood of recent misinformation from White House spokespeople and historians alike), it was never his bedroom at all. With appealing simplicity, Lincoln called it "the shop."

Today's ground-floor Oval Office did not exist in Lincoln's White House. The second-floor room that is currently, and misleadingly, furnished with the now-famous eight-foot-long rosewood bed (which Lincoln probably never used himself, and certainly not in this part of the mansion) functioned as his place of business. Mary Lincoln ordered the bed, along with two armchairs, four wall chairs, a washstand, a bureau, and a sofa from William Carryl & Bro. of Philadelphia on May 29, 1861, paying the grand sum of eight hundred dollars for the entire inventory. But none of the pieces were ever employed in the office while the Lincolns lived and worked there.

Instead, next to the window overlooking the Washington Monument, then an unsightly, unfinished stump, stood Lincoln's "second hand mahogany upright" desk. To his clerk it looked as if it had come "from some old-furniture auction." Here Lincoln read his mail, wrote letters, and filed his own papers in pigeonholes. In one compartment marked "Assassination" he even preserved death threats (a file, incidentally, that vanished after his murder).

In the center of the once-modest room with the ugly, dark green wallpaper and stained carpet was a plain table surrounded by a suite of simple chairs, their backs so low that the towering Lincoln could not have leaned backward in any of them without toppling over. Here he presided over cabinet meetings and war councils. But ministers and generals were not the only people who enjoyed access to his office.

Here, too, for five exhausting hours a day, two days each week, Lincoln greeted an endless stream of visitors--more in a month than any modern President could possibly welcome in an entire term. Lincoln's were not specially invited guests. They were members of the general public who lined up outside his office door for the chance briefly to see their Chief Magistrate: to ask favors, plead for jobs, or appeal grievances; to demonstrate crackpot inventions, offer hectoring suggestions, or issue bitter denunciations. …

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