A view from Dave Trott: Winning by a whisker
A view from Dave Trott

Winning by a whisker

As a young politician Abraham Lincoln was always clean-shaven.

It showed respect for the job.

At least that’s how Abraham Lincoln saw it.

Most men didn’t bother shaving, they just let their beard grow.

But Lincoln wanted to show he was serious and hard working.

So he always made the effort to be clean-shaven.

Unfortunately that meant his features were fully exposed.

Even his own biographer describes him as having "a large head, large and deep eye-caverns; a large nose; large ears; large mouth; very high and prominent cheek-bones; cheeks thin and sunken; and a thin and sinewy neck."

It was hard for people to warm to an appearance like that.

He was defeated for the state legislature in 1832.

He was defeated for Speaker in 1838.

He was defeated for Congress in 1843.

He was defeated for renomination in 1848.

He was defeated for the US Senate in 1853.

He was defeated in the nomination for vice president in 1856.

He was defeated again for the US Senate in 1858.

But in 1860, against the odds, he was nominated as the Republican candidate for President.

That year he received a letter from an 11-year-old girl called Grace Bedell.

"Sir, I want you to be President of the United States and, if you would let your whiskers grow, you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President."

Lincoln wrote back saying: "My Dear Little Miss, as to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a silly affectation if I were to begin it now?"

But it must have played on his mind because he did grow a beard.

And amazingly, later that year he was elected president.

Now normally that would just be a short, fanciful story.

But it doesn’t end there.

What makes it interesting is that, on his way to the inauguration, Lincoln’s train passed through Westfield, New York, where that little girl lived.

The train stopped and Lincoln made a speech.

He said there was a young girl in that town who had advised him to grow his beard.

He asked if she was in the crowd, and would she come forward.

Many years later, when she was an old lady, Grace Bedell recalled what he’d said.

"He climbed down and sat down with me on the station platform. He said, ‘Gracie, look at my whiskers. I have been growing them for you. Then he kissed me.’"

So Lincoln grew his beard on the advice of a young girl and became president.

And in every picture you see of Lincoln he has that beard.

And there are millions of pictures of Lincoln’s beard: on every one-cent coin and on every five-dollar bill.

Abraham Lincoln listened to the advice of an 11-year-old girl.

But today, no communications professional would think of listening to anything ordinary people say or think.

All the experts are far too clever to care about ordinary people.

And yet perhaps, like Abraham Lincoln, we’d do better if we learned to let go of that prejudice. 

As Lao Tzu said, "The wise man knows he doesn’t know. The fool doesn’t know he doesn’t know."

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.