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In Their Own Words

March 14, 1959

Ralph McGill Column on Abraham Lincoln

Ralph McGill authored this column, entitled “Portrait In A Nightshirt,” in the March 14 edition of the Atlanta Constitution:

“A painting of Abraham Lincoln in a white nightshirt was unveiled this week in the rotunda of the old Senate office building. Some lay critics, a little shocked to see the gaunt bearded President in a nightshirt, were dubious. But Sen. John Sherman Cooper, of Lincoln’s native state Kentucky, like it. ‘This painting captured the simple dignity, the solemn earnestness and determination of President Lincoln just before the Battle of Antietam.’ So it seemed to me. Too many of our great are pictured to us in marble or painted on canvas all dressed out as if prepared to give their Sunday-best front to posterity. This picture is a part of America of Lincoln’s time. Mean did wear nightshirts. The effete pajama had not been invented. Men slept in their underwear or nightshirts. The old kerosene lamp, the daguerreotypes in their round, walnut frames, the four-poster bed – all these are a part of our country that has been gone a long time. The nightshirt is a long one. Not many inches of the President’s thin shanks may be seen. His left leg is crossed over the right at the knee. And on his feet are the old brocaded felt slippers mentioned so often in the stories of the war years. It was his custom to shuffle about the White House on nights when the war news was bad or when there was no word from a great battle known to be in progress. He liked to go and visit with the telegraph operators, sitting with them, his legs crossed and the old slipper half-falling from the crossed feet. A telegraph operator, David Homer Bates, wrote of the President’s rising from an old hair-cloth sofa, where he often waited while telegrams were being de-coded, to discover and brush from the presidential lapel a bedbug. ‘Boy,’ he said, ‘I’ve become very fond of that old lounge, but as it has become a little buggy, I fear I must stop using it.’ Once the captain of the White House guards, who knocked each morning on the President’s door at 7 o’clock, found Lincoln sewing a button on a shirt, which he had to wear. ‘Come in,’ he said, ‘wait until I repair the damage.’ America was young in those years. The frontier was near. And not too many years were between young Lincoln, the railsplitter, and the President sewing on a button. The painting depicts Lincoln working on his notes for the emancipation proclamation of September, 1862. He was not in the White House on the night pictured in the painting. He was staying for a few days at the Soldiers Home, three miles out of Washington. News came that the advantage lay with the Union Army in the Battle of Antietam. Emancipation had been debated for some weeks. Indeed, the President previously had written a preliminary draft, but had put it aside. News of the battle seemed an omen. He wrote out the notes sitting in his bedroom – much as the painting has it. The preliminary proclamation provided for buying and setting free the slaves of the border states and colonizing them. All freed slaves who wished could have free steamer tickets to Haiti or Liberia. It further provided that on Jan 1, 1863, all slaves in the states ‘in rebellion against the Union should be then and thence forward forever free.’ The proclamation was made public after Cabinet acceptance on Monday, Sept. 4. That night the President addressed serenaders from a White House balcony: ‘What I did, I did after a full deliberation… .I can only trust in God I have made no mistake… .’ Looking at the picture of the deeply intense man, sitting there in a nightshirt by an old four-poster bed, lost in the momentous notes, one feels glad it occurred as it did. A lonely man, with only the presence of God in the room, was then and there setting in motion one of the great moral movements of all time.”

Source: Michael Strickland, Harry Davis, Jeff Strickland (comp.), The Best of Ralph McGill, Selected Columns (Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 162-163.