Presidents Day: Why fangirls loved Washington and Lincoln

Presidents Day: Why fangirls loved Washington and Lincoln
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Presidents Day 2020 comes during a presidential election that is full of images of countless fans shaking hands with Democratic candidates and stadiums overflowing with tens of thousands of red-hatted Trump fans. 

How did fans interact with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the presidents most celebrated on Presidents Day? While not gathering in stadiums, supporters creatively expressed their enthusiasm. Their fandom gives us a fun look at these presidents this Presidents Day. 

Washington's first fangirl

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"I was struck with General Washington. You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of him, but I thought the one half was not told me," Abigail Adams swooned to her short, peevish husband, John Adams, in July 1775. She was blown away after meeting the towering, charismatic Washington for the first time in Massachusetts. Away in Philadelphia, John had nominated Washington for the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. 

"Dignity with ease, and complacency, the gentleman and soldier look agreeably blended in him," she continued. "Modesty marks every line and feature of his face." 

She didn't stop there. "Mark his majestic fabric! He's a temple. Sacred by birth and built by hands divine. His soul's the deity that lodges there.”

Abigail was also notable. Her call to her husband to remember the ladies launched a long quest that culminated in all women winning the right to vote in 1920, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Most of Washington's fans started out liking someone else.

Washington's Crossover Fans

"O may your sceptre num’rous nations sway, and all with love and readiness obey!" Phillis Wheatley praised King George III in 1768 in one of her many published poems, a first for an African-American. She is often remembered during February's Black History Month. 

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Brought to Massachusetts as a slave in 1761, Phillis received an education from John and Susanna Wheatley, who freed her in 1774. When the king's army killed innocents on her street in the Boston Massacre, her royal loyalty dissipated. Instead, she praised Washington in a 1775 poem.

"Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, with gold unfading, Washington! Be thine."

Not only that but this crossover fan also boldly sent him her poem. "The fame of your virtues, excite sensations not easy to suppress," Phillis confessed in her letter. 

How did he respond? Washington wrote her back: "The style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical talents." While an aide published it in a magazine, Washington issued an invitation. "If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the muses."

Years later, just catching a glimpse of Washington topped his fans' bucket list.

"Many persons who were in the crowd were heard to say that they should now die contented – nothing being wanted to complete their happiness . . . but the sight of the savior of his country,” the Gazette of the United States reported of the tens of thousands who greeted Washington with flowers and flags on his way to New York for his 1789 inauguration.

Not all fans are effusive, as a presidential candidate later discovered.

Lincoln's loyal critic

Grow a beard.

"You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin," Grace Bedell age 11, wrote Abraham Lincoln in 1860. "All the ladies like whiskers, and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be president."

How did Lincoln respond?

"You see? I let these whiskers grow for you," the bearded Lincoln told Grace after stopping at her hometown of Westfield, New York, on his way to Washington D.C., where 25,000 gathered for his inauguration.

He later discovered that some fans would travel a great distance just to see him.  

Lincoln's grateful superfan

This is Sojourner Truth, who has come all the way from Michigan to see you,” an abolitionist introduced the renowned preacher to Lincoln at the White House. 

Mr. President, when you first took your seat, I feared you would be torn to pieces, for I likened you unto Daniel, who was thrown into the lions’ den," Sojourner, age 67, said. She wanted to meet the man God had spared to save her people.

Honest Abe had heard of Sojourner, a former slave who'd published her story in 1850. She'd traveled to many places speaking against slavery and for women's voting rights.

“I appreciate you, for you are the best President who has ever taken the seat," she said.

“I expect you have reference to my having emancipated the slaves in my proclamation,” he replied. 

“I thank God that you were the instrument selected by Him and the people to do it,” said Sojourner, who is also often remembered during Black History Month.

Super fandom

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What does this admiration of Lincoln and Washington tell us? It shows us that Lincoln's super fandom came from the justice behind the Emancipation Proclamation and his commitment to keeping the United States together as one nation.  

It also shows us that Washington's super fans loved him for securing America's independence from England and, later, for refusing to pursue a third term as the first president.

Giving up presidential power every four or eight years makes America special. The power to choose our leaders is why thousands of superfans in red hats wait for hours in the cold or rain to see the president today while others cheer for a presidential hopeful seeking to win with a blue voter wall. 

The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly," philosopher Thomas Paine derided in 1776. In contrast, a president interacts with the people and his fans.

Being super fans of representation, not royalty, is why we remember Washington and Lincoln and some of their notable fans this Presidents Day.

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of “America’s Star-Spangled Story” and “The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812.” She is a former White House webmaster for President George W. Bush.