William Johnson was the barber and bootblack who worked for President Lincoln for a year before accompanying him to Washington. However, there was antagonism toward Johnson, who was black, from the existing White House staff, who were generally lighter skinned or white. President Lincoln sought other employment for Johnson only days after his inauguration, attesting that he was “honest, faithful, sober, industrious and handy as a servant.” In a letter to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on March 7, 1861, the President wrote that “The difference of color between him & other servants is the cause of our separation.” In a subsequent letter to Salmon Chase in November 1861, he successfully sought a position for Johnson in the Treasury Department where he was employed as a laborer and messenger. Johnson, however, continued to spend mornings in service to the President—shaving him and acting as his valet.1
Nevertheless, the President on December 17, 1862 declined to endorse a memo for Johnson because he did not want it to seem to be an order for employment. Johnson went with President Lincoln to Gettysburg and perhaps contracted smallpox from the President. While the President recovered from his case of variloid, Johnson did not. His funeral expenses were paid by the President. After Johnson died, President Lincoln wrote Salmon Chase in January 1864 about Solomon James Johnson: “This boy says he knows Secretary Chase, and would like to have the place made vacant by William Johnson’s death. I believe he is a good boy and I should be glad for him to have the place if it is still vacant.”2
WJohnson went with President Lincoln on the train to Gettysburg. Mr. Lincoln wrote to his official employer: “William goes with me.” The presidential valet probably contracted variloid about the same time that President Lincoln did – or contracted it from taking care of Mr. Lincoln. After Mr. Lincoln recovered, according to Gabor Boritt: “A Chicago <em?tribune< em=””> reporter found Lincoln dealing with Johnson’s pay from the Treasury Department. ‘This, sir, is something out of my usual line; but the President of the United States has a multiplicity of duties not specified in the Constitution or Acts of Congress. This is one of them.’ Even when feeling miserable, Lincoln tried to interject a light touch. He explained to whom the money belonged, and since Johnson could not claim his pay in person, added: “ I have been at considerable trouble to overcome the difficulty and get it to him, and have at length succeeded in cutting red tape, as you newspaper men say.’ While chatting with the reporter, Lincoln counted greenbacks and put them in envelopes, labeling them, ‘according’ to Johnson’s wishes.”3
When Johnson died in January 1864, President Lincoln used his own funds for Johnson’s funeral costs.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 277.
- Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 156.
- Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel, p. 169.