Upstairs at the White House: Family Library

Family Library

The family sitting room and library in the center of the South side of the second floor was the center of Mrs. Lincoln’s life at the White House. But President Lincoln did not get there as much as Mrs. Lincoln would have liked. Shortly after the 1864 elections, Mrs. Lincoln wrote a friend: “I consider myself fortunate, if at eleven o’clock, I once more find myself, in my pleasant room & very especially, if my tired & weary Husband, is there, resting in the lounge to receive me – to chat over the occurrences of the day…”1 Occasionally, the room was also used as the location of tutoring for Willie and Tad.

Elizabeth Grimsley recalled how Mr. Lincoln sometimes had lunch there in 1861. Mr. Lincoln “found his way through the crowds which still gathered in every hall, to the room where he knew he would bring comfort, and find us with a fragrant cup of tea, and a tempting lunch ready for him. After eating he would stretch himself upon the couch, with a book in his hand, as often the Bible as any other, for he felt there was nothing in literature that would compare with poetic Job, Moses the Law Giver, the beautiful and varied experiences of the Psalms of David, or the grand majestic utterances of Isaiah. He would read aloud to use, recite some poem, until recalled to the cares of state by the messenger. And this was, at that time, the only relaxation he took.”2

The library was later connected to the President’s office by a narrow hallway along the south side of the White House – by which Tad and Willie could have easy access to their father. Julia Taft, who acted as a babysitter for her brothers and the Lincoln children, later recalled in her book Tad Lincoln’s Father:

When the President came into the family sitting room and sat down to read, the boys would rush at him and demand a story. Tad perched precariously on the back of the big chair, Willie on one knee, Bud on the other, both leaning against him. Holly usually found a place on the arm of the chair, and often I would find myself swept into the group by the long arm which seemed to reach almost across the room.
I wish I could remember some of those stories. Usually there were melodramatic tales of hunters and settlers attacked by Indians. I have thought since that some of these tales may have been based on actual occurrences in the President’s boyhood and I am sorry that my memory is so dim concerning them. I am afraid the boys enjoyed them more than I did. At the close of one favorite story of frontiersmen chased by the Indians, he would drawl impressively, ‘they galloped and galloped, with the redskins close behind.’
‘But they got away, Pa, they got away,’ interrupted Tad.
‘Oh, yes, they got away.’ Then suddenly rising to his full height, ‘Now, I must get away.”3

Julia also recalled the pensive side of the President. “Whenever I think of Mr. Lincoln, I see him sprawled out in that big chair in the sitting room for it was there that I came most in contact with him. I remember going to that room one morning rather early, looking for Mrs. Lincoln or the boys, and finding the President there alone in his big chair with the old, worn Bible on his lap. He spoke to me in an absent-minded sort of a way and clasping my hand, rested it on his knee, as I stood by him. He seemed to see something interesting out of the window. I stood there for what seemed to me a long time, with my hand clasped in his. I followed his gaze out of the window but could see nothing but the tops of some trees. I thought it wouldn’t be polite for me to pull my hand out of his grasp, even if I could, so I stood there until my arm fairly ached. Why did I not ask him what he saw out there? I think he would have told me. Finally he turned to me with a look of startled surprise and said: ‘Why, Julie, have I been holding you here all this time?’ He released me and I went off to find the boys.”4

Elizabeth Keckley, friend and seamstress to Mrs. Lincoln, recorded a more troubling family scene in the library, which also reflected the President’s preoccupation with the war and reliance on biblical support:

“One day he came into the room where I was fitting a dress on Mrs. Lincoln. His step was slow and heavy, and his face sad. Like a tired child he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands. He was a complete picture of dejection. Mrs. Lincoln, observing his troubled look, asked:
‘Where have you been, father?’
‘To the War Department,’ was the brief, almost sullen answer.
‘Any news?’
‘Yes, plenty of news, but no good news. It is dark, dark everywhere.’
He reached forth one of his long arms, and took a small Bible from a stand near the head of the sofa, opened the pages of the holy book, and soon was absorbed in reading them. A quarter of an hour passed, and on glancing at the sofa the face of the President seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone, and the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope. The change was so marked that I could not but wonder at it, and wonder led to the desire to know what book of the Bible afforded so much comfort to the reader. Making the search for a missing article an excuse, I walked gently around the sofa, and looking into the open book, I discovered that Mr. Lincoln was reading that divine comforter, Job. He read with Christian eagerness, and the courage and hope that he derived from the inspired pages made him a new man. I almost imagined that I could hear the Lord speaking to him from out the whirlwind of battle: ‘Gird up thy loins now like a man: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.’ What a sublime picture was this! A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple Christian earnestness for comfort and courage, and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity. Ponder it, O ye scoffers at God’s Holy Word, and then hang your heads for very shame!
Frequent letters were received warning Mr. Lincoln of assassination, but he never gave a second thought to the mysterious warnings. The letters, however, sorely troubled his wife. She seemed to read impending danger in every rustling leaf, in every whisper of the wind.
“Where are you going now, father?’ she would say to him, as she observed him putting on his overshoes and shawl.
‘I am going over to the War Department, mother, to try and learn some news.’
‘But, father, you should not go out alone. You know you are surrounded with danger.’
‘All imagination. What does any one want to harm me for? Don’t worry about me, mother, as if I were a little child, for no one is going to molest me,’ and with a confident, unsuspecting air he would close the door behind him, descend the stairs, and pass out to his lonely walk.
‘For weeks, when trouble was anticipated, friends of the President would sleep in the White House to guard him from danger.5

The room was the center of intellectual as well as family life. Presidential aide William O. Stoddard called it “a fairly well selected library, largely from the fact that only part of it was in any manner selected, and all the rest simply gathered from time to time.”6 According to White House historian William Seale: “Here the bookcases Fillmore had bought were further filled by Mrs. Lincoln, who regularly purchased books from the funds Congress set aside for the purpose. She liked modern English novels; he preferred poetry and plays, and had great admiration for Shakespeare. From what we know of their reading tastes, the Lincolns read fewer sophisticated popular books than the Fillmores. But classics were important to them, and their leisure was often spent in the upholstered rocking chairs of this room, bespectacled, poring over their books.”7 Julia Taft described how Mr. Lincoln interrupted one of her intellectual activities:

Late one afternoon I was curled up in the window of the sitting room, looking at a large book, when the President came in. I jumped to my feet.
He said, ‘How is Julie to-day? Sit down, child.’
I was glad to do for the book I was clasping was heavy. He took it from me, turned over the leaves absently, then put it on my lap, saying, ‘Such a big book for little Julie.’
Resting one hand on my shoulder and the other on the window above my head, he looked long and earnestly over the Long Bridge into Virginia and sighed heavily. Then he walked up and down, up and down the long room, his hands behind him and his head bent, sighing now and then. I think he had entirely forgotten my presence. He looked so sad and worried that somehow I wanted to comfort him yet knew not how. And crying a little, I slipped out in the darkening twilight.8

Journalist Noah Brooks recalled an occasion when Mr. Lincoln, ‘hearing that I was in the parlor…sent for me to come up into the library, where I found him writing on a piece of common stiff box-board with a pencil. Said he, after he had finished, ‘Here is one speech of mine which has never been printed, and I think it worth printing. Just see what you think.’ He then read the following, which is copied verbatim from the familiar handwriting before me:

‘On Thursday of last week two ladies from Tennessee came before the President, asking the release of their husbands, held as prisoners of war at Johnson’s Island. They were put off until Friday, when they came gain, and were again put off until Saturday. At each of the interviews one of the ladies urged that her husband was a religious man. On Saturday, when the President ordered the release of the prisoners, he said to this lady: ‘You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their Government because as they think, that Government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread in the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven.
To this the President signed his name at my request, by way of joke, and added for a caption, ‘The President’s Last, Shortest, and Best Speech,’ under which title it was duly published in one of the Washington newspapers. His Message to the last session of Congress was first written upon the same sort of white pasteboard above referred to, its stiffness enabling him to lay it on his knee as he sat easily in his armchair, writing and erasing as he thought and wrought out his idea.”9

Union Army officer James Harrison Wilson recalled how Mr. Lincoln interrogated U.S. Marshall J. Russell Jones in the summer of 1863 to learn about General Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential ambitions. “After a hurried but cordial greeting the president led the way to the library, closed the doors, and when he was sure they were entirely alone, addressed him as follows:

“I have sent for you, Mr. Jones, to know if that man Grant wants to be President.”
Mr. Jones, although somewhat astonished at the question and the circumstances under which it was asked, replied at once:
“Are you sure?” queried the latter.
“Yes,’ said Mr. Jones, ‘perfectly sure; I have just come from Vicksburg; I have seen General Grant frequently and talked fully and freely with him, about that and every other question, and I know he has no political aspirations whatever, and certainly none for the Presidency. His only desire is to see you reelected, and to do what he can under your orders to put down the rebellion and restore peace to the country.” (Whereupon Jones handed Grant’s letter to the President. Mr. Lincoln read it with evident interest. When he came to the part where Grant said it would be impossible for him to think of the Presidency as long as there was a possibility of retaining Mr. Lincoln in the office, he read no further, but arose, and approached Jones, put his hand on his guest’s shoulder and said:)
“Ah, Mr. Jones, you have lifted a great weight off my mind, and done me an immense amount of good, for I tell you my friend, no man knows how deeply that presidential grub gnaws till he has had it himself.” 10

Early in the administration, Mrs. Lincoln sometimes entertained friends here in the morning. Among those who visited were historian James Lothrop Motley and writer and poet Nathaniel P. Willis. Willis was a vain man, according to Elizabeth Grimsley and one more he suddenly asked Mrs. Lincoln “You do not approve of me, you think me a very wicked man, say, truly, do you not?” Mrs. Lincoln asked in return “how could that be with one who wrote such exquisite sacred poems, that have been made ours, even through our school readers, where we and our children have learned to love them?” Mrs. Grimsley later wrote: “This sufficed him for the time, but he was a man who stood ready to take advantage of any familiar footing afforded him. This, however, we could forgive because of his excessive fondness for Willie, of whom he said, ‘I find myself studying him irresistibly, as one of the sweet problems of childhood that the world is blest with, in rare places.”11

In April 1864, Benjamin Brown French was asked up to the room following a Tuesday evening levee: “After the reception was over Mrs. Lincoln took me up into the Library to see a most beautiful arrangement of wax fruit, etc., made by a negro woman and presented to herself and Mr. Lincoln. She seemed to appreciate it very highly & to be exceedingly pleased with it. She remarked that she had not been in that room until that day since poor little Willie died. It was his favorite resort and she could not bear to visit it, and the tears came into her eyes, & my very soul pitied her. Alas, alas! What are all the honors of this world when offset against such an affliction as that poor woman has undergone!’12 Willie’s brother Tad and the President continued to use the library, as journalist Noah Brooks explained:

“Everything that Tad did was done with a certain rush and rude strength which were peculiar to him. I was once sitting with the President in the library, when Tad tore into the room in search of something, and having found it, he threw himself on his father like a small thunderbolt, gave him one wild, fierce hug, and, without a word, fled from the room before his father could put his hand to detain him. With all his boyish roughness, Tad had a warm heart and a tender conscience. He abhorred falsehood as he did books and study. Tutors came and went, like changes of the moon. None stayed long enough to learn much about the boy; but he knew them before they had been one day in the house. ‘Let him run,’ his father would say; ‘there’s time enough yet to for him to learn his letters and get pokey. Bob was just such a little rascal, and now he is a very decent boy.'”13


  1. Justin G. Turner & Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln Her Life & Letters, p. 159.
  2. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, “Six Months in the White House,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 19 (Oct.-Jan., 1926-27), p. 54.
  3. Julia Taft Bayne, Tad Lincoln’s Father, p. 108-109.
  4. Bayne, Tad Lincoln’s Father, p. 164.
  5. Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, pp. 118-121.
  6. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 129.
  7. William Seale, The President’s House: A History, p. 380.
  8. Bayne, Tad Lincoln’s Father, pp. 159-160.
  9. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, pp. 221-222 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
  10. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, pp. 484-485.
  11. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, “Six Months in the White House,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 19 (Oct.-Jan., 1926-27) pp. 68-69.
  12. Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough, editors, Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, pp. 448-49.
  13. Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time, p. 249.


Julia Taft
Elizabeth Todd Grimsley
Mary Todd Lincoln
Elizabeth Keckley
Benjamin Brown French
William Wallace Lincoln
Thomas D. Lincoln
Ulysses S. Grant