Monday, February 19, 2018

Abraham Lincoln Meets Vere Foster

A Footnote to Irish Immigration

Richard Carwardine has just published Lincoln’s Sense of Humor. In a Wall Street Journal essay no doubt meant to bring attention to the book’s release, Carwardine describes our 16th president as, “a compulsive teller of stories and jokes” (“Lincoln Wasn’t Handsome, but He Had a Great Sense of Humor,” WSJ, Feb. 12, 2017). Although no one would ever guess this from the many dour photographs we have of the Civil War president, Spielberg’s 2012 film captures Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) telling so many stories that one of his cabinet members screams that he can't stand it any longer.

In the historical literature on Irish immigration, there’s a Lincoln-like figure named Vere Foster. I say “Lincoln-like” because Foster had a big heart and was self-effacing. A scion of the Anglo-Irish landholding class, he gave up a diplomatic career, after his return in 1847 from an assignment in South America. Ireland was then in the throes of the Great Hunger. Foster traveled the country, was appalled by the suffering he witnessed and decided to give up the foreign service and devote his time and fortune to improving the quality of life in Ireland. One of Foster's initiatives was to help young Irish women emigrate to North America.

Using his personal fortune, the Anglo-Irish philanthropist
Vere Foster assisted tens of thousands of  young Irish women
to immigrate to North America in the 1850s and 1880s
Vere Foster toured the United States several times before and after the Civil War to assess employment opportunities and living conditions for the young women he wished to resettle. He also solicited volunteers who would take in his girls as domestic help. In 1852, Foster visited Springfield, Illinois, and met with “a dynamic young lawyer” named Abraham Lincoln. The Irishman’s brief account of their meeting suggests that Lincoln may on occasion have grown weary of speechifying.

Foster expresses surprise on finding that when Americans recognized a public figure, they did not hesitate to ask for an impromptu speech. These requests could be tiresome, as may have been the case on this evening when Lincoln was about to sit down to supper at a hotel with his wife and the visitor from abroad. Fans called to Lincoln from the street, asking that he come out onto the balcony and make remarks. Foster relates how the rangy rail-splitter stepped out with his petite wife beside him and said, “My friends, I’m told you want a speech. Well, here I am, and here is Mrs. Lincoln. That’s the long and the short of it. Good night.” The crowd, Foster assures us, was left with a speech they could remember. They cheered and departed “in the greatest of humor.”

One other outcome of the meeting was that the Lincolns offered to take one of Foster’s Irish girls into their household as a maid. I have no idea how this arrangement worked out, but elsewhere I have seen Mary Todd Lincoln quoted complaining about “the Wild Irish” as domestic help. By all accounts, her temperament differed from that of her husband, but Abraham Lincoln and Vere Foster seem to have been kindred spirits.

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