A Little-Known Story of Lincoln and William Johnson

By Frank Milligan
Contributed by Michael Burlingame

The autumn meeting of Abraham Lincoln Institute’s (ALI) Board of Directors was held October 27 at President Lincoln’s Cottage. Following the meeting Site Director Frank Milligan and his wife, Chris Hart, entertained Board members and spouses at dinner at Quarters Two, one of the most historic buildings on campus and Dr. Milligan’s residence. In attendance was Lincoln scholar and ALI Board member Michael Burlingame who recounted a wonderful and relatively unknown story pertaining to Lincoln and his barber William Johnson.

Dr. Burlingame has generously provided a written account of the story:

The varioloid did more than disfigure William H. Johnson, one of the members of the presidential party at Gettysburg. That young black man had accompanied Lincoln from Illinois and served in the White House until his fellow black staffers there objected to his presence because his skin was too dark. Lincoln then obtained for him a job in the treasury department. Johnson contracted smallpox, perhaps from Lincoln, which killed him in January 1864. One day that month, as the poor fellow lay in the hospital, a journalist discovered the president counting out some greenbacks. Lincoln explained that such activity “is something out of my usual line; but a President of the United States has a multiplicity of duties not specified in the Constitution or acts of Congress. This is one of them. This money belongs to a poor negro [Johnson] who is a porter in one of the departments (the Treasury) and who is at present very bad with the smallpox. He did not catch it from me, however; at least I think not. He is now in hospital, and could not draw his pay because he could not sign his name. I have been at considerable trouble to overcome the difficulty and get it for him, and have at length succeeded in cutting red tape . . . . I am now dividing the money and putting by a portion labeled, in an envelope, with my own hands, according to his wish.”[i]

Johnson had borrowed $150 from the First National Bank of Washington using Lincoln as an endorser. After he died, the bank’s cashier, William J. Huntington, happened to mention the outstanding notes to Lincoln: “the barber who used to shave you, I hear, is dead.”
“‘Oh, yes,’ interrupted the President, with feeling; ‘William is gone. I bought a coffin for the poor fellow, and have had to help his family.'”

When Huntington said the bank would forgive the loan, Lincoln replied emphatically: “No you don’t. I endorsed the notes, and am bound to pay them; and it is your duty to make me pay them.”

“Yes,” said the banker, “but it has long been our custom to devote a portion of our profits to charitable objects; and this seems to be a most deserving one.”

When the president rejected that argument, Huntington said: “Well, Mr. Lincoln, I will tell you how we can arrange this. The loan to William was a joint one between you and the bank. You stand half of the loss, and I will cancel the other.”

After thinking it over, Lincoln said: “Mr. Huntington, that sounds fair, but it is insidious; you are going to get ahead of me; you are going to give me the smallest note to pay. There must be a fair divide over poor William. Reckon up the interest on both notes, and chop the whole right straight through the middle, so that my half shall be as big as yours. That’s the way we will fix it.”

Huntington agreed, saying: “After this, Mr. President, you can never deny that you indorse the negro.”

“That’s a fact!” Lincoln exclaimed with a laugh; “but I don’t intend to deny it.”[ii]
[i] Washington correspondence, 14 January, Chicago Tribune, 19 January 1864.
[ii] Samuel Wilkeson, “How Mr. Lincoln Indorsed the Negro,” unidentified clipping, Lincoln Shrine, Smiley Library, Redlands, California.

Special thanks to Dr. Michael Burlingame for contributing to this post.
Dr. Frank Milligan is the Director at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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