LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A.Lincoln") as President, to Major George D. Ramsay, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., 17 October 1861. 1 page, 8vo (8 x 5 in.), on lined stationery, integral blank, small embossed stationer's stamp at top left corner. [With:] Original envelope addressed by Lincoln to "Maj. Ramsay Arsenal Washington," 2 7/8 x 5 3/8 in..
"SO RARE A MERIT": LINCOLN'S CELBRATED "WANTING TO WORK" LETTER, FROM THE OLIVER R. BARRETT COLLECTION
"The lady--bearer of this--says she has two sons who want to work. Set them at it, if possible. Wanting to work is so rare a merit, that it should be encouraged."
The lady whose request elicited Lincoln's pithy letter is believed to have been Mrs. Mary Buckley, a widow with six children. She had written to Lincoln seeking a post for her brother, Michael Donavan, who was previously employed at the Washington Arsenal. On 10 October, Lincoln forwarded her letter of appeal on to Major Ramsay and John A. Dahlgren at the Arsenal with the note "Will Major Ramsay or Capt. Dahlgren, please find work for Michael Donavan?" (Basler 4:551). It is thought that Mrs. Buckley--perhaps encouraged by the President's helpful response in the first instance--had taken the further step of visiting Lincoln at the White House to ask assistance in finding work for two of her sons. Lincoln, to judge from the present letter, did not disappoint the widow Buckley. By the time of this letter, Washington D.C. had become the focus for the massive Union war mobilization, and the Washington Arsenal would have been a veritable hive of activity, as deliveries of munitions were unloaded from wagons and Potomac flatboats, sorted, crated and assigned to newly mustered Union regiments and artillery units.
Some, including Emmanuel Hertz, have inferred--from Lincoln's use of the word "says"--that the President was discreetly expressing mild skepticism of Mrs. Buckley's real motives in seeking an audience with him (Lincoln Talks: A Biography in Anecdote, New York, 1939, pp.245-246). But most others have accepted Lincoln's letter as merely a witty comment on the universal human disposition to laziness.
Published in Basler 4:556, and in Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, ed. Basler, New York, 1946, p.615-616 (with a note correcting the widespread mistranscription of the word "merit" in the letter). Also illustrated and discussed in Carl Sandburg, Lincoln Collector: The Story of the Oliver R. Barrett Lincoln Collection, New York, 1950, pp.167-169. (Sandburg notes that "one Midwest industrial concern has supplied to inquireres 200,000 facsimiles of this letter.") The facsimile, which is widely in circulation, may be readily distinguished by the imprint of The Lakeside Press, Chicago, on the back of the letter.
Provenance: Oliver R. Barrett (sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, 19 February 1952, lot 137, illustrated, $2,000).