Power  /  Antecedent

Abraham Lincoln, Joe Biden, and the Politics of Touch

A history of tactile politics.
Charles W. Reed/Library of Congress

Amidst the furor over former Vice President Biden’s handsy habits – and with examples of inappropriate touching by current and former U.S. presidents still lingering – it might be a good time to recall how past politicians learned to use touch not to molest, intimidate or cow but to connect, engage and inspire.

No one was better at tactile politics than Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln lived in a time when American political culture valued touch. Handshaking had long been important as a sign of political and social etiquette.

Quakers, for example, preferred the handshake over doffing hats and bowing because the act had something of a democratic ring to it, denoting a rough equality.

By the early 19th century, handshaking was becoming both more American and masculine. French and British gentlemen were less inclined to shake hands and considered the American habit of sweaty handshaking “disgusting.”

Lincoln and American politicians cast their touch as a necessary part of political culture and engagement.

I’m a scholar of sensory history, and in my research I have found that elected and electable leaders during the 19th century especially had to touch voters, metaphorically and literally, a point Lincoln probably learned while glad-handing as a young traveling lawyer.

Right and wrong way
Then, as now, how you touched someone was politically risky. In the cultural and political ritual of American handshaking, care had to be taken not to slight or send the wrong message.

An essay entitled “Hand-Shaking,” from Harper’s Weekly of May 21, 1870, declared that refusing to shake hands was a “declaration of hostility,” but pressing the flesh had to be done with care.

Too tight a grip, the essay continued, indicated “tyranny,” a product of either unwitting strength or malicious intent. More “odious” was “he who offers you his hand, but will not permit you to get fair hold of it.” Such tactile diffidence reflected “cool contempt or supercilious scorn.”

Lincoln was a prodigious handshaker, and it added to his reputation as an egalitarian, common man, one literally and figuratively in touch with the people.

A marathon handshaking session in New York in February 1861 as president-elect left him with hurt hands. Just after his election as president, according to J. G. Holland in 1866, Lincoln met with crowds whose “hand-shaking … was something fearful” with “Every man in the crowd … anxious to wrench the hand of Abraham Lincoln. He finally gave both hands to the work, with great good nature.”