Abraham Lincoln, Postmaster

Two postmasters became U.S. Presidents later in their careers — Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman. Truman held the title and signed papers but immediately turned the position and its pay over to an assistant. Lincoln was the only President who had served as a postmaster.

On May 7, 1833, 24-year-old Lincoln was appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois. Lincoln served until the office was closed May 30, 1836. The United States Official Register, published in odd-numbered years, dutifully records A. Lincoln as receiving compensation of $55.70 in the 1835 volume and $19.48 for one quarter’s work in the 1837 volume. Besides his pay, Lincoln, as postmaster, could send and receive personal letters free and get one daily newspaper delivered free.

Mail arrived once a week. If an addressee did not collect the mail, as was the custom, Lincoln delivered it personally — usually carrying the mail in his hat. Even then, Lincoln was “Honest Abe.”

According to Lincoln’s biographer, Benjamin P. Thomas:

Dr. A. G. Henry, one of Lincoln’s closest friends, and himself postmaster for a time at Sangamontown, told Isaac N. Arnold that when the New Salem office was discontinued Lincoln had on hand a balance of some sixteen or eighteen dollars which he brought with him to Springfield. Perhaps the Post Office Department overlooked this small sum, for not until months later did an agent call on Lincoln to collect it. During the intervening time Lincoln had been financially hard-pressed, and Dr. Henry, who was present when the agent called, was afraid that Lincoln might not have the money. Henry told Arnold:

“I was about to call him aside and loan him the money, when he asked the agent to be seated a moment, while he went over to his trunk at his boarding house, and returned with an old blue sock with a quantity of silver and copper coin tied up in it. Untying the sock, he poured the contents on the table and proceeded to count the coin, which consisted of such silver and copper pieces as the country-people were then in the habit of using in paying postage. On counting it up there was found the exact amount, to a cent, of the draft, and in the identical coin which had been received. He never used, under any circumstances, trust funds.”11