Boy makes 1st trip to Detroit Public Library to see prized Abraham Lincoln letter

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As his last summer-break adventure, 12-year-old Max Maybee visited the Detroit Public Library for the first time — and learned some lessons that will help him as he starts the seventh grade this week.

The Main Library invited Max and his parents, Nikki and Chris Maybee, to view one of the most-prized documents in its Burton Historical Collection: a letter written to Abraham Lincoln in 1860 by Grace Bedell, then an 11-year-old New Yorker who convinced the future president to grow his famous beard.

"I was kind of amazed that the letter was in as good of condition it was," Max said Tuesday, adding that in many ways, it still seems relevant today. "I thought it was important the girl spoke up to the president, and I think it helped with his popularity. It showed that kids like me can do that."

Max lives up Woodward Avenue from the historic, ornate, Vermont- and Italian-marble building designed by Gilbert Cass, the architect behind the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., and the Woolworth Building in New York. Max found the Main Library fascinating.

Nikki Maybee, left, Chris Maybee and their son Max Maybee, 12, of Pleasant Ridge, talk with Atiim Funchess, assistant director for marketing and communications for the Detroit Public Library, while viewing a historic 1860 handwritten letter to President Abraham Lincoln inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the Detroit Public Library on Monday, August 14, 2023.

The young Pleasant Ridge resident had done two school projects on Lincoln, in the fifth and sixth grades. He even dressed up as the 16th president — beard and all. And earlier this summer, he was quoted in the Free Press as part of a piece about Lincoln-connected collections.

Max had seen a digital image of Grace's letter online, but was curious to read it in person.

More: How a girl's inspiring 1860 letter to Abraham Lincoln ended up at Detroit Public Library

More: 6 places in Michigan you can see President Abraham Lincoln letters, artifacts

A binder containing a historic 1860 handwritten letter to President Abraham Lincoln is removed from a vault and unveiled inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the Detroit Public Library on Monday, August 14, 2023. The 1860 letter was written by 11-year-old Grace Bedell, who urged Lincoln to grow a beard for votes.
A binder containing a historic 1860 handwritten letter to President Abraham Lincoln is removed from a vault and unveiled inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the Detroit Public Library on Monday, August 14, 2023. The 1860 letter was written by 11-year-old Grace Bedell, who urged Lincoln to grow a beard for votes.

Library officials retrieved the letter — which is locked in a vault behind thick metal doors with other special artifacts, tucked in a special box that keeps out moisture, and pressed between acid-free, polypropylene preservation sleeves — and Atiim Funchess, wearing white gloves, gingerly handled it.

As Max and his parents huddled around Funchess, he announced: "This is the letter."

To be heard, speak up

For many years, teachers have used Grace’s letter as an object lesson in how anyone in America can make a difference, even if you are a kid. On top of that, at the time when Grace wrote Lincoln, women in America didn’t have the right to vote.

Grace didn't let age or gender stop her from speaking her mind.

She used her voice to act and influence the outcome of the election. Her advice to the future president: If you grow a beard "you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin." She promised: "I will try and get everyone to vote for you that I can."

A historic letter written and signed by 11-year-old Grace Bedell to President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 is removed from a vault and unveiled inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the Detroit Public Library on Monday, August 14, 2023.
A historic letter written and signed by 11-year-old Grace Bedell to President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 is removed from a vault and unveiled inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the Detroit Public Library on Monday, August 14, 2023.

Did she really convince a future president, the first to have a beard in office, to grow one?

Max certainly thinks so.

He figures Lincoln listened to her advice and then looked in the mirror and probably realized: "My face is too thin," and decided to make the change. And that's one lesson Max drew from the letter: Don't be afraid to speak up, even to a future president of the United States.

Be yourself, make friends

What’s also endearing about Grace’s letter is that she’s deferential, but didn’t put on airs.

An envelope containing a handwritten letter from 11-year-old Grace Bedell to President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 is removed from a vault and unveiled inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the Detroit Public Library on Monday, August 14, 2023.
An envelope containing a handwritten letter from 11-year-old Grace Bedell to President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 is removed from a vault and unveiled inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the Detroit Public Library on Monday, August 14, 2023.

"I am a little girl only eleven years old, but want you (to) be President of the United States very much so I hope you won’t think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are," she wrote. She goes on to ask Lincoln if he has any "little girls" her age so they can write each other.

Lincoln, as we know, had no daughters, only four sons, and, at the time, one had already died.

He penned a letter back to tell Grace that, along with a question: Wouldn't folks think it was a "silly affection" if he suddenly started wearing a beard? He apparently, later decided Grace was right, grew some whiskers and won the election.

Then, Lincoln arranged to meet Grace, a moment recorded in newspaper accounts.

Nikki Maybee, photographs her son Max Maybee, 12, of Pleasant Ridge, near a statue of President Abraham Lincoln inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the Detroit Public Library on Monday, August 14, 2023.
Nikki Maybee, photographs her son Max Maybee, 12, of Pleasant Ridge, near a statue of President Abraham Lincoln inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the Detroit Public Library on Monday, August 14, 2023.

As Max starts his academic year at a new school, the University of Detroit Jesuit Academy, he will have a chance to reshape his identity, if he wants to, and introduce himself to classmates and teachers he doesn’t know — and perhaps make lifelong friends.

That's another lesson to take from the letter: To influence others, extend a hand of friendship.

Treasure precious moments

At the library, Max and his parents marveled at the date on Grace’s letter — Oct. 15, 1860 — and how the long words on paper have been preserved. Max's dad quizzed his son on how old it must be, and he managed to do quick math in his head.

But more than the letter's age, it is remarkable that the letter was not lost to history.

Atiim Funchess, assistant director for marketing and communications for the Detroit Public Library, wears gloves to handle a historic 1860 handwritten letter to President Abraham Lincoln inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the library on Monday, August 14, 2023.
Atiim Funchess, assistant director for marketing and communications for the Detroit Public Library, wears gloves to handle a historic 1860 handwritten letter to President Abraham Lincoln inside the Burton Historical Collection room at the library on Monday, August 14, 2023.

Lincoln kept it, perhaps because he valued it — and the library has, too.

After the president died, the letter passed through his family, until George Dondero — an admirer of Lincoln, Royal Oak's first mayor and a former Republican congressman — acquired it from Lincoln's son, who asked Dondero to return it to Grace.

Dondero did, and then she gave the letter to him. After he died, Dondero’s son gave it to the Main Library.

Max Maybee, 12, of Pleasant Ridge, left, and Atiim Funchess, assistant director for marketing and communications for the Detroit Public Library, look inside of a vault containing historic documents at the library on Monday, August 14, 2023.
Max Maybee, 12, of Pleasant Ridge, left, and Atiim Funchess, assistant director for marketing and communications for the Detroit Public Library, look inside of a vault containing historic documents at the library on Monday, August 14, 2023.

The letter, the library has said, is appraised at $100,000, but as a piece of history, it is priceless. Max said he found seeing it to be a "cool" experience. He also discovered, along with is mom, a new place he can go to do schoolwork, check out books and maybe even make a few friends.

And that's a lesson for us all: Libraries are full of inspiration to find our own places in history.

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or fwitsil@freepress.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Boy gets to see Abraham Lincoln letter at Detroit Public Library