Vinnie Ream: The Teen Who Met With Abraham Lincoln for 30 Minutes Every Day

Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.

Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.

After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.

Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”

Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.

After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.

Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.

But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.

Vinnie Ream's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln still stands in the Capital Rotunda
USCapitol via Flickr // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This article originally ran in 2016.

Can You Guess the President's Middle Name?

A ‘Lost’ Bible Belonging to Abraham Lincoln Is Going on Display for the First Time

Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers
Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers

A "lost" Bible belonging to Abraham Lincoln that's now on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois may shed new light on his religious beliefs (or lack thereof), which scholars continue to debate.

The Ladies of the Citizens Volunteer Hospital of Philadelphia gave the 18-pound book to Lincoln in 1864 when he visited the city to raise money for soldiers' medical care. According to Smithsonian.com, after Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln gave the Bible to the Reverend Noyes W. Miner, a close friend and neighbor of the Lincolns who helped transport Lincoln’s body from Chicago to Springfield and read at his funeral.

Historians were unaware of the Bible's existence until recently. Miner family members passed down the Bible for 150 years before donating it for public view, a decision they made after visiting the museum last year and being moved by the staff’s devotion to the history of the reverend and his involvement in Lincoln’s life, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Lincoln, who was raised as a Baptist but was never actually baptized, is one of only two presidents with no formal religious affiliation—the other was Thomas Jefferson.

Though Lincoln didn’t hide his skepticism in his early life and political career, some historians believe that the deaths of his two sons and the fight to end slavery elicited belief in the likelihood of a divine plan. Allen Guelzo, author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, told History.com that Lincoln even told his Cabinet that he intended to issue the Emancipation Proclamation because he had vowed to God that if the Union Army won against the Confederates in Maryland (which happened at the Battle of Antietam in 1862), he would do so.

Mary Todd Lincoln, whose own spirituality has been well documented through her fondness for séances (which her husband may have attended at least occasionally), insisted that Lincoln was deeply religious. It’s also possible that Mary’s seemingly sentimental gift to the reverend was an effort to establish Lincoln's Christian credibility.

[h/t Smithsonian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER