Whether or not we buy into the premise of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is irrelevant. Just as Abraham Lincoln, a real-life figure, appears in the revisionist and fanciful film, so does William H. Johnson, the legendary president’s personal valet, among other things. One man has filled up tomes, while the other has only generated footnotes. Still, their relationship, especially in the context of the times in which they lived, is interesting.
From most accounts, Johnson knew Lincoln before he became president and was present at the 1860 dinner at the Lincolns’ Springfield, Illinois home when the Republican National Committee notified Lincoln of his nomination for president.
In Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, Jean Baker notes that Mrs. Lincoln “had stationed William Johnson (who later went on Washington as Lincoln’s valet) at the front door to announce the party eminences as they entered first the hallway and then her parlor.” This “added touch of elegance” impressed the attendees.
Things were not well for Johnson in Washington, however. It was customary for African-American White House workers to be light skinned and Johnson was of a darker hue. Black White House workers allegedly objected to his color greatly, prompting Lincoln to discontinue him as his valet.
In a February 1, 2012 post to the New York Times blog “Disunion” about the Civil War, Lincoln is quoted as explaining, “The difference of color between him and the other servants is the cause of our separation.” Although Lincoln followed White House protocol, he did not turn his back on Johnson and got him a job.
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Harold Holzer, who has written several books on Lincoln, including Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, published in 2008, claims that the Lincoln “tried to get Johnson an appointment with the Naval Department, which actually had African-American sailors, and was also rejected.”
Lincoln did succeed in getting Johnson a messenger’s post at the Treasury Department and one of Johnson’s duties included carrying money. At the time Lincoln secured Johnson the job, he wrote “I have confidence as to his integrity and faithfulness.”
Still, Lincoln allowed Johnson to work as his barber and valet for extra cash. Johnson was so important to Lincoln that he frequently traveled with him. A February 11, 2011 Disunion post notes that Johnson was with President Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln as they traveled New York in February 1861, just before the Civil War officially started.
According to the blog, Mrs. Lincoln decided that her husband’s appearance needed upgrading and turned to Johnson for assistance. His answer was a new broadcloth overcoat, which resulted in the media reporting that “Lincoln’s appearance improved by 50 percent.”