Historicizing the “Politics of Touch”

Biden grab

We now know that Joe Biden likes to touch people in ways that some might deem inappropriate.   According to University of South Carolina historian Mark M. Smith, Abraham Lincoln was also kind of handsy.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

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.  

Read the rest here.