Spring 2007, Vol. 15, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Abraham Lincoln and the Image of Photography
By Cara A. Finnegan

Cara A. Finnegan
Cara A. Finnegan

In November 1895, McClure's magazine reproduced, for the first time in public, the earliest known photograph of Abraham Lincoln. Most likely made in the early 1840s when Lincoln lived in Springfield, Illinois, the daguerreotype image presented a Lincoln that few Americans in the 1890s had seen: a well-groomed, thirtysomething gentleman. McClure's obtained the daguerreotype from Lincoln's only surviving child, Robert Todd Lincoln, who offered it to reporter Ida Tarbell to accompany the magazine's publication of her multi-part series on Lincoln's life. Previously known photographs of Lincoln dated only as far back as the late 1850s–well into Lincoln's public career and middle age. Thus, most readers of the 1890s would have known a much older Lincoln, one embodied in the famous (and bearded) presidential portraits made by the Mathew Brady studio during the Civil War.1

By the mid-1890s, Lincoln was coming to replace George Washington as the political icon of the republic.2 Tarbell's biography of Lincoln and the McClure's reproduction of the 1840s image both reflected and participated in that process of secular canonization. This new (yet older) image would allow McClure's readers to encounter Lincoln as a much younger man–and one more dignified-looking than many Lincoln myth-makers had previously constructed. While pre-presidential photographs often constructed Lincoln as a raw frontier lawyer, as in the famous "tousled hair" portrait of 1857, this new image showed a youthful but more dignified and reserved man.3 On seeing the daguerreotype for the first time, Tarbell later recalled that "it was another Lincoln, and one that took me by storm."4

Readers of the magazine apparently felt the same way, because a number of them wrote letters to the editor which were published in the December 1895 and January 1896 issues of the magazine. The letters offer rich, surprising interpretations of the photograph and thus warrant critical attention. Some readers of McClure's had a hard time locating their iconic Lincoln in the image. The Hon. David J. Brewer, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, wrote to the magazine, "the picture, if a likeness, must have been taken many years before I saw him and he became the central figure in our country's life. Indeed, I find it difficult to see in that face the features with which we are all so familiar."5 Similarly, Charles Dudley Warner of Hartford, Connecticut had a hard time seeing his recollected Lincoln in the photograph: "The deep-set eyes and mouth belong to the historical Lincoln, and are recognizable as his features when we know that this is a portrait of him. But I confess that I should not have recognized his likeness . . . the change from the Lincoln of this picture to the Lincoln of national fame is almost radical in character, and decidedly radical in expression."6 Brewer's and Warner's difficulties mirrored Tarbell's own reported experience of first viewing the photograph–it was radical, a Lincoln few had seen. The only viewers, it seemed, who were able to get past their own mental images of the later Lincoln were those who had known him directly during his Illinois years. For example, Henry C. Whitney, identified in the magazine as "an associate of Lincoln's on the circuit in Illinois," wrote to the magazine that "it is without doubt authentic and accurate; and dispels the illusion so common (but never shared by me) that Mr. Lincoln was an ugly-looking man." Not only was this Lincoln attractive, Whitney observed, but he was also well-groomed. Implying perhaps the famed roughness of Lincoln's frontier habits, Whitney concluded bemusedly, "I never saw him with his hair combed before."7

"The Earliest Portrait of Abraham Lincoln," McClure's, November 1895.
"The Earliest Portrait of Abraham Lincoln," McClure's, November 1895.

Many of the correspondents in McClure's noted the seeming absence of "melancholy" in Lincoln's face, a characteristic of many of the later presidential-era portraits. John C. Ropes of New York City wrote, "it is most assuredly an interesting portrait. The expression, though serious and earnest, is devoid of the sadness which characterizes the later likenesses." Woodrow Wilson, then Professor of Finance and Political Economy at Princeton, noted that "the fine brows and forehead, and the pensive sweetness of the clear eyes, give to the noble face a peculiar charm. There is in the expression the dreaminess of the familiar face without its later sadness."8 Echoing these references to Lincoln's melancholic affect, Herbert B. Addams, Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, wrote: "The portrait indicates the natural character, strength, insight, and humor of the man before the burdens of office and the sins of his people began to weigh upon him."9

Many of the letter writers saw in the photograph shades of Lincoln's future greatness–a man whose rise to prominence was literally prefigured in his visage. Said John T. Morse to the magazine: "I have studied this portrait with very great interest. All the portraits with which we are familiar show us the man as made; this shows us the man in the making; and I think everyone will admit that the making of Abraham Lincoln presents a more singular, puzzling, interesting study than the making of any other man known in human history."10 He concluded that "this picture, therefore, is valuable evidence as to his natural traits."11 General Francis A. Walker, President of MIT, concurred: "The present picture has distinctly helped me to understand the relation between Mr. Lincoln's face and his mind and character, as shown in his life's work . . . To my eye it explains Mr. Lincoln far more than the most elaborate line-engraving which has been produced."12

Perhaps the most bizarre encomium to the Lincoln photograph came from Thomas B. Cooley, identified in the magazine as former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Michigan. Cooley read the photograph in the present while speculating about a future that was already past, and thus his analysis transcended temporal boundaries in a way that only photographic interpretation can:

It seems almost impossible to conceive of this as the face of a man to be at the head of affairs when one of the greatest wars known to history was in progress, and who could push unflinchingly the measures necessary to bring that war to a successful end. Had it been merely a war of conquest, I think we can see in this face qualities that would have been entirely inconsistent with such a course, and that would have rendered it to this man wholly impossible.13

Here Cooley actually argues that the war was not a war of conquest precisely because the photograph does not reveal a man with such impulses; as he puts it, "I think we can see in this face qualities that would have been entirely inconsistent with such a course." Cooley not only uses the photograph to articulate a vision of Lincoln as the "savior of the Union" (a popular characterization of him at the time), he actually suggests that the photograph itself serves as evidence about the morality of the Civil War–even though it was made nearly twenty years before that conflict began.

"Tousled hair" portrait; print based on 1857 photograph by Alexander Hesler, Indiana Historical Society.
"Tousled hair" portrait; print based on 1857 photograph by Alexander Hesler, Indiana Historical Society.

It is difficult for a twenty-first century viewer to understand exactly how someone could claim that a single, simple photographic portrait –even a portrait of a figure so iconic as Abraham Lincoln–could possibly offer evidence of the justice and morality of the nation's most significant conflict. Yet this was precisely Cooley's claim. Collectively, the letter writers interpreted the McClure's Lincoln not just in terms of Lincoln's appearance, or even of what that appearance seemed to suggest about his emotional life, but as a window into the character of Lincoln himself and, by extension, into the character of the American nation. As I explain in more detail below, such responses, offered as they were by some of the era's intellectual elite, were grounded in readers' cultural knowledge of photography, portraiture, and "scientific" discourses of character such as physiognomy. Armed with what I call a physio-gnomic image of photography, the McClure's letter writers discussed the photograph not as a material object of history but as a vehicle for moral education and as a locus of "ideal" American identity.14

To most scholars of politics and rhetoric, the story of the McClure's Lincoln is probably nothing more than an interesting footnote to history. Yet I want to suggest that the public conversation McClure's created when it published the photographs and responses is much more important than that. If we explore the discourse surrounding the McClure's Lincoln, we begin to understand more deeply the underappreciated role that photography has historically played in American political rhetoric. In the book project on which I am working this year at the Warren Center, I am attempting to do just that by analyzing how Americans have used their public talk about photographs like the McClure's Lincoln to craft political arguments. Using case studies that span from the 1890s to the 1930s, I argue that Americans have defined themselves and others in and through their public talk about photography. By framing photography as a locus of rhetorical engagement about social and political values, I am attempting to construct a history of photography that shows how Americans have used words about images to participate in the politics of their day.

All of this is why I am thrilled to be spending this year at the Warren Center. I first found out about the "Between Word and Image" seminar when a colleague came across the call for applications and forwarded it to me. At the top, she wrote: "BETWEEN WORD AND IMAGE ... LIES YOUR WORK!!!" While the punctuation was a bit hyperbolic, she was right about the fit. My scholarship has consistently addressed aspects of the relationships between word and image. As a communication historian, I am interested in analyzing what happens when we introduce questions of visuality into our histories and theories of political rhetoric. In both my historical-critical scholarship, as well as in my theoretical work, I have sought to challenge the tendency to fetishize talk and text as the best and most "democratic" modes of political discourse within rhetorical studies of politics. Such a perspective is perhaps most vividly represented in the remarks of John Dewey, who famously proclaimed in The Public and Its Problems that "vision is a spectator, hearing is a participator."15 Rather than treating the visual as passive at best or as a danger to "rational" communication at worst, I want to analyze the role of visuality in political discourse without automatically marking its presence as problematic. For example, my first book, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003), studied the circulation of U.S. government-sponsored documentary photographs in three different Depression-era magazines. In elaborating the ways that the Farm Security Administration's photographs were combined with text to visualize poverty, I worked "between word and image" to account for the important role that the circulation of the photographs played in public deliberation about poverty during the Depression.

This year's seminar brings together a diverse group of scholars from multiple fields (including philosophy, communication, English, history, education, and religious studies), all of whom are working, in one way or another, "between word and image." There are any number of ways to parse this complex and wonderfully ambiguous phrase. Word might mean text, but it could just as easily mean speech or a broader sense of language. Image might mean picture, but it could just as easily mean mental representation or a broader sense of visuality. And then there's the matter of between. Between might be interpreted spatially, as in the existence of a domain of word and a domain of image, and thus as a space overlap that we want to explore. Another connotation of between might be more antagonistic or, at the very least, agonistic; here, the sense of people who have "bad blood between them" comes to mind, making the phrase something more like word versus image. Based upon our discussions in our weekly seminar meetings, I think that as a group we have emerged with a third, more useful sense of between. This is the one that emerges when you see two people who insist that they are "just friends," but of whom, after observing them, you cannot help but think, "I wonder if there's something between those two?" This sense of between is more dynamic than an empty, static sense of space and more open than a frame of conflict. Instead it is a between of motion, of energy, of kinesis, of that spark that happens when two people create something that didn't exist when they were separate. While each of us in the seminar is working with our own senses of word and image, I think that it is this kinetic sense of between that has come to animate all of our individual projects. The result of our readings, conversations, and sharing of works-in-progress has been an incredibly fruitful, broad, and sustained year-long conversation about the dynamic relationships that emerge between word and image.

When I initially proposed my project for this fellowship, I was thinking of word and image in perhaps their most obvious senses: word as text and image as photograph. Largely as a result of our discussions, I have come to embrace a different sense of "image" as well. I have realized that those who responded to photographs like the McClure's Lincoln were not only offering words about an image, they were also constructing an image of photography itself–and it was this image of photography that shaped their political arguments. Recall that the letter writers grounded their arguments in the assumption that there was a direct correspondence between Lincoln's image and his "natural traits"–between, as General Walker so tellingly put it, "Mr. Lincoln's face and his mind and character." In making such seemingly bold claims, McClure's readers were actually mobilizing an image of photography that was quite familiar to them in the late nineteenth century: they had been taught by popular, culturally ubiquitous nineteenth-century-discourses of physiognomy and phrenology that there was a direct relationship between photographic portraits and the characters of their subjects.

In the nineteenth century, portraits were thought to be ekphrastic–that is, they were believed to reveal or to "bring before the eyes" (the literal translation of ekphrasis) something vital and almost mysterious about their subjects.16 It was assumed that the photographic portrait, in particular, did not merely "illustrate" a person but also constituted an important locus of information about human character. Portraits taught common people about the virtues of the elites and warned them against the danger of vice; thus portraits were thought to educate the masses about what it meant to be a virtuous citizen. Such education was possible because of the connection between portrait photography and "scientific" discourses such as phrenology and physiognomy, which connected physical attributes to moral and intellectual capacities. Throughout the nineteenth century, "the practice of reading faces" was a key part of everyday life and remained so into the early twentieth century.17 Conceived in the late eighteenth century by Johann Caspar Lavater and popularized in the United States and Europe in the nineteenth century, physiognomy involved paying attention to "the minuteness and the particularity" of physical details and made analogies between those details and the character traits they were said to illustrate.18 The practices of phrenology and physiognomy were not parlor-game fun; indeed, not many more steps were necessary for a full-blown discourse of eugenics.19 These sciences of moral character enabled anxious Americans, especially those of the middle and upper classes, to use a language that placed themselves and marginalized others in "proper relation." What we might call the physiognomic image of photography, then, was rhetorically available to late nineteenth-century Americans who wanted to use photography to define those who were "real Americans" and those whose physiognomy revealed them to be dangerous threats to a "pure" American identity.

Turning back now to the letters about the McClure's Lincoln, we may see more clearly how this physiognomic image of photography worked. In addition to commenting on Lincoln's character and affect, as we saw above, several letter writers took those arguments further to suggest that the Lincoln photograph revealed him as a distinctly American type–a "new man" whose physiognomy indicated a new stage in American characterological development. One of those who wrote to McClure's in response to the photograph was Truman H. (T. H.) Bartlett, identified by editors as an "eminent sculptor, who has for many years collected portraits of Lincoln, and has made a scientific study of Lincoln's physiognomy." In his letter to McClure's, Bartlett observed that the photograph suggested the rise of a "new man":

It may to many suggest other heads, but a short study of it establishes its distinctive originality in every respect. It's priceless, every way, and copies of it ought to be in the gladsome possession of every lover of Lincoln. Handsome is not enough–it's great–not only of a great man, but the first picture representing the only new physiognomy of which we have any correct knowledge contributed by the New World to the ethnographic consideration of mankind.20

Setting aside Bartlett's somewhat tortured prose, we see that, for Bartlett, Lincoln's physical features signaled not just a distinctive and moral character, as other letter writers had argued, but an actual and marked shift in the social and cultural makeup of the American man. While some might be content to tie the image to "other heads," as Bartlett so vividly puts it, Bartlett suggested that the "distinctive originality" of Lincoln's features signaled something entirely new. For Bartlett, the photograph of Lincoln was important not only because it revealed a "great" American, but also because it revealed a portrait of a "new" American character.

I argued above that the public conversation about the McClure's Lincoln should not be dismissed as an historical curiosity, but rather it should be studied as an important instance of political rhetoric. Embracing the responses to the McClure's Lincoln as political rhetoric means that we must do more than identify the physiognomic image of photography constructed in the comments about the photograph; we need also to consider what political work the image was being made to do in the context of its publication and circulation in 1895. Put another way, why was it so vital for the McClure's letter writers to say all of these things about Lincoln in the first place? Answers to this question are too lengthy to consider here, but in general I believe that the impulse to mobilize the physiognomic image of photography in discussions of the McClure's Lincoln may be traced to cultural anxieties about the changing character of the American citizenry at the end of the nineteenth century. As a number of historians have observed, elites existed in a perpetual state of anxiety during the Gilded Age.21 Many causes have been posited for this cultural "neurasthenia"22; one of them was confusion about what it meant to be an American. Historian T.J. Jackson Lears observes that the political and social upheaval of the period (immigration, labor disputes, and anarchism, for example) was coupled with a broader cultural anxiety about the potential "degeneracy" of the "Anglo-Saxon" race; statisticians warned that "Anglo- Saxons were being replaced by inferior immigrant stock," and immigration rhetoric was dominated by racist rhetorics of biological essentialism.23 Anxious elites also sought to rhetorically dissociate activist citizens from the identity of "American." After the incident at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886, for example, one newspaper editorial pronounced: "The enemy forces are not American [but] rag-tag and bob-tail cutthroats of Beelzebub from the Rhine, the Danube, the Vistula and the Elbe."24 During these years, eugenics discourse reached down from the rarified universe of science into the everyday lives of Americans, where it emphasized the importance of retaining a "pure" American identity in the face of the "threat" of the blending of the races.25 Attempts to grapple with the confusions of their age, then, likely prompted elites to enlist Lincoln in their rhetorical battle. Of such appropriations of Lincoln, Barry Schwartz writes: "Lincoln was not elevated ... because the people had discovered new facts about him, but because they had discovered new facts about themselves, and regarded him as the perfect vehicle for giving these tangible expression."26 To this apt characterization I would only add that it was photography–or, more specifically, the image of photography–that transformed Lincoln into that "perfect vehicle."



1 Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf note that there are over one hundred extant photographs of Lincoln; more than fifty made before he became President, and more than sixty taken during his presidency. See Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf, Lincoln in Photographs: An Album of Every Known Pose (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), ix-x. The daguerreotype which was photographed and then reproduced in McClure's is now in the collection of the Library of Congress.

2 Barry Schwartz has traced references to both Lincoln and Washington in newspapers and in the Congressional Record from roughly 1865-1920. He found that references to Lincoln markedly increased after 1900, and soon thereafter, surpassed references to Washington. See Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 57-58; 78; 110-113. See also Marcus Cunliffe, "The Doubled Images of Lincoln and Washington," in Gettysburg College, 26th Annual Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture (Gettysburg College, PA, 1988), 7-34; Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York : Oxford University Press, 1994), 27-29.

3 The "tousled hair" photograph was widely (and, to some, embarrassingly) circulated after Lincoln's senate nomination. Of the photograph, Lincoln later wrote to a friend that he thought the photograph was "a very true one; though my wife and many others do not. My impression is that their objection arises from the disordered condition of the hair." See Hamilton and Ostendorf, Lincoln in Photographs, 6-7.

4 Qtd. in Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 152.

5 "The Earliest Portrait of Lincoln: Letters in Regard to the Frontispiece of the November McClure's," McClure's, December 1895, 111.

6 "The Earliest Portrait," 112.

7 Ibid., 110.

8 Ibid., 111.

9 Ibid., 109.

10 "Miss Tarbell's Life of Lincoln," McClure's, January 1986, 206-207.

11 Ibid., 207.

12 "The Earliest Portrait," 112.

13 Ibid., 109.

14 Of the first set of twelve letters published in the December 1895 McClure's, four are from members of the legal profession (including Supreme Court justices), five are from academics, and two are from newspaper editors. The magazine's founder and editor, Sam McClure, most likely sent advance copies of the photograph to members of the eastern political and scholarly establishment. Many correspondents began their letters by thanking McClure for sending an advance copy of the image; for example, C.R. Miller, editor of the New York Times, wrote on October 24th, "I thank you for the privilege you have given me of looking over some of the text and illustrations of your new Life of Lincoln" ("The Earliest Portrait," 111).

15 John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 1927/1954), 219. See also Cara A. Finnegan and Jiyeon Kang, "'Sighting' the Public: Iconoclasm and Public Sphere Theory," Quarterly Journal of Speech 90 (November 2004): 377-402.

16 On the rhetoric of portrait photographs see Graham Clarke, ed., The Portrait in Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 1992).

17Miles Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 16.

18 Lucy Hartley, Physiognomy and the Meaning of Expression in Nineteenth Century Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 127.

19 On the rhetoric of eugenics in the twentieth century, see Marouf Arif Hasian, Jr., The Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996)

20 "Miss Tarbell's," 207.

21 See, for example, T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982); and Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967)

22 On neurasthenia, see Lears, No Place of Grace, 47-54; Trachtenberg, Incorporation, 47-48

23 Lears, No Place of Grace, 29-30. See also Shawn Michelle Smith, American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 116-117

24 Qtd. in Lears, No Place of Grace, 29

25 Qtd. in Smith, American Archives, 125

26 Barry Schwartz, "The Reconstruction of Abraham Lincoln," in Collective Remembering, eds. David Middleton and Derek Edwards (London: Sage, 1990), 101

Cara A. Finnegan is the 2006-2007 William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow and is an associate professor of rhetorical studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Parts of this article are adapted from her essay "Recognizing Lincoln: Image Vernaculars and Nineteenth Century Visual Culture,"
Rhetoric and Public Affairs 8.1: 31-57.

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