Abraham Lincoln took full advantage of what passed for the modern media in 1863
Between the last month of 1862 and the first hours of 1863, Abraham Lincoln came to terms with his own immortality. In his annual message to Congress in December, with the deadline for executing the final Emancipation Proclamation approaching, he had seemed tentative, predicting only that “[W]e cannot escape history. We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves.” But on New Year’s Day, as he signed the final order, he offered a far bolder prediction: “If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act.”
Some things never change. Most presidents come to believe they are—
to use the phrase du jour—change agents. But modern leaders routinely take their cases directly to the people on television and digital media. Images showing our chief executives burning the midnight oil in the Oval Office appear as if by magic within minutes of major announcements. Of course, Lincoln lacked access to that kind of rapid technology, but he certainly took full advantage of what passed for the modern media in 1863.
He seldom gets the credit he deserves in this area. His good fortune was that he and photography more or less came of age together. But his ability to dominate the new medium was due to far more than luck. Lincoln recognized the power of his own image as much as he recognized the power of his own words. In an era of comparatively primitive visual communications—when it took days or weeks, not seconds or minutes, to create, mass-produce and widely distribute the visual accompaniments to history-in-the-making—Lincoln tapped into available resources with the political savvy of a David Axelrod or Karl Rove. The results proved more than illustrations.
This is not to say that Lincoln’s media instincts were perfect. He and his aides failed to summon a photographer to record the signing of the proclamation on January 1, 1863. But this may have been more than an oversight. Lincoln was nervous about how the public might receive the order, and in this case likely did not want his image to speak louder than his words: It was about the Union, not the president.
He already knew how to use portraits to enhance his reputation. Back in 1860, he had found time to sit for the painters, sculptors and photographers who beat
a path to his Springfield hometown to create new images of the candidate who refused to budge from his symbolic back porch. Their work helped convince an America that barely knew him to embrace his rugged looks almost as a symbol of the limitless possibilities of the American dream. The image-makers performed similar magic on his behalf after the election, recording his transformation from clean-shaven rail-splitter to avuncular bearded statesman who looked perfectly prepared for the crisis awaiting him. During the early years of the war, however, Lincoln receded as a subject of interest as picture publishers turned more avidly—and profitably—to introducing a new generation of military heroes making their reputations on the battlefields of the Civil War.
The year 1863 launched the Lincoln image renaissance. He may not have invited a photographer to witness the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but he agreed to pose for an artist who determined to interpret it as a heroic act—Edward D. Marchant of Philadelphia. And Lincoln allowed a sculptor to portray him for a heroic-looking marble bust destined for the U.S. Capitol.
Most of all, Lincoln returned repeatedly to the studios of Washington’s leading photographers to sit for the simple and often heartbreaking portraits of his personal suffering that Americans were again yearning to see, own and keep in their family albums. At Brady’s gallery, he posed for a rare full-figure shot,
quipping to the photographer, “Can it be taken with a single negative?” In the quiet of a summer weekend he helped launch the independent career of onetime Brady employee Alexander Gardner by sitting for fresh images at his newly opened gallery. “This being Sunday & a fine day,” his assistant secretary John Hay recorded in his diary, “I went down with the President to have his picture taken at Gardner’s. He was in very good spirits. He thinks that the rebel power is at last beginning to disintegrate [and] that they will break to pieces if we only stand firm now.”
In that prediction, Lincoln proved premature, but he was amply rewarded by the shots Gardner took that day: four fine cartes-de-visite and an imperial that the president, in a rare comment on his own images, judged “very successful.” Three months later, on the eve of Lincoln’s trip to the Gettysburg cemetery dedication, Gardner got even better results: some of the most famous portraits of Lincoln ever taken. Still, the art of news photography lagged. No one recorded Lincoln (or for that matter principal orator Edward Everett) speaking at Gettysburg on November 19. According to persistent legend, a photographer was indeed present, but failed to get a picture of the president because his brief address ended so abruptly. But if this is true, why is there no shot of Everett, who spoke for two hours, not two minutes? Fortunately we do have one distant shot from the outskirts of the crowd that historic day, which in intense close-up reveals the blurry image of Lincoln arriving on the speakers’ platform. Recently, historian Bob Zeller helped unearth another shot that shows Lincoln arriving on the scene on horseback. But alas, no close-ups.
More than anyone of his time, Lincoln knew the power of such portraits, and fortunately for history, he missed few opportunities to record them when he had the chance. As we mark, over the next 12 months, the 150th anniversary of great events of the watershed year of 1863, we should also keep in mind the visual legacy of that year: not only the painful battlefield photographs that showed the dead at Gettysburg, but also portraits that revealed a once-robust leader aging before his country’s gaze—or, in the words of a contemporary quoting Scripture, dying for our sins. Lincoln was not the last president to age painfully before the cameras. Just check before-and-after images of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But through a rare combination of consistent instinct and emerging technology, Lincoln was the first. The results not only illustrated history. They made history.
Historian Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.