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The 16th president’s unusual face evolved from an object of ridicule to an American icon that epitomized our Civil War ordeal.

The German-born reformer Carl Schurz never forgot his first glimpse of Abraham Lincoln. It was 1858—the year of the great Illinois Senate debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Schurz was in the midst of a statewide campaign swing on behalf of the Republicans, traveling south by train from Chicago into the heartland. Suddenly he heard a commotion in his railroad car and, glancing up, saw before him a spectacularly unusual head “towering far above those surrounding him.”

Nothing had prepared him for the sight of this remarkably “homely, deeply furrowed, swarthy, haggard face, topped with a somewhat battered stovepipe hat.” The large and mobile mouth bent into a “kind smile,” and the “deep-set, melancholy eyes from time to time” illuminated with a “merry twinkle.” The overall effect was bizarre—inexplicable. Something about the man was ugly, even repellent; something else, magnetic, almost irresistible. The crowd of admirers surrounding the giant seemed enraptured, and Schurz hastened to join them and meet the object of their interest. Within minutes, Schurz recalled, “I felt as if I had actually known him all my life.”

For contemporaries who only knew Lincoln from period photographs and prints, his appearance aroused deep emotions, ranging from affection to horror to embarrassment. For years his face inspired mirth-provoking caricatures, with cartoonists contorting his features into a fair approximation of Satan himself.

Friendlier artists altered the very image of “Uncle Sam”—who for generations had resembled George Washington—into the spitting image of Lincoln. Journalists vented endlessly about whether he was in fact too ugly to serve as president. Castigating him as “a lank-sided Yankee of the unloveliest and of the dirtiest complexion,” the Charleston Mercury assailed him as “a horrid-looking wretch…sooty and scoundrely in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper, and the night-man, a creature fit evidently for petty treasons, small stratagems, and all sorts of spoils.”

Perhaps wisely, Lincoln himself did not make an appearance at the 1860 Republican National Convention. But at precisely the moment when he had amassed the votes needed for his nomination to the presidency, a man entered the hall bearing a large painting of Lincoln. To one eyewitness, the effect of the “hideous” canvas was chilling: “Most of the delegates having never seen the original, the effect upon them was indescribable.”

It is fair to say that no one has ever before or since looked quite like Abraham Lincoln—certainly not his own children, who resembled their mother’s family, not their father’s. We have no pictures of Lincoln’s own mother, who was said to be large-boned and tough-skinned like her son, but who died long before photography became commonplace. The future president’s father supposedly sat for a lone photograph late in his life, but historians remain uncertain that it really shows Thomas Lincoln. It was as if that face sprang uniquely from the Kentucky soil, from the Indiana prairie, and from what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “village experience.”

From the beginning, Lincoln’s strange appearance made others take notice. An Indiana friend remembered him as a “tall dangling aw[kw]ard droll looking boy.” Another neighbor thought that even as a teenager Lincoln appeared “dried up & shriveled.” And yet another described his typical facial expression as a mix between “abstraction & sadness.”

John Todd Stuart, who became Lincoln’s first law partner, thought he looked “torpid” and “gloomy,” and actually believed that the “pores of his flesh acted as an appropriate organ” for his “Evacuations,” adding in something of an understatement that he “differed with other men about this.”

Understandably, Lincoln himself grew willing to joke self-consciously— perhaps self-protectively—about his appearance. To say nothing at all, of course, might have been far worse for a public figure—the 19th-century equivalent of what we call ignoring the elephant in the room. Accused during the Lincoln-Douglas debates of being two-faced, he shot back: “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

And he seemed to enjoy telling the story of the hideously ugly man who once confronted him with a raised rifle as he rode alone through the woods. “Halt!” shouted the armed man. When Lincoln nervously asked why he was being threatened, the man replied: “I vowed if I ever met a man uglier than myself I would shoot him on the spot.” To which Lincoln replied, “If I am uglier than you, shoot away!”

To an artist who was having trouble softening the hard features of his face for an 1860 portrait, Lincoln sighed: “It is allowed to be ugly in this world, but not as ugly as I am.” To Thomas Hicks, one artist that year who succeeded in modifying the harsh lines that circled his face, Lincoln commented: “I think the picture has a somewhat pleasanter expression than I usually have but that, perhaps is not an objection.” Sculptor Thomas D. Jones and painter Edward D. Marchant each admitted that Lincoln’s features were the most difficult to describe, much less capture, of any subject they ever studied. And painter Francis B. Carpenter, whose self-assurance forbade such concessions, repainted his famous canvas of the First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation so endlessly—apparently never satisfied with the central portrait of Lincoln—that he eventually reduced it to a daub. When, years later, another painter completed a remarkably accurate portrait, Lincoln studied the result, looked up and remarked that it was “horribly like” the original.

In other words, Lincoln well knew that he lacked the handsome grandeur of other national leaders such as Franklin Pierce, Salmon Chase and Charles Sumner. If anyone ever remarked about his appearance, he understood, the comment was likely to be derogatory. All he ever admitted about his own appearance in writing was one unenlightening reference in an 1859 autobiographical sketch designed to nourish his budding presidential campaign: “If any personal description of me is thought desirable, I am in height six feet four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing, on an average, one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair and gray eyes—no other marks or brands recollected.”

Here Lincoln was being disingenuous, because in truth, marks and brands abounded: “To say that he is ugly, is nothing,” wrote the British journalist Edward Dicey. He described “a head, coconut shaped and somewhat too small for such a stature, covered with a rough, uncombed and uncombable lank dark hair, that stands out in every direction at once; a face furrowed, wrinkled, and indented, as though it had been scarred by vitriol…and, sunk beneath bushy eyebrows, two bright, somewhat dreamy eyes, that seemed to gaze through you without looking at you; a few irregular blotches of black bristly hair in the place where beard and whiskers ought to grow; a close-set, thin-lipped, stern mouth, with two rows of white teeth; and a nose and ears, which have been taken by mistake from a head of twice the size.”

Reminded of these uniformly vivid recollections—few of them laudatory—it is easier to understand why Lincoln became the first American president to alter his appearance after his election. The 11-year-old New York girl who wrote to him to complain that his face was too thin and would look better (and attract more votes) if covered by whiskers apparently struck a chord. Days after his victory Lincoln stopped shaving, and by the time he reached the East en route to his inauguration, he sported such a bushy beard that crowds welcoming him occasionally failed to recognize him. Ultimately, the beard did little to prettify Lincoln—but it did transform the lantern-jawed Railsplitter into a wise-looking, avuncular statesman who easily bore the nicknames “Uncle Abe” and “Father Abraham.”

Seen for the first time, the bewhiskered Lincoln would still startle, then mystify. Dicey, for one, commented on his “bright, dreamy eyes,” but then added that they “seemed to gaze through you without looking at you.” Mystery was part of his countenance for those who saw him in the flesh, and it remains a key ingredient in Lincoln memory.

“There is something in his face I cannot understand,” agreed Congressman Henry Laurens Dawes of Massachusetts after their first meeting. As Gustave Koerner, a good friend from Illinois, conceded years later: “Something about the man, the face, is unfathomable.”

A fellow Illinois legislator, Robert Wilson, thought Lincoln’s face looked entirely different at ease than it did in conversation. “When at ease,” Wilson observed, Lincoln “had nothing in his appearance that was marked or striking.” But “when enlivened in conversation or engaged in telling, or hearing, some mirth-inspiring Story, his countenance would brighten up, the expression would light up not in a flash, but rapidly the muscles in his face would begin to contract. Several wrinkles would diverge from the inner corners of his eyes, and extend down and diagonally across his nose, his eyes would sparkle, all terminating in an unrestrained laugh in which every one present willing or unwilling were compelled to take part.”

“The question of looks,” concurred his private secretary John G. Nicolay, “depended in Lincoln’s case very much upon his moods. The large framework of his features was greatly modified by the emotions which controlled them.” In melancholy—as he was so often— or freezing in a dignified, unsmiling pose as the primitive cameras of his day required, Lincoln’s features would grow glazed over.

An observer might at first focus on the president’s array of moles and warts, throbbing Adam’s apple, wild mane of uncombed hair or unaccountably roving eye—a feature that one medical expert recently attributed to the aftershock of a childhood kick from a horse. But as Nicolay observed, “In a countenance of strong lines and rugged masses like Lincoln’s, the lift of an eyebrow, the curve of a lip, the flash of an eye…created a much wider facial play than in rounded immobile countenances.”

Admitting that “Lincoln’s features were the despair of every artist who undertook his portrait,” Nicolay concluded: “Graphic art was powerless before a face that moved through a thousand delicate gradations of line and contour, light and shade, sparkle of the eye and curve of the lip, in the long gamut of expression from grave to gay, and back again from the rollicking jollity of laughter to that serious, faraway look that with prophetic intuitions beheld the awful panorama of war, and heard the cry of oppression and suffering. There are many pictures of Lincoln; there is no portrait of him.”

Journalist Henry Villard said much the same thing. Observing President-elect Lincoln for nearly four months in Springfield, the New York Herald reporter saw him laugh, cry, argue and protest. “I do not understand why Mr. Lincoln is represented as being so prodigiously ugly,” he finally protested. “I have never seen a picture of him that does anything like justice to the original.”

From the moment America’s greatest writers caught sight of Lincoln—either in person or through photographs— they took notice, too. Marveling at the president’s “sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it,” Nathaniel Hawthorne observed firsthand in 1862: “His hair was black, still unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb. His complexion is dark and sallow, betokening, I fear, an insalubrious atmosphere around the White House; he has thick black eyebrows and an impending brow; his nose is large, and the lines about his mouth are strongly defined.

“The whole physiognomy is as coarse a one as you would meet anywhere in the length and breadth of the States; but, withal, it is redeemed, illuminated, softened, and brightened by a kindly though serious look out of his eyes, and an expression of homely sagacity, that seems weighted with rich results of village experience.” Studying his expression, the well-dressed Yankee Democrat concluded: “[I] would as lief have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man whom it would have been practicable to put in his place.”

The British playwright Tom Taylor—who wrote Our American Cousin, the comedy Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated— conceded the American president’s “furrowed face,” and “lack of all we prize as debonair,” but acknowledged that he “had lived to shame me from my sneer, / To lame my pencil, and confute my pen.”

In 1860 Chicago sculptor Leonard Wells Volk asked Lincoln to sit for a life mask. When Lincoln first saw the bust it inspired, he exclaimed in mock horror: “There is the animal itself!” But eventually succeeding generations of artists same to rely on that mask to inform future portraits. “Yes, this is he,” wrote the poet Richard Watson Gilder of the life mask. “That brow, all wisdom, all benignity; / That human, humorous mouth; those cheeks that hold / Like some harsh landscape all the summer’s gold… / Yes, this is he who ruled a world of men / As might some prophet of the elder day— / Brooding above the tempest and the fray[.]”

David R. Locke, a famous 19thcentury humorist, wrote dialect-riddled parodies under the pen name Petroleum V. Nasby. But Locke was anything but amused when he actually met the president and had the opportunity to study him carefully. “I never saw a more thoughtful face,” Locke remembered. “I never saw a more dignified face. I never saw so sad a face.”

As Locke seemed to understand, Lincoln’s chronically sad visage had now absorbed, now fully reflected, the riven nation’s melancholy—mirroring America’s unimaginable suffering as the country waged a bloody war.

Later and ever since—engraved on coins and currency, enshrined in grand public statuary—Lincoln’s face evolved into an authentic national icon: the enduring symbol of the American experience, the man who lived the American dream and then gave his life that the nation might live—all this embodied in a face that had once elicited horror, criticism and caricature and confusion. Theodore Roosevelt kept Lincoln’s portrait on his desk for inspiration. Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all placed a statuette of Lincoln near their Oval Office desks. And when George H.W. Bush commissioned his own official presidential portrait for the White House collection, he directed that it show him before an earlier painting—an oil portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

The 20th-century artist-poet Marsden Hartley struggled throughout his career to comprehend and interpret the quintessentially American countenance. He may have struck a chord when he speculated that Lincoln’s pained but resolute face served to cement America’s confidence in its own survival.

“I have walked up and down the / valleys / of his astounding face,” Hartley wrote in verse. “I have witnessed all the golgothas / I have climbed the steep declivities of all his dreams.” Speaking for his own time and ours, for many generations who have found reassurance in Lincoln’s suffering and optimism in those battered features, Hartley concluded: “I have scaled the sheer surface of his dignities / watching the flaming horizon with calm.”


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.