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Mathew Brady’s Cooper Union portrait transformed a country lawyer into a national icon.

On Washington’s birthday in 1860, Abraham Lincoln quietly boarded a train in his hometown to begin a long trip to the East Coast. As he did, the annual patriotic parade was forming in the center of Springfield, Illinois. Brass marching bands, children of Revolutionary War veterans and vivid banners converged to enthusiastically celebrate the nation’s first president. The man who would become the nation’s 16th president knew that his journey would fulfill or break his own White House dreams—which, legends of modesty notwithstanding, were surely in his mind on that wintry February 22.

At the other end of the nation in New York City, an opportunity awaited for Lincoln to dazzle a fresh public with his oratory. But it was also an unplanned chance to make his face almost as familiar as Washington’s. Little could Lincoln know that he would emerge from his trip not only as a public speaker with an unexpectedly universal appeal for his party but also as a budding national icon.

On the morning of his departure, Springfield’s anti-Lincoln Democratic newspaper, The Illinois State Register, both acknowledged and mocked the candidate’s ambitions by publishing a notice: “SIGNIFICANT— The Honorable Abraham Lincoln departs today for Brooklyn under an engagement to deliver a lecture before the Young Men’s Association of that city, in Beecher’s Church. Subject, not known. Consideration, $200 and expenses. Object, presidential capital. Effect, disappointment.”

Of course, we know that is not exactly what happened. The trip would increase Lincoln’s presidential capital immeasurably and “disappoint” no one but his competitors and detractors—but for none of the reasons the newspaper enumerated. To begin with, Lincoln was not scheduled to speak before a “Young Men’s Association,” but rather for New York’s Young Men’s Central Republican Union, a group created four years earlier to boost John C. Frémont’s campaign for president. Now it was dedicated with equal fervor to stopping their state’s favorite son and the overwhelming favorite for the 1860 Republican nomination, Senator William H. Seward.

Most observers find it difficult to imagine why. But modern citizens of Lincoln’s Illinois, not to mention this author’s own New York, know that upstate-downstate competition sometimes inspires the fierce antagonism of blood feuds. Seward hailed from upstate New York. To fellow Republicans in New York City, that alone was enough to disqualify him. Foes publicly added that their party could not afford to nominate any antislavery Easterner, as he would be unlikely to win support in the West. A Westerner, they argued, could succeed in both regions and thus win the presidency. Hence the opportunity arose for Lincoln, along with other Western Republicans invited to New York in 1859 and 1860, to audition for skeptical Eastern audiences.

The Register made another error as well—an understandable one, since Lincoln himself didn’t know the truth of it when he left Springfield. He would not be speaking at Beecher’s Church in Brooklyn but at Cooper Union in Manhattan. For years historians insisted that the event was moved across the East River because Lincoln was so popular that organizers needed a larger hall to accommodate his admirers. Not so. Cooper Union actually held fewer people than Beecher’s Church. The simple fact is, Lincoln had delayed his trip for so long that the church lecture series to which he was originally invited had ended—and a new hall had to be found in short order.

The change proved significant for many reasons. For one thing, Beecher’s Church was a national shrine to abolitionism. Its pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, was one of the most famous antislavery orators in the country. His sermons attracted tourists and press coverage every Sunday. For Lincoln to have appeared there would have signaled to Northerners and Southerners alike that he identified himself with those who demanded the immediate destruction of slavery. More accurately, Lincoln advocated the idea of eradicating slavery slowly—by limiting its spread into the new national territories. Unexpected though it was, the change of venue to Cooper Union served him well. The free college for self-made men—and women—was a far more appropriate venue for Lincoln. Also fortuitous was its proximity to the most renowned photograph gallery in the nation.

It is hard to imagine an age in which one speech— delivered outside the glare of television, Web sites or blogs—could attract the kind of attention that Lincoln’s Cooper Union address did. It requires modern political junkies, nourished by 24-hour cable news and the Internet, to imagine a bygone era when a public passionately interested in politics thronged to rallies, debates and orations, hungrily read newspaper and pamphlet reprints of political speeches and voted in mass numbers—80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 1860, nearly double the turnout we get today. It was also an era in which political images were regarded as rare and precious, and often displayed in the sanctity of private homes as well as in the ferment of street rallies and political clubhouses. This passion for pictures required candidates to dutifully pose for photographers and artists, and inspired picture-makers to produce thousands of images for broad circulation among the faithful.

Undoubtedly Lincoln sensed that his very first speech in the media center of the country presented him with an opportunity to convince Easterners that he was more than a frontier debater. It was also a chance to produce a document that New York publishers might reprint and circulate nationwide, and as it happened, to pose for a portrait that would resoundingly answer rumors that he was too ugly and unkempt to contend for the presidency.

Of course, political protocol of the mid-19th century required that a candidate not be seen breathing heavily on his way to being nominated. Candidates did not run for the nomination; they supposedly waited to be asked. The truth is, Lincoln and his supporters calculated their pre-convention strategy carefully and tirelessly. Yet one post-assassination recollection of his Cooper Union effort went so far as to suggest that Lincoln dashed off his 7,000-word speech on the train from New Jersey to New York, the final leg of his long trek. Much of the reality of Lincoln’s labors was buried to deemphasize his ambition while emphasizing his spontaneous genius and self-effacement.

In reality, Lincoln arrived in New York with a finished manuscript in hand, but then discovered that he had prepared it for parishioners and needed to recast it quickly for a lay audience. We know he took care to rework his speech because, after an obligatory Sabbath visit to Brooklyn for worship services at Beecher’s Church, Lincoln excused himself from a luncheon with an influential Republican to rush back to Manhattan and continue rewriting the day before his oration. Yet the next morning he supposedly felt confident enough to stroll in a leisurely fashion with his hosts up Broadway. At the northern end of the boulevard (now the southern end of Greenwich Village), legend has it that Lincoln and his party found themselves before Mathew Brady’s photography gallery. There, to his supposed surprise, he was importuned to go inside and pose for a picture commemorating his visit.

A likely story indeed. Although there is no record that Lincoln ever expressed eagerness to pose for any kind of artist, it must be regarded as a remarkable coincidence that friends and admirers so often managed to prompt him into photo studios just when he was ready to deliver a major speech. This often provided illustrations for unforgettable words, however crude the images. During the five years of his national fame from 1860-65, he unfailingly made himself available to photographers, painters and sculptors even during periods of crisis— strongly suggesting that he personally appreciated, and endorsed, the importance of portraiture in recording his triumphs. This visit to New York was no exception. Having posed for nothing but unflattering primitive photographs in Illinois, Lincoln probably well understood the opportunity that his hosts presented by visiting the Brady gallery—or else he surely would not have abandoned his writing chores to do it.

As New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote of Lincoln’s speech that evening, “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.” He might well have been describing the photograph Brady made a few hours earlier.

This is how the visit took place: New Yorkers Hiram Barney, Richard C. McCormick and several of their compatriots from the Young Men’s Central Republican Union called on their speaker at his hotel on Monday morning. “We found him in a suit of black, much wrinkled from its careless packing in a small valise,” McCormick remembered. “He received us cordially, apologizing for the awkward and uncomfortable appearance he made in his new suit, and expressing himself surprised at being in New York.” Lincoln seemed genuinely mortified about the way he looked. “He felt uneasy in his new clothes and a strange place,” said Lincoln’s friend Ward Hill Lamon. “His form and manner were indeed odd,” McCormick admitted, “and we thought him the most unprepossessing public man we had ever met.”

McCormick actually believed that Lincoln was “wholly ignorant…and charmingly innocent of the machinery so generally used, even by some of our most popular orators, to give success and eclat to their public efforts.” Of course, Lincoln was neither innocent nor ignorant about public relations, particularly when it came to stimulating newspaper reprints and posing for pictures, though none of his earlier images had as yet been widely reproduced. New technologies now made mass-production possible. If he seemed oblivious to McCormick it was because political aspirants of the day were trained to exude modesty, not ambition.

In a fine mood, McCormick and his cohorts persuaded Lincoln that he must get out of the hotel and do some sightseeing. Together they proceeded to stroll up and down the city’s great thoroughfare, joining the “hundreds and thousands in New York,” as one observer joked, “…who cannot live out of Broadway…must breathe its air at least once a day, or they gasp or perish.” The odd-looking group—three or four slightly built, well-dressed young New Yorkers dwarfed by the towering Westerner in his “sleek and shiny” rumpled new suit—gazed at the church spires, shop windows and office buildings lining the street. Lincoln even bought a new top hat.

Eventually their Broadway stroll took the group up to Bleecker Street, where Brady, already a celebrated photographer, had recently moved his operation. No American camera artist had achieved more fame. He had won prizes at international expositions and forged reputation-enhancing alliances with painters, printmakers and publishers of illustrated newspapers, all of whom competed for the right to reproduce and publish his originals. To the American Journal of Photography Brady was, quite simply, “the prince of photographers.”

Just months before Lincoln’s visit, Brady had decided to migrate away from the competitors who surrounded his downtown studios. He chose a new base of operations on Broadway and Tenth Street, but while it was being renovated, he opened Brady’s Gallery of Photographs and Ambrotypes in temporary quarters at 643 Broadway on the corner of Bleecker, only a few blocks west of the new Cooper Union.

Here, as in all of Brady’s galleries, visitors arrived not only to have their pictures taken, but also to view the museumlike display of framed portraits hanging on the walls. Photography was still an infant medium, but during his career Brady had already captured likenesses of Dolley Madison, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Presidents Van Buren, Taylor, Polk, Pierce and Buchanan. Large copies of their portraits, sometimes hand-tinted, were always on display to the public.

On the day Lincoln arrived, one corner of Brady’s haut ensemble featured the latest portrait of Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, looking to one viewer “somewhat fiery and slightly dogmatical.” Nearby hung a new image of Seward. Few of the other visitors that day would have questioned the prevailing political wisdom that these two senators would be squaring off for the White House later that year. They were all wrong.

Lincoln had never met Brady, but almost certainly had heard of him—perhaps he had seen his credit line on woodcuts of Brady’s celebrity portraits or examined his Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a series of volumes featuring portraits of “our Great Men.” Much as McCormick would like us to infer that he steered his unsuspecting guest toward the nearest available portraitist, it should be remembered that Lincoln was also asked to pose during his Eastern trip by the photographers Beers & Mansfield of New Haven but declined. He was just too busy, he replied apologetically. More to the point, by then he had been photographed by Brady. He had already joined Brady’s roster of “Great Men” and “illustrious Americans.”

If Brady’s new headquarters looked anything like the plush lower Broadway galleries he had recently vacated, Lincoln was surely dazzled by his first glimpse of it. This was nothing like the above-the-store photo studios back in Springfield. Lincoln and his hosts ascended a flight of stairs, entered through glazed cut-glass doors and came face to face with “the largest reception room in the city.” A journal of the day had rhapsodized about the Brady gallery a few years earlier: “The floors are carpeted with superior velvet tapestry, highly colored and of a large and appropriate pattern. The walls are covered with…gold paper. The ceiling frescoed, and in the center is suspended a six-light gilt and enameled chandelier, with prismatic drops that throw their enlivening colors in abundant profusion.”

Ushered upstairs to the “operating room,” lighted by tinted overhead skylights and crowded with furnishings and decorative objects fit for a mansion, Lincoln saw the large reflecting mirrors ready to be aimed at the sitter to enhance the lighting. Brady’s massive 17-by-21- inch wooden camera, its lens encased in gleaming brass, stood mounted on a pedestal.

There, the bespectacled photographer greeted Lincoln and sized him up. Though nearly blind, Brady was still able to discern that his new subject presented a daunting challenge. The man who stood before him would not be easy to photograph in Brady’s trademark formal style.

Carl Schurz, the German-born pro-Lincoln politician who would himself speak at Cooper Union later in 1860, once observed of his friend’s startling appearance: “His neck emerged, long and sinewy, from a white collar turned down over a thin black necktie. His lank, ungainly body was clad in a rusty black dress coat with sleeves that should have been longer; but his arms appeared so long that the sleeves of a ‘store’ coat could hardly be expected to cover them all the way down to the wrists. His black trousers, too, permitted a very full view of his large feet.”

Even to his old friend Lamon, Lincoln looked “haggard and careworn” at this point in his life. He was only 51 years old, but he already exhibited “all the marks of protracted suffering.” In Lamon’s words, his “loose skin fell in wrinkles, or folds; there was a large mole on his right cheek and an uncommonly prominent Adam’s apple on his throat.”

Brady had an inspiration. He would not settle for a commonplace head shot; he would move his camera as far away from this homely looking man as possible. He would emphasize, rather than disguise, his subject’s most striking physical attribute: his height. Lincoln would be asked, for the first time, to pose before a camera standing up, not sitting down. To mask his narrow chest and ill-fitting, Springfield-made attire, Brady made certain Lincoln opened his coat. This would make him appear broader. There was nothing Brady could do about Lincoln’s right coat sleeve, however; it was just too short, and a flap of white shirt cuff peeked out.

To add classical grandeur and the accouterments of statesmanship to the composition, Brady cleverly added carefully chosen background props. Lincoln would be surrounded by symbols of both learning and public service. At his left Brady placed a table piled with books. These would suggest intellectualism, and in the bargain help his long-limbed subject reach down and touch the little table that sat so far beneath his hand. He situated a faux pillar behind Lincoln’s right shoulder. In art, the pillar represented suffering, selflessness and strength: Christ had been bound to a pillar for the flagellation, and Samson had hauled down the pillars of the Philistines’ palace to punish them for godlessness. Clearly this was to be no ordinary portrait.

Brady’s assistants brought over the obligatory adjustable neck immobilizer, mounted on an iron tripod. But it was too short for a man of Lincoln’s stature; the clamp would not reach his head. The aides had to prop it up on a box or table to accommodate him.

Someone must have brought a hairbrush and mirror. Brady wanted to make sure that Lincoln’s so-called “wild Republican hair,” so prominent in earlier pictures, was patted down smoothly—and this must have required some cosmetic assistance in the studio after Lincoln’s long walk uptown to the galleries. He had occasionally forgotten to fix his hair before sitting for the camera—and one result, made in Chicago three years earlier, proved particularly disagreeable to his wife, Mary. She objected specifically and strenuously to “the disordered condition of the hair.”

But Brady was still not satisfied with what he saw. “I had great trouble in making a natural picture,” Brady admitted. “I asked him if I might not arrange his collar, and with that he began to pull it up.”

“Ah,” said Lincoln, “I see you want to shorten my neck.” “That’s just it,” Brady recalled, “and we both laughed.”

That long, dark, withered neck—appearing like a totem pole in earlier pictures—made Lincoln look like an uncouth laborer. Brady’s cover-up transformed him into a gentleman.

The result looked nothing like the primitive images of Lincoln’s younger days, partly because of the magic of the retoucher’s tools, softening the harsh lines in the face. But the pose itself deserves to be called a masterpiece, and it took a genius like Brady to arrange it. It captured Lincoln in all his Western vigor, but refracted by a new and convincing dignity. Its effect on the political campaign was profound.

An artist of the day, Francis B. Carpenter, recalled: “My friend Brady insisted that his photograph of Mr. Lincoln—taken on the day he made his speech in New York—much the best portrait, by the way, in circulation of him during the campaign—was the means of his election. That it helped largely to this end I do not doubt. The effect of such influences, though silent, is powerful.” Carpenter knew the power of images as well as anyone: His 1864 painting, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, inspired what was probably the best-selling political or historical engraving of the 19th century.

After he returned home from his Cooper Union tour, the candidate remained silent. Once nominated in May, Lincoln made no new speeches and issued no public letters. His campaign was conducted at rallies, parades and meetings by surrogates and supporters—with the nominee represented by reprints of his speeches and broadly circulated copies of the image that came to be known as the “Cooper Union photograph.”

To be precise, mass photography—the little cartes-devisite Americans collected in leather albums—did not become popular until a few months after the campaign ended. As late as April 1860, Lincoln would reply to an admirer seeking his photograph, “I have not a single one now at my control,” adding almost playfully, “but I think you can easily get one at New-York. While I was there I was taken to one of the places where they get up such things, and I suppose they got my shaddow, and can multiply copies indefinitely.” His homespun innocence notwithstanding, Lincoln knew well what Brady had accomplished “at New-York,” and likely had already seen the flattering result for himself. He may even have been irked that copies were so slow in reaching Illinois.

Soon enough, Brady’s Cooper Union image did become a campaign icon—not as a photo, but in adaptations churned out for campaign pins, patriotic envelopes, cartoons, book covers, broadsides, illustrations for the pictorial weeklies and print portraits for home display. Today they may appear to sophisticated readers as so many variations on an identical theme— many clumsy and poorly rendered. But in studying them anew, we need to recall their power in 1860.

Today’s political commercials, buttons and bumper stickers are manufactured by and for the campaigns themselves. In Lincoln’s day, artists and printmakers conceived of and manufactured the pictures and posters—responding to what they perceived as public demand for the results. The images truly reflected popular interest in the political process and in the subjects they depicted. Lincoln was right, of course, if rather too folksy about it: They could multiply copies of political images indefinitely, and would if there was a market for them. In the case of Brady’s Cooper Union photo there was, and the surviving supply of adaptations attests to the healthy demand.

Once Lincoln won the Republican presidential nomination, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper formally launched the Cooper Union photo phenomenon by publishing the first full-page engraving. Harper’s Weekly later issued its own woodcut version, reversing it into a mirror image and adding an incongruous herd of buffalo outside what was in reality a New York window, perhaps to remind readers that Lincoln was poised to go all the way from the prairie to the White House. In between the appearance of these two fullpage illustrations came many more engravings, lithographs, tintypes and other adaptations that can’t possibly all be shown in this single article. Currier & Ives, the most prominent printmaking firm in the nation, produced handsome lithographed adaptations in color and black and white alike, and modeled both pro- and anti-Lincoln cartoons on the rigid Brady pose. Engravers J.C. Buttre and Ensign, Bridgman & Fanning, lithographers E.B. & E.C. Kellogg and countless other printmakers all along the East Coast issued interpretations of their own. In sheer number and variety, they more than prove that the picture did indeed help Lincoln to campaign for, and likely win, the presidency. In variants issued years later in America and abroad, often with whiskers superimposed, they continued to help illustrate—and influence—Lincoln’s reputation in history.

Lincoln himself would testify to the power of the Cooper Union photograph. Arriving in Washington for his inauguration a year after it was taken, the president-elect was again “importuned” to go to a photography studio managed by the same Mathew Brady. By then he looked little like the nervous, lantern-jawed candidate whose likeness Brady had so successfully captured in New York. Luxuriantly bearded and dressed in a handsome new Brooks Brothers suit “of the finest broadcloth,” he now seemed the quintessential avuncular statesman.

According to a painter on the scene that day, Lamon— the same friend who had sensed Lincoln’s discomfort in New York—now stepped forward to tell him, “I have not introduced Mr. Brady.” As the photographer later recalled with great pride, Lincoln quickly replied that he needed no introduction. “Brady and the Cooper Union speech,” he declared, “made me president.”


Harold Holzer is the senior vice president of external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the author or editor of numerous books about Lincoln and the Civil War. For additional reading, see his Lincoln at Cooper Union.

Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here