Abraham Lincoln: From Homely to Heroic

The astute politician transformed his image before and during his presidency.

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"I have stepped out upon this platform that I may see you and that you may see me," President-elect Abraham Lincoln announced when his inaugural train steamed into tiny Painesville, Ohio, on a chill February morning in 1861. "And in the arrangement," he quipped to the curious crowd lining the tracks, "I have the best of the bargain."

No one on hand would have disagreed. Then how did a face that one critic of the day described as "sooty and scoundrely" become a beloved national icon? The answer may lie with the unlikeliest image-maker imaginable: modest Abraham Lincoln himself.

Growing up on the prairie, coming of age in New Salem and Springfield, Ill., campaigning for public office, or presenting his weather-beaten, newly bearded face to a curious public en route to Washington, Lincoln never harbored any illusions about his looks—or lack of them.

An old Indiana acquaintance labeled him as a "drowl looking boy" even at age 10. Growing "battered and bronzed" as a young man, Lincoln's leathery skin grew littered with unsightly moles and pitted as if "scarred by vitriol." His huge nose made him look like he was sniffing at some suspicious odor, while pitcher-handle ears flapped akimbo from his smallish, coconut-shaped head. Framing this startling face was a thatch of unruly hair that, he joked, "had a way of getting up in the world." (He once refused the loan of a colonel's comb, saying: "Now, if you have anything you comb your horse's mane with, that might do.")

It is entirely likely Lincoln developed his famous sense of humor in self-defense—mocking himself before he could be mocked by others. Not that he lacked assailants. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan once dismissed him as a "gorilla." (Lincoln had the last laugh visually, wearing his high stovepipe hat when he posed with McClellan on the Antietam battlefield, making the diminutive general look like a midget.) Elegant New England author Nathaniel Hawthorne sneered, after an 1862 White House visit, that Lincoln was, quite simply, "the homeliest man I ever saw." When Hawthorne submitted this description to the Atlantic Monthly, his editors were so shocked they censored the disobliging line from his published report.

"It is allowed to be ugly in this world," Lincoln once sighed to a portrait painter, "but not as ugly as I am." Within that anecdote lurks the vital clue to the robust, counterintuitive endurance of the Lincoln image. After all, he said it while posing for an artist. Homely or not, he proved willing, even eager, to have his uncomely "phiz" recorded by photographers, painters, and sculptors, all the while making a political virtue out of self-deprecation. No leader ever fussed over his appearance less, or cultivated its reproduction more.

At the dawn of the era of photography, Abraham Lincoln could hardly be bothered with the cumbersome sittings the primitive technology required. Only occasionally coaxed into galleries by friends and colleagues, he sat for no more than a handful of rustic camera studies before journeying to New York to deliver his Cooper Union speech in 1860.

There, Lincoln discovered the power of his own image. At Mathew Brady's plush Broadway gallery, he posed for a brilliantly arranged portrait that softened the harsh lines in his face and emphasized his powerful frame against the evocative backdrop of a classical pillar and a pile of thick books. Brady transformed the prairie politician into a statesman. Widely copied and distributed during a presidential campaign in which, true to the tradition of the time, Lincoln did no campaigning of his own, the picture became his surrogate before image-starved voters. Months later, the victor acknowledged: "Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president." He had come to understand that images, no less important than words, could make or break political reputations.

During the campaign, Lincoln had become a remarkably willing subject for artists in all media. Examining his first portrait in oils, he told painter Thomas Hicks: "I think the picture has a somewhat pleasanter expression than I usually have, but that, perhaps, is not an objection." That was because he hoped the "pleasant" profile would influence voters when lithographed for distribution in crucial New York.