Abraham Lincoln: the ugly truth
Here Lincoln was being disingenuous, because marks and brands abounded. The British journalist Edward Dicey 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.”
Uniformly vivid recollections
Reminded of these uniformly vivid recollections, few of them laudatory, it is easier to understand why Lincoln became the first US 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 so bushy a beard that crowds welcoming him occasionally failed to recognise him.
Ultimately, the beard did little to prettify Lincoln, but it did transform him 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 named Robert Wilson thought that Lincoln’s face looked entirely different at ease from how 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 faced 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 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 glaze over. (His wife referred to this faraway look as his “photographer’s face”.) An observer might at first focus on his array of moles and warts, throbbing Adam’s apple, wild mane of uncombed hair or unaccountably roving eye – a feature a medical expert recently attributed to the medical aftershock of a childhood kick from a horse.
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.”
From the moment the United States’ greatest writers caught sight of Lincoln, either in person or through the ubiquitous carte-de-visite photographs that soon filled family photo albums in homes across the northern US, they took notice, too.
Marvelling at his “sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it,” Nathaniel Hawthorne observed first hand 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, Hawthorne 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.”