Abraham Lincoln: the ugly truth
The 16th US president is an American icon, his face preserved in coins, statues and now a Steven Spielberg film. But that same face once elicited horror, criticism, caricature and confusion
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, and Schurz, too, was in the midst of a statewide campaign swing on behalf of the Republicans, travelling 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”. But the overall effect was bizarre, inexplicable. Something about the man was ugly, even repellent; something else was 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.”
Yet for contemporaries who never knew Abraham Lincoln, but grew to know his face from period photographs and prints, his appearance aroused not conviviality but deep emotions ranging from affection to horror to embarrassment. For years the face inspired mirth-provoking caricature, whose cartoonists contorted his features into a fair approximation of Satan himself. Friendlier artists altered the image of “Uncle Sam”, who for generations resembled George Washington, into the spitting image of Lincoln. Journalists vented endlessly about whether he was in fact too ugly to serve as president.
Perhaps wisely, Lincoln himself did not appear at the 1860 Republican national convention. But at precisely the moment Lincoln amassed the votes needed for his nomination to the presidency, a man entered the hall bearing a large painting of him. 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.” Fortunately for us, describing Lincoln’s face – providing our best records of his baffling appearance – soon enough blossomed into a cottage industry of recollection.
Quintessentially American face
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 the invention of photography. 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 quintessentially American face sprang uniquely from the Kentucky soil, from the Indiana prairie and from what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “village experience”.
From the beginning, his strange appearance made others take notice. An Indiana friend remembered him as a “tall dangling aw[kw]ard droll looking boy”. Another neighbour thought his typical facial expression a mix between “abstraction sadness”.
John Todd Stuart, who became his first law partner, thought Lincoln looked “torpid” and “gloomy” and 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, 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 appeared 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 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.”
The painter Francis B Carpenter re-painted his 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.
All he ever admitted of 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.”