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

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.”

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.”

Greatest writers

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.”

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”.

Back in 1860, the Chicago sculptor Leonard Wells Volk, unable to get lawyer Lincoln to sit still long enough to model a plaster portrait, asked him 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 succeeding generations of artists came to rely on that mask to inform future portraits.

David Locke, a famous 19th-century humorist, wrote dialect-riddled parodies under the pen name of Petroleum V Nasby, and counted Abraham Lincoln among his most ardent fans. But he 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 appeared to understand, Lincoln’s chronically sad visage had now absorbed, now fully reflected, the riven nation’s melancholy, mirroring the United States’ unimaginable suffering as the country waged a bloody war to remain united and shed the shame of human slavery.

Later and ever since – engraved on coins and currency, enshrined in grand public statuary – Lincoln’s face evolved into an authentic national icon. It became 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 once elicited horror, criticism, caricature and confusion.

Theodore Roosevelt kept his 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 HW Bush commissioned his own official presidential portrait for the White House collection, he directed that it show him before an earlier portrait of Lincoln.

The 20th-century artist-poet Marsden Hartley, like many painters before him, struggled throughout his career to comprehend and interpret the quintessentially American countenance that has inspired so many of his White House successors. He may have struck a chord when he speculated that Lincoln’s pained but resolute face served to cement the United States’ confidence in its own survival.

“I have walked up and down the / valleys / of his astounding face,” he 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 that 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.”

Harold Holzer is the author of several books on Abraham Lincoln, senior vice-president of external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a consultant on the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. A longer version of this essay was published in America’s Civil War

The soul behind the face Has Daniel Day-Lewis captured Lincoln?

How close does Daniel Day-Lewis come to re-creating the face of Lincoln – or, for that matter, his singular voice – in Steven Spielberg’s new film?

Of course, Day-Lewis has movie-star looks, and Lincoln decidedly had not. The United States’ 16th president had acne-scarred skin that, according to the English visitor Edward Dicey, looked as if it had been “indented by vitriol”. His beard was scraggly, his ears enormous, his nose elongated, his cheeks pocked with facial moles.

Thus, handicapped by his own appearance, Day-Lewis somehow conveys more than Lincoln’s looks: he captures Lincoln’s “appearance”, the soul behind the face, the personality emerging from the man who seemed to cry even when he laughed, and seemed to laugh even when he cried.

Day-Lewis evokes the Lincoln image that captivated so many 19th-century Americans, the image that has transformed a mere politician into something of a secular saint in the US.

No one knows exactly how Lincoln sounded. But Day-Lewis read the Lincoln literature closely and clearly absorbed the comments left by contemporaries who unanimously testified that Lincoln had a strikingly high-pitched but resonant voice, always in danger of lapsing into a whine but also capable of soaring to reach outdoor crowds of as many as 15,000 people, in the days before electronic amplification.

More than once, men who heard Lincoln speak in public recalled that for the first 10 minutes of his oratory he sounded uncertain, nasal and unable to break past his Indiana accent (“chair”, for example, came out as “cheer”). But after those 10 minutes Lincoln became surer, his voice more modulated, and his sparkling eyes and economical but dramatic gestures captivated audiences.