The Lincoln Image
Abraham Lincoln’s words may provide us the most insight into his life, but the main way we remember and depict him is through his image. Millions of people across the globe recognize his long, unique, bearded face. It adorns the numerous books written about him, portraits hanging on countless walls, and his many sculptures and monuments.
This is no accident. Lincoln and his supporters tried to capitalize on his distinct visage to set him apart from his political competitors. With photography having progressed substantially in the decades leading up to Lincoln’s presidency, he became far more photographed than all previous presidents combined. After his tragic death, remembrances and commemorations of Lincoln placed his image at the forefront. This imprinted the Lincoln image on our collective memory, making him the most recognizable American in the world.
The Life Masks
Two reasons Abraham Lincoln’s face has endured and been re-created so many times are these contemporary life masks. The first comes from 1860, depicting not-yet-bearded Lincoln on the brink of ascending to the presidency. The second was created in early 1865—mere months before his assassination—and shows a much different Lincoln, now bearded but also worn and diminished from years of presiding over a bloody, seemingly endless civil war.
Today, Abraham Lincoln is almost universally revered as one of the most respected leaders in history, but that wasn’t always the case. He was an exceptionally controversial figure in his own time, and his political opponents frequently used his image to mock and deride him, as in these political cartoons.
The Lincoln image has gone through various evolutions. For example, his decision to grow a beard—perhaps inspired by a letter from a young girl—was likely meant to enhance his public image. Nicknames, such as “Honest Abe” and “The Railsplitter,” were also intended to create an image more appealing to voters.
The axe is a key component of Abraham Lincoln’s “Railsplitter” image. 19th-century Republicans capitalized on his frontier youth to depict him “splitting rails.” Lincoln reportedly used this axe to split a few logs for some U. S. soldiers during a visit to the front only a week before his assassination.