Abe Lincoln Resurfaces, Still Helping with our Better Angels

An image taken in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 that very well might show a previously un-noticied picture of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

A picture taken at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that very well might show a previously unnoticed image of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Recently, news broke that a keen-eyed former Disney animator named Christopher Oakley had discovered a previously unknown image of President Abraham Lincoln in an old picture taken by photographer Alexander Gardner. Gardener took the photo on November 19, 1863, the day Lincoln delivered his “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps the most famous – and shortest – speech in the history of the United States. If this admittedly blurry and tiny image does indeed show Old Abe, and the evidence looks fairly convincing that it does, then it would be one of the very few images of the 16th president not taken in a posed, studio setting.

As Discovery News reports:

Earlier this year, Christopher Oakley — a former Disney animator and Civil War buff — was working on a 3D animation of Honest Abe as part of his Virtual Lincoln Project, a student collaboration. (Oakley also teaches new media at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.)

While examining Gardner’s stereograph, Oakley wondered if the Library of Congress (which owns the image) had ever created a high-resolution copy of the photo’s left-sided negative. They hadn’t, but would do so for $73. “It’s the best $73 I ever spent,” Oakley told USA Today. “As soon as I had that in my hands, I was able to look at it much more clearly.”

…Oakley identified a man with a trimmed beard and stovepipe hat standing precisely where Lincoln would have stood, near a man Oakley determined to be then-Secretary of State William Seward, who was on the speaker’s platform. “All the landmarks — jawline, beard, hair, cheekbones, heavy brow, ears — line up perfectly,” Oakley told Smithsonian.

This find is especially fortuitous: Lincoln is currently en vogue in American popular culture, though he’s never really gone out vogue. Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln bio-pic was a big box office success, the ever prolific and award-garnering historian Eric Foner recently published a book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in history, and President Obama has been invoking Lincoln lately to boost support for his economic plan.

Lincoln has always been a popular American icon because he stands as a symbol; a reminder that the United States just may be able to overcome its worst instincts and flaws in order to live up to the lofty ideals set forth in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Lincoln, being both a human being and a politician, was by no means perfect, but that’s why Americans like him. In today’s particularly trying times, amidst economic recession, endless overseas wars, and social unrest at home, the U.S. is undergoing a deep process of soul-searching. Americans today are trying to reconnect with what Lincoln, facing civil war in his First Inaugural Address, termed “the better angels of our nature.”

Ever since his untimely assassination in 1865, Americans of all stripes have tried to find the real Lincoln. An estimated 15,000 books have been written about the 16th president, books that have ranged from award-winning biographies, to penetrating critiques of his wartime policies, to deeply disingenuous, loose-with-the-facts hatchet jobs. Even Spielberg’s well-made and acclaimed film, as historians have noted, took the occasional dramatic license with the facts, as Hollywood productions are want to do. Moreover, in terms of the major issues of his day, slavery and race, Lincoln has been called everything from a flaming racist, to a paternalistic sort of racist, to a pro-slavery demagogue, to a politically deft Abolitionist, to a champion of racial equality. Some people even think Lincoln was gay.

Yet, despite all of the debate over the real Lincoln, the 16th president’s historical legacy as an American political icon has largely been sealed: he was, after all, the president who saved the Union from political insurrection and emancipated the slaves, ushering in “a new birth of freedom” as he so famously stated in the “Gettysburg Address.” True, Lincoln, as was the case in his own lifetime, does have some enemies today. He remains a demonic symbol of alleged statist tyranny for modern libertarians seeking historical excuses for why their much yearned for stateless, free market utopia has not yet materialized. But libertarians aside, Lincoln is largely revered by Americans not despite his flaws, but because of them. Lincoln was only human, after all, but for a man of his time, he overcame a lot of social, racial, political, and military obstacles and emerged from these challenges as a symbol of how the worst American traits can be vanquished.

This is why a newly discovered picture of Lincoln is such big news: the image shows the president as an ordinary guy, just one among a crowd. He isn’t grandly posed in a sanitized, Washington D.C. photographic studio setting. A small, blurry image of Lincoln the man helps us connect to Lincoln the man, a man who was flawed like any other human but who nonetheless achieved great things. After all, isn’t that the very ideal to which Americans strive? Sure it is dammit.

Lincoln as we usually see him: poised and presidential.

Lincoln as we usually see him: poised and presidential.

Like everyone in 19th century America, Abraham Lincoln was a racist in the sense that his views of African-Americans were filtered through the social lens that deemed blacks as inferior to whites in most ways. But Lincoln was also a man who struggled with balancing a personal objection to slavery with the knowledge that slavery as an institution was protected by the Constitution. It was Lincoln’s recognition of the realities of American racism and slavery, after all, that influenced his early support for a scheme to colonize black people to present-day Panama under the guise that white prejudice made racial co-habitation impossible in the United States. Despite these obstacles, of course, Lincoln eventually issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a wartime necessity before finally declaring the destruction of slavery a moral imperative to Union victory in the Civil War.

Lincoln’s wartime policies with regards to government power were controversial at the time and remain so to this day. Most famously, his suspension of Habeas Corpus and declaration of martial law for the purpose of silencing political enemies, like Ohio Democratic Party congressman Clement Vallandigham, spurred accusations of tyranny during the Civil War. These same actions still irk modern libertarians and other various “limited government” folks. Lincoln, however, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, believed that he was acting in the country’s best interest, though he was certainly aware that the chance to silence Copperhead Democrats was a welcome perk. Yet, as legal historian James Dueholm reminds us, “[u]nder the Constitution the federal government can unquestionably suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus if the public safety requires it during times of rebellion or invasion. The issue is whether Congress or the president holds this power.” Indeed, people often forget that suspension of Habeas Corpus isn’t, in and of itself, unconstitutional.

Ultimately, though, the Confederacy’s defeat ensured that Lincoln’s issues with civil liberties would come to be viewed as unfortunately necessary measures to ensuring Union victory. Again, Lincoln wasn’t perfect, but he was on the right side of history when justifying controversial government policies. Besides, he wasn’t alone in these matters: as historians like Mark Neely Jr. have noted, Confederate president Jefferson Davis also suspended Habeas Corpus, declared martial law in the South, imprisoned political rivals, and instituted the first draft in American history. Lincoln was hardly the only presidential tyrant during the Civil War.

Lincoln’s overcoming of so many wartime obstacles in the form of issues like race, government power, and political equality helped make him such an enduring symbol of America’s “better angels.” In modern American society, as very similar issues of racial justice, civil liberties, and political representation constantly occupy the headlines, we can look to Lincoln as a symbol of another age when these types of issues also tried American resolve. If Lincoln could overcome them, then so can we.

Criticisms that Lincoln was a flawed man and politician are beside the point here: its because of his flaws that he remains an icon, just as the long story of America’s overcoming its worst prejudices to expand equality to all has become integral to American identity itself. If a new picture of Lincoln, however small and blurry, helps us identify a little bit more with the man himself, all the better. Perhaps now we are all Lincoln, with the potential to connect to our “better angels.” And perhaps now I should stop writing, lest I run out of clichéd phrases.

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3 responses to “Abe Lincoln Resurfaces, Still Helping with our Better Angels

  1. I consider Lincoln to be our best president ever because of his role in helping end legalized slavery in America. And it is certainly true that he was moderate or even somewhat liberal on racial issues for someone of his era. The fact that the GOP is no longer the party of civil rights is tied to its laying down the mantle of “The Party of Lincoln.” In assessing Lincoln, we have to remember that most white Americans in the 1800s were racist. However, not all of them were. It has been well-documented by historians like James McPherson and Herbert Aptheker that many white abolitionists, such as Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Abby Kelley, Samuel Joseph May, and Lydia Maria Child, opposed the idea of white superiority and favored equal rights for African Americans. And even in the political arena, Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) exemplified anti-racism. These whites represented only a small portion of the public, but they did exist, and they were far more liberal on race than Abraham Lincoln. It is incorrect to label Lincoln a proponent of slavery or to deny that when it came to the issue of justice for blacks, he was in many ways a progressive by the standards of the era. But it must be acknowledged that not all white Americans in the 1800s were racist.

    • These are all very good points, and while it’s true that not “all” Americans in the nineteenth century were racists in the most extreme sense, the vast majority held racist views that were at worst negative towards blacks, and at best, paternalistic. The true racial egalitarians that you mention, the Garrisons, etc, were so unusual that they provided the exceptions to the general rule. This is why, when broadly discussing the antebellum and Civil War eras, I generally just say that everyone was racist. It’s less of a critic than it is a basic factual observation, some progressive voices like Lincoln notwithstanding. Thanks for the insightful comments and for reading!

  2. And thank you for your reply. You are definitely a very passionate, smart, informed historian.

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