In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. By the time he turned 52, on February 12, 1861, the Union was crumbling. The day of his inauguration, March 4, had yet to arrive. Continue reading
Fogarty (1873-1938) imagines a group of female well-wishers paying Lincoln their respects on his birthday. Girls and a fashionable lady cluster affectionately about the president, who holds a beaming child on his arm.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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How fortunate we are that Lincoln’s presidency came just after the development of photography! Of course, by the time he first took office in 1861, certain photographic processes, notably daguerreotypes, had been around for decades. But only around mid-century did photography develop into a versatile, practical, and widely circulating medium. As a consequence, whereas photographs of Lincoln’s predecessors in the White House are scarce, Lincoln and his political contemporaries had their pictures taken many, many times. Some even became shrewd retailers of their mechanically reproduced selves.
The result, from the point of view of the present, is an opening-wide of the window onto history. Whereas details of James Buchanan‘s 1857 inauguration come down to us mainly through artistic and verbal description (there is this one blurry photograph), good photographs documenting both of Lincoln’s inaugurals survive. From 1861, for instance, there are several fine distant views of Lincoln taking the oath of office, though none of them is close enough for us to make out his great defeated rival, Senator Stephen A Douglas, who, according to historical testimony, is said to have been looking on from a seat nearby.
These photographs remind us of the immature, precarious state of the Union at the time. The great addition of the new Capitol dome was incomplete, and, even as Lincoln moved to forward to assume his elected office, the elements that made up the nation were breaking apart. Prior to March 4, 1861, when this picture was taken, seven pro-slavery states had seceded, and afterward, four more southern states would depart. On April 12th, with the firing on Fort Sumter, the nation would descend into a state of war.
The crowd gathered for the swearing-in knew that they were witnessing a momentous scene. The crowd was thick; most had furled their umbrellas; men, straining for the best possible view, mounted light poles and trees. Motionless, they strained to hear the unamplified proceedings, the camera preserving the style of their hats and clothing. Two men turn to face the camera, cannily.
The succeeding years saw a widening use of open-air photography, so that we know with some immediacy the Civil War’s corpse-strewn scenes. Photographers like Alexander Gardner (by then working for Mathew Brady) tirelessly trailed the armies, unflinchingly recording the realities of camps, hospitals, and battle-fields. By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural, in 1865, the war was in its final months, slaves had been liberated, and the nation had become accustomed to seeing itself through the lens of photography.
This wonderful photograph by Gardner captures the look of that later crowd. Here, the people themselves, not the government nor the army, nor their most powerful representatives, are recognized as camera-worthy, as they gather on an inauguration day that is once again wet and muddy. Great coats and banners billow in the breeze, as knots of spectators stand about, chatting or strolling as they please. In time, they part to make way for the inaugural parade, in which Union regiments of both races proudly march.
Is it my imagination, or is there a touch of jubilation here, missing from the earlier proceedings? Though the war had yet to end, the prospects for the Confederacy were dwindling sharply, and Americans who had fought to keep the nation together knew that their victory was sure.
Bare-headed, Lincoln reads his message of reconciliation to a crowd radiating around him like magnetic filings, the dais overflowing with dignitaries. A miscellaneous crowd of watchers stands beneath him, studying the crowd while listening. It is a homely scene with little pageantry, suited to a federal republic that, though riddled with conflict, has endured trials to grow in confidence and power. Outside the frame, the Capitol dome has been completed, and stands triumphantly capped with the Statue of Freedom.
All images from the collections of the Library of Congress.
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For those whose consciousness is tuned to the Civil War, April is strewn with anniversaries. The war began April 12th, 1861, with the Confederate barrage of Fort Sumter. Four years later, it ended on April 9th, with the rebels’ surrender at Appomattox. A week later, President Lincoln was slain while sitting in a box at Ford’s Theater. That spring the injured nation lay under a blanket of a peace, a peace fraught with exhaustion, anger, uncertainty.
It’s hard to fathom what Americans at that time felt, experienced. On the far side of a dreadful, violent division, they had run a course that intransigence — impatience — and distrust — dictated. To say Progress Is Unpopular is putting it mildly. Those who could not put up with change, those unhappy with the course of progress, those who were sick of compromise and unwilling to think even for one minute of living without slavery — these were the people who threw in the towel. They walked away from Congress, from compromise and debate. Rather than accept a turn of events they conceived of as a humiliating political defeat, they rebelled against the federal government and sought to go their own way. The ensuing war was coercive, decisively establishing the ultimate authority of the Union and the federal government relative to other interests and claims.
Among my belongings is a small drawing, a bit of memorabilia from that unhappy time. It’s a tiny sketch on Union stationery, showing a view of Fort Monroe from the water. The artist was a young man, Charles T. Dix, whose father, John, was in charge of Union forces there at the time.
Located in Virginia at the tip of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the James and York Rivers, Fort Monroe became a haven for former slaves who gained their freedom by leaving rebel territory. After the war, the fort was where former leaders of the Confederacy were imprisoned. Jefferson Davis was held there for what many considered to be an unconscionably long period. Hitting on the appropriate way to treat men who had presided over such a protracted and devastating rebellion took a long time.
It has taken far longer to discover how to realize the dream of freedom and equality that was an inseparable part of that dark struggle. Ultimately, though, we have struggled toward it, however benightedly, struggled toward it with and without great statesmen, struggled toward it in a world without Lincoln.