Abraham Lincoln’s gifts of humor and storytelling let him capitalize on an appearance people deemed unfortunate, argues historian Richard Fox.
In a new book, Fox recalls an anecdote attributed to Lincoln’s appearance at an 1856 convention of newspaper editors in Illinois:
While riding a horse through the woods, a man Lincoln described as “not possessed of features the ladies would call handsome” stopped on the path to let a woman rider pass.
She stopped in turn and said, “Well, for land sake, you are the homeliest man I ever saw.”
“Yes, madam, but I cannot help it.”
“No, I suppose not,” she said, “but you might stay at home.”
“During Lincoln’s lifetime, everybody was preoccupied with his looks and that meant his physical appearance, as well as the way he dressed, the way he carried his body,” says Fox, a history professor at USC and author of Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History (W.W. Norton & Co., 2015). “When people used the word grotesque to describe him—and that was an adjective used by friends as well as foes—they meant not hideous, but uncanny or alien.”
Lincoln was able to overcome what might have been a serious handicap, even turning his gift for comical self-deprecation to his advantage as a political tool.
“Millions were inspired by Lincoln’s knowing how to overcome the unfortunate hand nature had dealt him,” Fox writes.
“He himself thought he’d been dealt a poor hand in personal looks, but it never stopped him,” Fox says. “I think that’s why millions of people found him so endearing because he would make fun of his own appearance. Some of his most humorous remarks are about it and that, of course, made him irresistible.”
Mind and body
As a result, despite the jokes and the insults—or perhaps because of them—Lincoln’s body, all 6-foot-4-inches of it, occupied a unique place in the hearts and minds of Americans for generations.
However, by the 1970s, this obsession with Lincoln’s appearance—and the use to which he had put his body—was fading, to be replaced in the 1990s with a fixation on his words. Fox credits Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln with reviving interest in Lincoln’s looks, accessibility, and physical sacrifice—and in confirming his role as an emancipator.
“Most people pay little conscious attention to Lincoln’s body these days, but once they focus on it, they can see how it’s been tied to his words and deeds ever since he entered politics,” Fox writes. Lincoln’s physical being fascinated his contemporaries, as well as following generations, he argues, because they realized how much it mattered to him.
Lincoln made people care about [his body] by tying it to their national saga,” Fox writes in his book. “Only in America was self-making possible on such a grand scale, he kept saying, and only in America, was a man like him—of such unprepossessing origins, in appearance and social standing—able to rise to such heights of power and respect.”
A man of the people
“Lincoln had learned early on from Illinois politics in the 1830s and ’40s that if he could get people into the same room with him, they stopped seeing ugliness in his face because they reveled in his animation,” Fox says, noting the transformation of Lincoln’s appearance when he engaged in conversation or delivered speeches.
Yet his desire to mingle with the people—to show them they were living not in a monarchy, but in a republic, where leaders ultimately go back to being average citizens once their terms of office end, Fox argues, increased his chances of being attacked.
And so, the historian believes that a now almost forgotten event that occurred 10 days before his assassination can help advance our understanding of Lincoln. It shows that for him, republicanism was a way of living, not just a doctrine.
The Civil War was almost over in Virginia when Confederate troops withdrew from Richmond during the night of April 2-3, 1865
On April 4, Lincoln arrived in the city and walked through the streets surrounded by thousands of slaves who were, in practice, now free to welcome their emancipator.
“I don’t think we can begin to imagine how that felt to the slaves of Virginia,” Fox says. “Their liberator had arrived in their midst. And Lincoln made that happen himself. He could have waited at the dock for an army vehicle. But instead, protected only by the mariners who had rowed him ashore, he walked out into the streets, hand-in-hand with his 12 year-old son, Tad, with the crowd growing bigger minute by minute.
“The spring afternoon was hot and smoky because the ruins of Richmond were still smoldering, but he trekked through the downtown all the way up to the former Confederate White House, which was now Union army headquarters.”
After the assassination
That moment, Fox maintains, underscores Lincoln’s accessibility and what some later perceived as his vulnerability.
“I never expected that a Republican friend of Lincoln would blame him for his own assassination, but that’s what happened,” Fox says. “Henry Raymond, the editor of The New York Times, wrote in the paper on the day that Lincoln’s corpse arrived in Manhattan that Lincoln was ‘culpably remiss’ in making himself so accessible that he could be shot.
“In fact, Raymond said he was ‘far more surprised that [Lincoln] was not assassinated months or years ago, than that he did at last perish by the hand’ of John Wilkes Booth.”
Fox estimates that 6 million people saw the funeral train carrying Lincoln’s body from Washington, DC, to its final resting place in Springfield, Illinois, and another million people probably saw his face in death during the 12 different lyings-in-state in six states, plus the District of Columbia.
By the end of the journey, anxious officials brought the funeral forward by two days, so worried were they by the rapid decomposition of Lincoln’s corpse.
Fox believes the accessibility of Lincoln’s body in death echoed how he wanted himself to be accessible to all people during his lifetime.
“In my book, I tried to present black experiences of Lincoln as being equal to white experiences,” he says. “I felt that was my responsibility since Lincoln was so clear about his commitment to natural equality and to greater civic equality.”