He still looks young and vaguely handsome in this print, published by New York’s Currier and Ives in May 1860. With sensitive eyes dominating the placid, sad face, Lincoln looks every bit the affluent, successful lawyer, representing Chicago railroads and corporations as well as small-town neighbors and friends around his home in downstate Springfield, Illinois.
Lincoln that month had won a stunning victory, surprising the country by capturing the Republican nomination for President of the United States. His name suddenly on the front page of every newspaper, people clamored to see his face. And with TV, newsreels, and even mass-produced photographs still far in the future, Currier and Ives easily could demand $1.50 to $3.00 apiece (about $75 in modern money) for a portrait like this, especially during a hot political season.
Lincoln had won the nomination in a three day, three ballot convention widely considered the most exciting in America up to that time. It came complete with marching bands, fireworks, and a good-time carnival atmosphere that drew some 40,000 people to frontier Chicago. Lincoln himself was considered a long-shot underdog. By all appearances, the Republican nomination in 1860 had been locked up in advance by another candidate, William Seward, the New York former governor and United States Senator.
But Lincoln captured the prize with nerve, ambition, and brass tacks. His team played the kind of hardball politics that usually made reformers cringe — packing the hall, planting rumors, trading for votes, manipulating seats, and the rest. Still, it gave of one of the best presidents in American history. (I try to capture the excitement of this story in my own new eBook Lincoln’s Convention: Chicago 1860, told mostly through the eyes of newspaper writers.)
His four years as President would not be kind to Abraham Lincoln. By the time he arrived in Washington to take the oath as President on March 4, 1861, the country had already split apart. Seven Southern states had bolted to form the Confederate States of America. Lincoln would preside over a long, bloody Civil War that would cost the country billions of dollars in treasure and 600,000 deaths before the Union was restored and slavery abolished. Lincoln would see his own son Willie die in the White House of typhoid fever at just 12 years old as his wife Mary Todd Lincoln edged closer to mental instability. By the time John Wilkes Booth shot him in April 1865, Lincoln’s hair and beard would be largely grey, his face crisscrossed with lines and wrinkles.
But that was in the future in May 1860, as the handsome Illinois lawyer peered out from his Currier and Ives portrait at his moment of great achievement. Abraham Lincoln always joked about his looks. Accused once of dishonestly, he shot back “If I had two faces, do you think this is the one I’d be wearing.” His face perhaps wasn’t a pretty one, but it was good one.