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Lincoln and Washington: The Printmakers Blessed Their Union
by Harold Holzer
Beginning with the earliest reminiscences, and continuing in history and legend for more than a century, the names of George Washington and Kentucky's greatest native son, Abraham Lincoln, have been inexorably linked. History provided in two American revolutions, the first guided by Washington, the second suppressed by Lincoln, a convenient and inspiring parallel to foster the mystic ties between the republic's founder and its savior.
The first biographers of Lincoln enunciated the connection between the Union's father and preserver: "I venture to claim for Abraham Lincoln the place next to Washington," George S. Boutwell wrote in the 1880s. "Between Washington and Lincoln there were two full generations of men, but, of them all, I see not one who can be compared with either." Lincoln's personal secretary made a similar evaluation: "If we accord the first rank [in American history] to Washington as founder," wrote John Nicolay, "so we must unhesitatingly give to Lincoln the second place as preserver and regenerator of American liberty." And Lincoln's close friend and biographer, Isaac N. Arnold, echoed this judgement with the observation: "There is but one other name in American history which can be mentioned with [Lincoln's] ... as that of peer -- the name of Washington. Lincoln was as pure, as just, as patriotic, as the father of his country."
The parallel between Lincoln and Washington -- some madly imaginative writers even sought to prove the Sixteenth President was descended (of course illegitimately) from the First -- was exemplified not only in biography and reminiscence, but in art. And no art more distinctly or creatively associated Lincoln and Washington than the engraved and lithographed print portraits which depicted the two, first, realistically, as historical characters separated by four score years; later, quite unrealistically, as "contemporaries" and, finally, as timeless extraterrestrial gods sharing a higher life, Whether portraying the two heroes sensibly, improbably, or mystically, many American print-makers entered the competition for Lincoln-Washington pictures with fascinating examples of the genre.
The first pairing of Lincoln and Washington in prints, interestingly, may have been quite accidental. A bust of Washington had been the focus of an 1852 print in which the leaders of antebellum America were depicted grouped together around a statue of the First President. In 1860 an unidentified engraver adapted the scene, but changed its central character from that of John C. Calhoun, the Great Nullifier, to Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for the presidency, and very much in demand by patrons of prints. Not surprisingly the bust of Washington was retained in the reissue -- marking the first linking of the two men in art -- but curiously, its symbolism had received a new twist when the man who had tried to dissolve the union was replaced in the scene by the man who would save it.
The artistic device of inserting such images -- or idols -- of Washington into print portraits of Lincoln became intentional, and quite widespread, following Lincoln's death, when a huge public interest in Lincoln ignited a proliferation of engravings and lithographs, many of which sought to exploit the newly·advanced sentiments about Lincoln as spiritual heir to Washington. In the first prints, Washington was quite logically depicted inanimately, as a statue or picture within the picture. For Lincoln, it was tantamount to being portrayed with a family bible: it was glory by association. Other modest efforts depicted the two heroes separately and individually in so-called double cameo portraits placed within allegorical scenes of the highlights of their life and times.
But as Lincoln quickly grew in stature and legend, his print image no longer required the prop of an inanimate Washington, or the boundaries of logic and time. Hence, in more brazen prints, Washington and Lincoln were portrayed as equals in time and memory, shown arm-in-arm or side-by-side in spite of the obvious chronological incongruity. Historical perspective, in the case of these portraits, became secondary to the evocation of contemporary sentiment, especially when such sentiment translated into sales. Even the usually conservative firm of Currier & Ives published a lithograph of the two men together.
Yet an even more extraordinary Lincoln-Washington variation was to come! These, the most maudlin of all the Lincoln-Washington pairings, were the so-called apotheosis prints, scenes of the imagined exaltation of Lincoln into a heavenly god, welcomed to the immortal sphere by Washington, his predecessor in immortality. These bizarre pictures, among the most cherished of all pictorial keepsakes of the nineteenth century, were framed by passionate Lincoln worshippers in black mourning frames, or issued by photographers as cartes de visite for parlor albums. In the printmakers' conception of heaven, Washington was gatekeeper for American heroes, and, interesting to note (probably because of the dearth of suitable models for the portraiture), the dour countenances of the two Presidents in these scenes indicated that neither was very much surprised to find himself or his companion in such awe-inspiring surroundings.
It has commonly been supposed that print artists seized upon the idea for all these Lincoln-Washington pairings on their own, and in so doing, helped to advance the mystical links between the two. In truth, while their pictures undoubtedly helped America visualize the Lincoln-Washington "connection," it was Lincoln himself who, long before his martyrdom, took a sure hand in the creation of the spiritual brotherhood, as he metaphorically called upon the father of his country to support him in what he determined to be their shared purpose. Washington was one of Lincoln's heroes, and the sagacious prairie lawyer knew how to use him for political advantage.
Washington, Lincoln said once, was the quintessential man, and his was "the mightiest name on earth." To "add brightness to the sun or glory to Washington," Lincoln orated, "is alike impossible." Lincoln frequently injected Washingtonian history into his arguments. When he voiced the Whig position in the National Bank controversy in 1844, Lincoln's argument rested on the fact that Washington had created the bank, and therefore, it was right, because "Washington never [did] a wrong thing in his life." Later, on a date close to Washington's 128th birthday, Lincoln breathed Washington's name into his important Cooper Institute address, sanctifying his own opposition to popular sovereignty by reminding his audience that Washington before him had intended to arrest the spread of slavery.
Even in his attempts to prevent the South from seceding from the Union following his election to the presidency, Lincoln invoked the name of Washington, in these instances for the first time linking it with his own name in undeniable common purpose. Washington was no longer just the hero or exemplar; by virtue of Lincoln's election, he had become his equal. Writing to his former House colleague Alexander H. Stephens (soon to become vice president of the Confederacy), Lincoln questioned the necessity for secession, asserting "the South would be in no more danger [under a Lincoln presidency] ... than it was in the days of Washington."
Lincoln took his theme another step forward soon thereafter. In his farewell to Springfield, he declared he was departing "with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington." He reiterated this theme en route to his inauguration when, in Ohio, he said: " ... there has fallen on me a task such as did not rest even upon the father of his country." Later, no doubt infused with the new theme he had fostered, Lincoln rejected a bid for peace at any price, telling a Baltimore group: "You would have me break my oath and surrender the Government without a blow. There is no Washington in that!" Based on the cumulative evidence of Lincoln's own knack for using Washington to justify his aims, it is hardly surprising that having first suggested their common purpose, and later having lived up to the example of his inspiration, Lincoln became forever linked with his hero in both history and art.
In trying to save his country, Lincoln invoked the power of its founder, and in trying later to sell Lincoln, his portraitists did the same. It is a fortuitous coincidence of history and art that these two great names will be linked forever in the American consciousness. In remembering how our country was won for us, we cannot forget how it was nearly lost to us, and in our reflections we cannot recall Washington without remembering Lincoln. Among the best and most vivid remembrances are the timeless print portraits of the father with the savior of the Union, the "Champions of Freedom," according to one printmaker, and, to another, "Columbia's Noblest Sons."
1. Allen Thorndike Rice, ed., Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time (New York, 1888), 107.
2. John Nicolay, A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York, 1904), 555.
3. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Chicago, 1906), 454.
4. Louis A. Warren, "Nancy Hanks Birthplace," Lincoln Lore, Oct. 21, 1929. Dr. Warren quoted one such theoretician, published in the Pocahontas Times of Marlinton, Va., Aug. 29, 1929.
5. Primary reference for prints of Lincoln is Winfred Porter Truesdell, The Engraved and Lithographed Portraits of Abraham Lincoln (Champlain, N.Y., 1933). The author of this paper has published the following studies of Lincoln print portraiture: " Prints of Abraham Lincoln," Antiques, CV (Feb. 1974), 329-35; "Lincoln From the Parlor Album," Americana, II (1974), 24-27; "The First Family's Print of the Lincolns," Lincoln Herald, LXXVI (Fall, 1974), 132-38; "Lincoln's Print Doctor," Lincoln Herald, LXXVI (Winter, 1974), 181-86; and "Lincoln and the Printmakers," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, LXVIII, (Feb. 1975), 74-84.
6. Milton Kaplan, "Heads of State," Winterhur Portfolio, VI (1970), 140-41.
7. Stefan Lorant, "Artists Came to Paint His Portrait," in Lincoln: A Picture Story of His Life (New York, 1969), 100-05, and Appendix E: "Lincoln's Head on Other Bodies," 304. Lorant wrote: "When the party chose him as its nominee, requests for his likeness poured in."
8. lbid., 305-07.
9. Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf, Lincoln in Photographs, (Norman, Oklahoma, 1963), 242.
10. Temperance address delivered before the Springfield Washington Temperance Society, Feb. 22, 1842, in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, N.J., 1953), I, 279.
11. Speech in Virginia, Illinois, Feb. 22, 1844, in ibid., I, 333.
12. Speech at Cooper Institute, New York City, Feb. 27, 1860, in ibid., III, 537.
13. Lincoln to Alexander Stephens, Dec 22, 1860. in ibid., IV, 160.
14. Farewell address at Springfield, Feb. 11, 1861. in ibid., 190.
15. Address to the Ohio legislature, Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 13, 1861, in ibid., 204.
16. Reply to a Baltimore Committee, Apr. 22, 1861, in ibid., 341.
17. Isaac N. Arnold wrote (Life, 454): "Both [Lincoln and Washington] have been so associated with our history, that time will only brighten the lustre of their fame." Nicolay wrote: "The popular heart has ... canonized these two as twin heroes in our national pantheon, as twin stars in the firmament of our national fame." In Short Life, 555.
18. R. Gerald McMurtry, "Lincoln Revered Washington," Lincoln
Lore, Feb., 1966.
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