College of LAS « Illinois

Picturing Lincoln

By Vernon Burton
Dr. Burton is a professor emeritus of history, sociology, and African American studies at U of I and is the author of Age of Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln

In 2007, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., acquired a copy of a priceless 1858 ambrotype of a lost daguerreotype from an 1854 photograph of Lincoln. The picture, the second oldest image of Lincoln known to exist, is valued both for its rarity and for the insight it offers into how we picture Lincoln.

The 1854 photo came about when George Schneider, who published the German anti-slavery newspaper, Illinois Staat-Zeitung, invited Lincoln to Chicago to speak in response to the passage of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act. While Lincoln was in Chicago, Schneider persuaded him to stop at a photography shop next door to Schneider’s newspaper, where photographer Johan Carl Frederic Polycarpus von Schneidau took his picture on October 27, 1854. In this 1854 daguerreotype, Lincoln held the stridently anti-slavery German-language newspaper in his hand. The original daguerreotype was subsequently lost, probably in the Chicago fire of 1871.

The picture resurfaced in 1858, but this time as an ambrotype, as interest in Lincoln was re-awakened by his two trips to Chicago—once to reply to Douglas's opening speech in the 1858 senatorial campaign, and the other to consult with Republican leaders about challenging Douglas to formal debates. The ambrotype belonged to Samuel Alschuler, a photographer from, of all places, Urbana, Ill., who had recently moved to Chicago and purchased Polycarpus von Schneidau’s photography shop. Alschuler was a Lincoln photographer in his own right, having photographed the future president a few months earlier during Lincoln’s visit to Champaign County. His unusual image captured Lincoln trying to suppress a laugh because of the undersized jacket he had borrowed for the impromptu photograph. Alschuler had sold the original to a local circuit court clerk in Urbana (the photo now resides in the University of Illinois Library), and thus turned to Polycarpus von Schneidau’s image and reissued it in response to the renewed interest in Lincoln.

There was a subtle but major change in the otherwise identical pictures. Whereas in 1854 Polycarpus von Schneidau had posed Lincoln with an issue of the Illinois Staat-Zeitung, the 1858 ambrotype had Lincoln holding the Chicago Press and Tribune, the forerunner of the Chicago Tribune. Charles Ray and Joseph Medill had bought the paper in 1855. Medill, who was the editor of Chicago Press and Tribune, wanted to promote his paper and his moderate Republican cause by showing the popular Republican Abraham Lincoln reading his paper. Moreover, it would help Lincoln’s chances if he held the moderate Chicago Press and Tribune rather than the radical anti-slavery German-language newspaper. Thus, Joseph Medill, who would be one of Lincoln’s major supporters at the Republican nominating convention held in Chicago in 1860, directed Alschuler to have an artist artfully superimpose the masthead of his newspaper over the copy of the Staat-Zeitung. Medill and the Tribune supported Lincoln throughout the war and for re-election. Medill would become the reform mayor of Chicago in 1871, running on the Fireproof Party.

Over his years in office Lincoln learned to use photography to build support for himself, particularly the “card-portraits” that had became very popular by the time of the Civil War. Lincoln recognized that people felt closer to him on the issues when they had a picture of him.

The superimposition of one newspaper over another in the 1858 ambrotype, however, is a metaphor for all studies of Lincoln. Historians, as well as the general public, use Lincoln to promulgate their own personal views. Moreover, as the altered image of the 1854 photograph illustrates, historians must be wary of trusting even visual evidence; things are not always as they seem.

Read the other monthly essays in this special commemorative series.

November 2008

Lincoln Bicentennial Events at U of I

October 13
Lincoln’s Rhetorical Worlds, Professor Michael Leff
November 11
Lincoln Lecture, Professor Robin Blackburn