Today this seems an irrelevant or tactless question to ask about any public official. Harping on a person’s looks is a sign of small-mindedness. Politicians trying to take down their opponents in 2010 don’t make fun of their physical appearance. Voters revile ad hominem or ad feminem nastiness.
Nowadays it’s hard to find a politician whom anyone would consider ugly in the first place. After television conquered the land in the 1950s, good looks become a virtual qualification for office. Some people in the 1960s thought LBJ looked ugly, and happily voted for him. Could a politician considered unattractive get elected president today? Who knows? He or she might face a tough time getting into politics at all.
It’s hard for us in the 2000s to figure out why so many people in the 1800s thought Lincoln was ugly. He doesn’t look so bad in the pictures Brady or Gardner took of him. But even after the assassination — when you’d think people would have stopped assessing his physical attributes — eulogists and mourners kept right on calling him ugly. A few people, like William Herndon, his former law partner in Springfield, went out of their way to insist Lincoln wasn’t ugly at all, just “homely.” But before and after his death, friends and foes alike kept remarking on how unlovely he was.
Lincoln’s Democratic detractors didn’t just dwell on his unattractiveness; they often found him repulsive. Colonel Charles Wainwright, scion of the old Hudson River elite, saw the president and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton at the opera in Washington, D.C., in 1862, and he tied Lincoln’s ugliness to his unrefined behavior:
“It would be hard work to find the great man in his face or figure,” Wainwright wrote in his diary, “and he is infinitely uglier than any of his pictures. When the audience rose and cheered on his entry, instead of coming forward and bowing like a gentleman, he sat down, stuck his head out over the edge of the box, and grinned like a great baboon. I was ashamed to think that such a gawk was President of the United States.”
(Wainwright didn’t think much of Stanton’s looks either, describing him as “a long-haired, fat, oily, politician-looking man.”)
Walt Whitman, one of Lincoln’s biggest boosters, agreed with Wainwright about the president’s unprepossessing looks. But in Whitman’s eyes, Lincoln’s ugliness made him all the more endearing:
“He has a face like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.”
One reason people across the political spectrum felt so free to call Lincoln ugly was that he happily led the way. He called himself ugly, a politically deft course to take. Self-flattery loses votes; self-deprecation wins them. Politics aside, Lincoln was a big fan of popular humor, which until recently found “fat” jokes and “ugly” jokes hilarious. He’d likely have fallen over in hysterics if he’d ever gotten to hear any of Rodney Dangerfield’s ‘I was such an ugly baby’ lines (still available online).
A lot of people fell over listening to Lincoln tell jokes, and one of his favorites, according to painter Francis Carpenter, concerned his looks:
“In the days when I used to be ‘on the circuit,’” Carpenter reported Lincoln saying, “I was once accosted in the cars by a stranger, who said ‘Excuse me sir, but I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.’ ‘How is that?’ I asked, considerably astonished. The stranger took a jack-knife from his pocket. ‘This knife,’ said he, ‘was placed in my hands some years ago, with the injunction that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself. I have carried it from that time to this. Allow me now to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to the property.’”
Chances are that Carpenter attributed this joke to Lincoln without ever having heard him actually utter it. A version of it was published in a London jest book in 1826, when Lincoln turned seventeen. But even if Lincoln never said it, Carpenter knew his readers in 1866 would smile, realizing it fit Lincoln to a T. They’d heard for a very long time of his delight in cutting up his appearance.
In effect, then, Lincoln encouraged his friends to make fun of his looks by making fun of them himself. But there’s another big reason why so many people gladly joined in. It let them magnify the contrast between his face at rest (ugly) and his face in motion (entrancing).
“When in repose,” journalist Donn Piatt recalled after Lincoln’s death, “his face was dull, heavy, and repellent. It brightened like a lit lantern when animated. His dull eyes would fairly sparkle with fun, or express as kindly a look as I ever saw, when moved by some matter of human interest.”
Calling Lincoln ugly, in other words, was part of a tried-and-true, before-and-after formula. However gloomy he might appear (ugly), he was always one joke away from slapping his knee and lighting up the room (transfigured). By repeating how awful he looked initially, people were describing something real about his character: his charismatic charm kept erupting out of nowhere, catching them by surprise.
Maybe this is the reason Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, so disliked this early-20th-century George Grey Barnard statue of his father (the photograph is from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library’s collection). It froze him in the first half of the before-and-after formula. Robert knew his father could appear downcast and dour. But cementing him in a look of that sort — his face locked in a glazed stare, his arms hanging stiffly across his chest — missed his most essential physical qualities: motion and transformation. Lincoln’s character was too volatile to be captured in such a one-sided pose. (One leading collector dubbed the Barnard statue the “stomach-ache Lincoln.”)
Lincoln knew he wasn’t the handsomest man in town, and he rose in most people’s estimation by frankly admitting it. He laughed off the whole ugliness issue. But occasionally he got serious about the common insinuation that he didn’t look like a gentleman. Speaking in Springfield on July 17, 1858, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, he let the audience know that surfaces didn’t count in judging a person’s true refinement.
He’d embarked on his campaign against Stephen Douglas, he said, “with the intention of conducting it strictly as a gentleman, in substance at least, if not in the outside polish. The latter I shall never be, but that which constitutes the inside of a gentleman I hope I understand, and am not less inclined to practice than others. [Cheers.]”