Lincoln in Cartoons – Mightier Than the Sword

Louis Maurer, Lithograph, Currier & Ives, October 1860

Every day starts the same for me. I wake up, shut off the alarm, let the dogs out, fix my cereal, let the dogs back in, feed the dogs, and turn on the computer. My daily dose of the Internet begins by looking at the cartoons of the day. From Clay Bennett to John Sherffius to Daryl Cagle’s Cartoon Index, I find it a good way to get ready for the day before I check my fantasy baseball standings. As a history teacher, I find cartoons an easy way to engageĀ  students in a discussion about a topic and to develop critical thinking skills. The story of America can be told through the use of the political cartoon. Whereas today’s high literacy rate and dwindling newspaper rate would make one think the art of the political cartoon is dying, it is not. In the 1700s and 1800s, the cartoon reached across an America where the majority of Americans could not read or write. From Thomas Nast’s iconic Boss Tweed to Herb Block’s classic takes on Nixon and Reagan, the pen has often been mightier than the sword.

Abraham Lincoln was no different. From his rise to national fame in 1858, Lincoln was an easy draw. His long frame, shaggy mane, and other physical features made him a favorite of cartoonists. From the 1860 campaign to his death in 1865, cartoonists deftly drew the rail-splitting Lincoln with ease and with caricature. In one of the most pivotal elections in 1860, the cartoonists captured heavy issues of the day along with the young man from Illinois with all his prairie charm and legend.

Passage Through Baltimore by Adalbert Volck

In 1861, Lincoln’s entrance into Washington in secret to avoid a plot to harm him, the President-elect, acting on information from Allan Pinkerton,made his way surreptitiously into the Capitol. The cartoonists in the south captured the moment in black and white and portrayed the President-elect as a coward. That is what is great about the political cartoon. The point of view of the cartoonists are as varied as the cartoons.

While it would be impossible to post and discuss every famous cartoon about Lincoln’s presidency in one post, it is possible to discuss three web sites which contain excellent collections of cartoons from the time period that display not only the admiration of the 16th President, but also the disdain for him.
This website contains a collection of cartoons specifically from the 1860 and 1864 Presidential elections. Not only does the site contain cartoons but also there is a discussion of each cartoon. Each cartoon also lists the source
Harper’s Weekly was one of the premier magazines of the mid to late 1800s. This site, like the previous website, also details a collection of cartoons from the 1860 and 1864 elections. However, this site differs in that the cartoons were exclusive to being published in Harper’s Weekly.
This website is mother of all Lincoln cartoon sites. Hundreds of cartoons are detailed here including captions.Not only are there cartoons from the elections, but there are collections on topics from his cabinet to patronage to black soldiers to the war. It truly is a treasure trove of views.

As a big proponent of history fair here in Illinois, I have been trying to get one of my students to tackle this topic for their history fair project. I think the analytical aspects of how cartoonists saw the 16th president would be a fun project in which to compare the cartoons, and cartoonists, themselves.

Louis Maurer, Currier and Ives, New York

For example, my favorite Lincoln cartoon of all time is this one. For me, it is the baseball lore within the cartoon that I find appealing. The detail I also find to be amazing. However, notice the word balloons and title of the cartoon. It reads,

Bell: It appears to me very singular that we three should strike “foul” and be “put out” while old Abe made such a “good lick.
Douglas: That’s because he had that confounded rail, to strike with. I thought our fusion would be a “short stop” to his career.
Breckinridge: I guess I’d better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think that we are completely “skunked.”
Lincoln: Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have “a good bat” and strike a “fair ball” to make a “clean score” & a “home run.”

You don’t see that many word bubbles in today’s works. Usually, a sentence is all you can see. Depending on the cartoonist, you will see the occasional title. The use of the so many words in a period where the majority of Americans could not read or write is an interesting comment on the seriousness of the intent of the cartoonist. By comparing the cartoons and their design, one could gain a better understanding of not only the issues of the time period, but also, the perceptions of different parts of the country.


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