Inauguration Day for Honest Abe, 150 Years On…

Abraham Lincoln, 1860

Alexander Hesler (American, 1823–1895), Abraham Lincoln, 1860 (printed ca. 1881)
Albumen print from glass plate negative, framed, 9 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches
Museum purchase, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. 2007.38

Today, March 4, 2011, is the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. At this time in 1861, the nation was deep in the throes of political and social upheaval, with the recent secession of seven southern states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, who had already selected Jefferson Davis as the provisional president of the Confederate States of America only three weeks before. The American Civil War soon started in earnest, with the bombardment of Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861.

The Museums' rare photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln was taken in Springfield, Illinois, by Chicago photographer Alexander Hesler, on Sunday, June 3, 1860, shortly after Lincoln's nomination as the Republican canditate for president in that year's election. Lincoln had been asked by Hesler to sit for a portrait, but Lincoln declined to come to Chicago for the sitting, preferring to stay near home during his campaign, and instead persuaded Hesler to travel to Springfield, where he would willingly pose. Lincoln even offered to get "dressed up" for the occasion.

Of course Lincoln went on to win the presidential election that November, and it was his victory that drove the southern states to finally leave the Union, starting with South Carolina on December 20, 1860.

Note that Lincoln does not wear his iconic beard in this portrait. In fact, he'd been clean-shaven his entire life until he received this letter in the fall of 1860 from Grace Bedell, an 11-year-old girl from Westfield, New York, urging him to grow a beard:

Hon A B Lincoln...

Dear Sir

My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin's [Lincoln's 1860 running mate and Maine senator Hannibal Hamlin]. I am a little girl only 11 years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brother's and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband's to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct to Grace Bedell Westfield Chatauque County New York

I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye

Grace Bedell

Lincoln responded by writing:

Springfield, Ill Oct 19, 1860

Miss Grace Bedell

My dear little Miss

Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received - I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters - I have three sons - one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age - They, with their mother, constitute my whole family - As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?

Your very sincere well wisher

A. Lincoln

Lincoln was obviously noncommittal about growing out his whiskers, but he did, and made a point to visit Grace Bedell and show her the beard when the train taking him to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration passed through Westfield.

The Museums' copy of the portrait is an albumen print from the original glass plate negative, and published circa 1881. Like most of the works on paper collection, it's not currently on public view, but we're happy to present it here online.