How Lincoln’s face ended up in a fake portrait

Printmaker William Pate had superimposed Lincoln’s head onto Calhoun’s body, possibly to give Lincoln a more dignified and patriotic appearance. In the Calhoun image, the papers on the table say “Strict Constitution”, “Free Trade”, and “the Sovereignty of the States”. In the Lincoln composite, the words were changed to read “Constitution”, “Union”, and “Proclamation of Freedom”.

Giving the Union a face – with a slavery defender’s body

The contrast couldn’t have been starker. As Holzer says, “the John C Calhoun portrait morphed into a Lincoln portrait, flowing robes and all, Unionist replacing secessionist”. The Lincoln scholar tells BBC Culture: “The great historical irony is that it’s the preserve of the Union’s head on the great nullifier’s body – the emancipator’s face on the body of slavery’s most ardent defender.”

Perhaps the even greater irony is that Lincoln had embraced portraits as a way of cementing his position, and embedding the Union in the minds of the public. According to The New York Times, “In the early months of his presidency, Lincoln more than tolerated his photographers; he intuitively understood that they were helping him a great deal as he tried to give the Union a face – his own.”

Initially, Holzer claims, prints “helped make Lincoln palatable as a candidate, and also transformed him into an icon that symbolised limitless American opportunity – the rail-splitter who had risen to his full potential under our unique system”. After he became President, “he changed his image by growing whiskers. Printmakers responded by issuing more avuncular and dignified portraits”.

And after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, says Holzer, “there was an explosion of demand for pictures: heroic portraits, deathbed scenes, even retrospective pictures that suggested he was an active military leader”. The Lincoln/Calhoun composite was likely created “when demand for images of the martyred Lincoln peaked”, Holzer tells BBC Culture.

Holzer believes that the first person to reveal the image was a composite was the late Library of Congress archivist Milton Kaplan, in a 1970 scholarly article for the Winterthur portfolio called Heads of State.

This, and other prints of Lincoln, “elevated Lincoln to the status of American deity”, says Holzer. “We know how highly Americans regarded these seemingly primitive pictures. They placed them in the most sacred spots in their homes: above the mantel in the parlour.”

Ultimately, then, Lincoln might have had the last laugh – remembered as a hero of the Union in part thanks to the body of a slavery proponent.

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