How fortunate we are that Lincoln’s presidency came just after the development of photography! Of course, by the time he first took office in 1861, certain photographic processes, notably daguerreotypes, had been around for decades. But only around mid-century did photography develop into a versatile, practical, and widely circulating medium. As a consequence, whereas photographs of Lincoln’s predecessors in the White House are scarce, Lincoln and his political contemporaries had their pictures taken many, many times. Some even became shrewd retailers of their mechanically reproduced selves.
The result, from the point of view of the present, is an opening-wide of the window onto history. Whereas details of James Buchanan‘s 1857 inauguration come down to us mainly through artistic and verbal description (there is this one blurry photograph), good photographs documenting both of Lincoln’s inaugurals survive. From 1861, for instance, there are several fine distant views of Lincoln taking the oath of office, though none of them is close enough for us to make out his great defeated rival, Senator Stephen A Douglas, who, according to historical testimony, is said to have been looking on from a seat nearby.
These photographs remind us of the immature, precarious state of the Union at the time. The great addition of the new Capitol dome was incomplete, and, even as Lincoln moved to forward to assume his elected office, the elements that made up the nation were breaking apart. Prior to March 4, 1861, when this picture was taken, seven pro-slavery states had seceded, and afterward, four more southern states would depart. On April 12th, with the firing on Fort Sumter, the nation would descend into a state of war.
The crowd gathered for the swearing-in knew that they were witnessing a momentous scene. The crowd was thick; most had furled their umbrellas; men, straining for the best possible view, mounted light poles and trees. Motionless, they strained to hear the unamplified proceedings, the camera preserving the style of their hats and clothing. Two men turn to face the camera, cannily.
The succeeding years saw a widening use of open-air photography, so that we know with some immediacy the Civil War’s corpse-strewn scenes. Photographers like Alexander Gardner (by then working for Mathew Brady) tirelessly trailed the armies, unflinchingly recording the realities of camps, hospitals, and battle-fields. By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural, in 1865, the war was in its final months, slaves had been liberated, and the nation had become accustomed to seeing itself through the lens of photography.
This wonderful photograph by Gardner captures the look of that later crowd. Here, the people themselves, not the government nor the army, nor their most powerful representatives, are recognized as camera-worthy, as they gather on an inauguration day that is once again wet and muddy. Great coats and banners billow in the breeze, as knots of spectators stand about, chatting or strolling as they please. In time, they part to make way for the inaugural parade, in which Union regiments of both races proudly march.
Is it my imagination, or is there a touch of jubilation here, missing from the earlier proceedings? Though the war had yet to end, the prospects for the Confederacy were dwindling sharply, and Americans who had fought to keep the nation together knew that their victory was sure.
Bare-headed, Lincoln reads his message of reconciliation to a crowd radiating around him like magnetic filings, the dais overflowing with dignitaries. A miscellaneous crowd of watchers stands beneath him, studying the crowd while listening. It is a homely scene with little pageantry, suited to a federal republic that, though riddled with conflict, has endured trials to grow in confidence and power. Outside the frame, the Capitol dome has been completed, and stands triumphantly capped with the Statue of Freedom.
All images from the collections of the Library of Congress.
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