Abraham Lincoln Elected President, November 6, 1860, Part One

Lincoln was elected president of the United States one hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow.

Abraham Lincoln / Alexander Hesler / Photograph, 1860 (printed 1956) / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

This blogpost originally appeared on November 5, 2010

Lincoln is one of the immortals—one of the true American icons—and it is difficult to imagine a United States without having an Abraham Lincoln there at its most dire and poignant moment. Civil War scholars, reenactors, and amateur historians everywhere may believe that the war evolved around the generals or the soldiers or the battles or slavery or states’ rights, but truly the war was Lincoln's war. He did not want it, he did not like it, and he was pleased to see it end, inasmuch as one can take pleasure in winning a war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

He presided over the nation during its years of division, turmoil, horror, and destruction.

And more than a few have compared him to Moses, because, like Moses, just as the time arrived for peace and renewal, Lincoln was taken away.

Lincoln is the alpha and the omega of the American Civil War. His election, in a greatly oversimplified sense, of course, was the beginning of the war. Lincoln’s 1863 address at Gettysburg—among all the words spoken and written by all the generals, soldiers, journalists, and politicians—are the words at the very core of the prose composed during the war. Lincoln’s murder is the symbolic end of the war, and the trial and hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators is the coda that concludes the bloodiest experience ever to trespass upon American soil.

In his journals of the war, Walt Whitman said of Lincoln, “None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man’s face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.”

And while it is not possible here to capture the complete portrait of Abraham Lincoln, over the next two weeks, in a three-part series, this blog will explore Lincoln and his times in order to lay the groundwork for the National Portrait Gallery’s commemoration of the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the American Civil War. In the next four years, as we arrive at the anniversaries of many of the war’s events, the staff of the NPG will program, curate, lecture, discuss, and write on the significance of this abject chapter in American history.

Learn more about Lincoln and the Civil War in our online exhibtions CivilWar@Smithsonian and One Life: The Mask of Lincoln.

—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery