Abraham Lincoln stands as one of the most revered presidents in U.S. history, but what did Americans of his time think of him? Judging from political cartoons from the 1860s, when the nation’s bitter Civil War raged, he cut a far less heroic figure.
As lithograph publishers, partisan newspapers and illustrated magazines grew in the years before the war, so did political cartooning. Editorial artists such as Thomas Nast and Louis Maurer wielded national influence with their sharp caricatures and keen ability to distill complex political scenarios into a single panel. The cartoons were designed as tools of partisan persuasion, using humor to foster ridicule, admiration, fear and anger.
Lincoln—tall and gangly in appearance, with rough-edged frontier roots—was an easy figure to caricature. Throughout his 1860 campaign and tumultuous wartime administration, cartoons poked at Lincoln from across the political spectrum. Some artists supported “Honest Abe,” making a virtue of his status as a Washington outsider and a champion of freedom. But many satirists skewered his antislavery views, his handling of the war and his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, stoking fears among Southern Democrats that his actions would upend their free-labor economy and race-based social hierarchies. Below, Lincoln cartoons from both sides:
Lincoln as a D.C. Outsider
Storming the Castle (Currier & Ives, 1860)
Although Lincoln had previously served one term in the U.S. Congress, his frontier upbringing and image as the plain-talking “rail splitter” positioned him as an outsider to power in Washington, D.C., helping him win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860. Cartoonists frequently used the fence rail, which underscored Lincoln’s rural roots and mimicked his lanky frame, as a populist campaign symbol.
In this pro-Lincoln cartoon published during the 1860 presidential campaign, “Honest Old Abe” wields a rail to defend the White House from his three opponents—a sitting senator, a sitting vice president and a former senator—who are attempting to break into it. Artist Louis Maurer dressed the vigilant Lincoln in the military-style cap and cloak worn by the “Wide Awakes,” groups of young Republican supporters who staged nighttime marches in northern cities.
The Republican Party Going to the Right House (Currier & Ives, 1860)
Currier & Ives sold satirical cartoons to audiences across the political spectrum, and Maurer also brandished Lincoln’s “rail splitter” image against him. This drawing depicts Lincoln as a beardless bumpkin sitting atop a wooden rail carried into an insane asylum by his influential supporter, New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley.
Although it mischaracterizes Lincoln’s views, the cartoon lampoons the relatively unknown candidate as a radical whose supporters advocate free love, equal rights for women and African Americans, socialism, the abolition of religion and government handouts. “The cartoon accurately reflects virulent anti-Republican hostility on the part of Democrats and Southerners, who criticized Lincoln’s party for its alleged association with subversive ‘isms’ that, in their view, threatened to ruin the nation,” writes David S. Reynolds in Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Time.
Lincoln and Slavery
An Heir to the Throne (Currier & Ives, 1860)
Although he opposed the expansion of slavery beyond the states where it already existed, Lincoln did not campaign as an abolitionist—nor did he believe in racial equality. That didn’t stop cartoonists such as Maurer who, in this caricature, misrepresents Lincoln’s views and taps into fears among Democrats and Southerners that he would invert the country’s racial hierarchy.
In the racist cartoon, Lincoln stands next to a spear-holding Black man who readers of the time would have recognized as the sideshow performer billed by circus impresario P.T. Barnum as the “missing link” between humans and monkeys. (Lincoln stands in front of an advertisement for the human exhibit who was dubbed “What Is It?”) Tribune publisher Greeley touts the Black man as the party’s “next candidate for the presidency,” while Lincoln says he will “prove to the world the superiority of the Colored over the Anglo Saxon race.”
Lincoln’s Last Warning, (Harper’s Weekly, October 11, 1862)
As the Civil War progressed, Lincoln’s stated goals evolved from strictly preserving the Union to ending slavery in the Confederacy. Weeks after Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, this cartoon by artist Frank Bellew portrays the president as an axe-wielding frontiersman in shirtsleeves chopping down a tree representing slavery. Harper’s, which was generally supportive of Lincoln’s administration, depicts the president as a rugged hero in contrast to the cowering Confederate soldier clinging to the tree.
Lincoln’s Handling of the Civil War
One Good Turn Deserves Another (Punch, August 9, 1862)
When the need for additional soldiers grew and the number of white volunteers dwindled as the Civil War dragged on in the summer of 1862, Lincoln considered lifting the federal ban on African Americans serving in the Union Army. This cartoon, which appeared in the conservative British humor magazine Punch, lampoons the president as a huckster offering a musket and cartridge box to a Black man visibly unimpressed with the proposition. Artist John Tenniel underscores Lincoln’s seeming insincerity by drawing a sly look on his face and having him use a fractured dialect. A similar version of this sketch was later printed in the Southern Illustrated News.
Running the ‘Machine’ (Currier & Ives, 1864)
As the war dragged on into 1864, Lincoln faced a difficult reelection campaign. Dissatisfaction with his handling of the war grew, along with the body count and federal debt. Democrats accused Lincoln of illegally expanding executive powers, flooding the economy with newly printed paper currency and infringing on civil liberties by jailing political foes. Anti-Lincoln cartoons increasingly mocked the president’s penchant for telling stories and cracking jokes at such a dire time in the country’s history.
This blistering 1864 cartoon attacks Lincoln’s cabinet as corrupt and incompetent. As Treasury Secretary William Fessenden cranks out more greenbacks, Secretary of State William Seward orders the arrest of an administration critic and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton celebrates the capture of a single prisoner and gun, Lincoln simply laughs while reminding himself of a “capital joke.”
Columbia Demands Her Children! (1864)
As the war’s death toll continued to climb and a peace movement gained strength in the North, Lincoln issued a proclamation in the summer of 1864 calling for another half-million volunteers. This 1864 Joseph E. Baker lithograph, reflecting the mounting grief and anger about the president’s handling of the war, features an indignant Columbia, the female representation of the United States, rejecting the call for volunteers and demanding that the president “give me back my 500,000 sons.” A weary, disheveled Lincoln offers no response other than a diversionary tactic: “Well, the fact is—by the way, that reminds me of a STORY!!!”
Lincoln and Emancipation
Abe Lincoln's Last Card; or, Rouge-et-Noir (Punch, October 18, 1862)
Lincoln took a significant gamble in issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. By declaring his intention to abolish slavery in rebel-controlled territories starting on January 1, 1863, he risked defection of the Union’s slaveholding border states—and a stinging defeat in the midterm elections.
In this satire drawn by Tenniel, a frustrated Lincoln is losing a card game with a Confederate soldier and plays his final card, which features a spade-shaped African American head with caricatured features. The hornlike points in Lincoln’s hair suggest devilish intentions, and the gunpowder barrel used as a table hints at the politically explosive results the Emancipation Proclamation might spark. “Playing that black card would, Tenniel argued, lead to the racial war and blood-bath,” writes historian Allan Kulikoff in Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx in Dialogue.
Freedom to the Slaves (Currier & Ives, 1865)
After Lincoln’s assassination, a much different image of the president emerged. In this print issued shortly after Lincoln’s death in 1865, Lincoln appears not as the calculated opportunist, but the nearly divine “Great Emancipator.” While a Black man kneels in a subservient role that ignores the sacrifices also made by African Americans to end slavery, Lincoln points to the heavens with his right hand and stands on broken shackles. He is presented as a modern-day Moses who single-handedly delivered an enslaved people to freedom. Images such as this one, repeated in various media for decades after Lincoln’s killing, elevated him to American sainthood.