The Faces of Leadership

Abraham Lincoln’s Beautiful Face
President Lincoln’s Moods
Abraham Lincoln’s Personality

The most enduring photo of Winston Churchill from World War II was a scowling portrait of the prime minister in a three-piece suit. The scowl was produced when the photographer snatched Churchill’s cigar from his mouth just before taking the picture. Usually, Churchill had a cigar in his mouth…or at least a cigar between his fingers. Often it was unlit. The cigar contributed to what Churchill himself called his “natural pugnacity.” Without the cigar, he usually looked much more benign. But the photo produced by Life magazine’s Yousef Karsh after Churchill gave a speech to Canadian House of Commons on December 30, 1941 is considered the most iconic. Churchill was annoyed by his unexpected photography session and lit a cigar – refusing requests to take it out of his mouth. “I stepped toward him and without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, ‘Forgive me, Sir.’” Karsh then snapped the photo remotely as he returned to his camera. Before Churchill left Karsh, the prime minister remarked: “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”1

Most other photos of Churchill from that era show him with a slight smile, looking much more cherubic. Indeed, secretaries like Elizabeth Layton sometimes described the twinkle in his eyes.2 Averell Harriman’s daughter Kathleen described Churchill as looking “rather like a kindly teddy bear” after visiting him at Chequers in May 1941. When cross or irritated, there was no question that Churchill could look (and act) fierce. But that look was balanced by his more benign moments. After General Alan Brooke agreed to replace John Dill as chief of the Imperial General Staff, he noted that Churchill accompanied him to his “bedroom to get away from the others, took my hand and looking into my eyes with an exceptionally kind look, said: “I wish you the very best of luck.’” Indeed, Churchill was often described by subordinates as flashing a “sweet smile.” He had the ability to turn from grumpy grouch to cute cupid.

Churchill secretary Marian Holmes recalled one weekend morning at Chequers in November 1944 when Churchill was as usual dictating from bed. Elizabeth Layton took the early shift before Marian took over and went downstairs. “I believe that silly woman has taken it downstairs,” said Churchill. Holmes recalled: “I searched around and discovered [some papers] under a pile of papers and handed it to him. ‘Oh thank you. If you had been downstairs, I would have called you a silly woman. But I didn’t mean it’ – all with a beatific grin.”3 It was that smile that mitigated Churchill’s petulant way of dealing with subordinates.

Lincoln seemed to be the more approachable, a good listener. Still, he could be remote, even when affable. Churchill was more explosive. “Fifty percent of Winston is genius,” said colorless Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, ‘fifty percent [is] bloody fool.”4 The pressures of war bore down on both men. Churchill had a mobile face that quickly and easily reflected his moods – and changes in them. Churchill biographer William Manchester wrote: “Going through his papers one is struck by his resilience, his pounding energy, his volatility, his dogged determination, and his utter lack of humility. He said: ‘I am not usually accused, even by my friends, of being of a modest or retiring disposition.’ In the thousands of photographs of his face you will find every expression but one. He never looked apologetic.”5

As wartime leaders both had to work against melancholy tendencies. In the spring of 1862, a U.S. senator visiting the White House took offense when the President began to tell a story, saying “This situation is too grave for the telling of anecdotes.” Lincoln responded: “Senator, do you think that this situation weighs more heavily upon you than it does upon me? If the cause goes against us, not only will the country be lost, but I shall be disgraced to all time. But what would happen if I appeared upon the streets of Washington to-day with such a countenance as yours? The news would spread throughout the country that the President’s very demeanor is an admission that defeat is inevitable. And I say to you, sir, that it would be better for you to infuse some cheerfulness into that countenance of yours as you go about upon the streets of Washington.’”6 In private, however, Lincoln was less self-conscious “In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look into it without crying,” wrote Lincoln’s portraitist, Francis B. Carpenter.7 One Union soldier who visited him in 1863 wrote that the President’s “long, sad and gloomy face haunted me for days afterward.”8 Senator Orville Browning recollected “very distinctly when I went to his room in the Executive Mansion and found him in a spell of deep melancholy,”9 Aide William O. Stoddard reflected on Lincoln’s expressive face: “More than a few times have we laid in wait for him in the hall, and gathered the purport of the despatches with almost unerring certainty from the excpression of his face. In spite of its strongly marked outline, by the way, his countenance was a very mirror of his emotions. Oh! How it was darkened with pain after the Fredericksburg fight [in December 1862]!”10

Lincoln frequently joked about his supposed ugliness. “He seemed rather to enjoy the fact that he was no Adonis,” wrote aide William O. Stoddard.11 Friend Ward Hill Lamon recalled: “That Mr. Lincoln realized that an improvement was necessary in his personal appearance is evidence by many amusing stories told by him. The one he especially enjoyed telling was, how once, when ‘riding the circuit,’ he was accosted in the cars by a stranger, who said, “Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.’ ‘How is that’ Mr. Lincoln asked, much astonished. The stranger took a knife from his pocket, saying, ‘This knife was placed in my hands some years ago with the injunction that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself. I have carried it from that time to this. Allow me now to say, sir, that I think you are fairly entitled to the property.’”12

Like Churchill, Abraham Lincoln is more generally remembered for his serious expression – as captured at regular visits to the Washington studios of photographers Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady. The cameras have generally captured Lincoln’s serious expression – not his mirth or his mournfulness. Lincoln had a naturally expressive face but also a naturally mournful countenance when otherwise disengaged. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited President Lincoln in 1962: “He looks at you with great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs.”13 Gilbert J. Greene met Lincoln when a boy on a legal errand. He later wrote that Lincoln “had not talked to me ten minutes in his quiet, sympathetic way before I thought him about the handsomest man I had ever seen.”14 As a teenager, Robert Brewster Stanton saw President Lincoln on several occasions at the White House and described Lincoln’s mobile face as “beautiful.” Stanton wrote: “I know his cheekbones were too prominent, his cheeks somewhat sunken, his mouth large and at times ‘ungainly,’ his chin, especially with the whiskers he wore, appeared too far out from his mouth, his whole face furrowed (but not nearly so deep as generally supposed), and his eyes ‘half listless.’ This latter, however, not always so even when inactive, but only on special occasions.” Stanton recalled:

I saw him when he was cheerful, gay, convulsed in hilarious laughter; saw him when he was being twitted by a friend, when he was humorously acknowledging the justice of that twitting; saw him when he was sad and sorrowful, sad from his own sorrows, sad for the sorrows of others, sad and at the same time cheerful for his sick and wounded boys in blue, sad and worried over the suffering of his country. I saw all these moods at various times; and each and every feature of his face exactly as it was, but there was a something that came out from behind them, and spoke not in words, but shone and spoke through them by means of them, and turned them all into real beauty. And in all these moods, first or last, that spirit of beauty which I saw spread over his whole countenance and drew one to him as by the power of magic.15

Lincoln colleagues primarily remembered the president for two expressions – deep melancholy and warm mirth. Attorney Henry C. Whitney recalled observing in 1855, “Lincoln sitting alone in the corner of the bar, most remote from any one, wrapped in abstraction and gloom. It was a sad but interesting study for me, and I watched him for some time. It appeared as if he was pursuing in his mind some specific, sad subject, regularly and systematically through various sinuosities, and his sad face would assume, at times, deeper phases of grief: but no relief came from dark and despairing melancholy, till he was roused by the breaking up of court, when he emerged from his cave of gloom and came back, like one awakened from sleep, to the world in which he lived, again.”16 Whitney recalled: “While his face, from an artistic point of view, was homely, yet it was in no sense repulsive. The expression of his face when lit up, was significant of genius, and the traces of deep reflection and melancholy exhibited in his eyes marked him as an extraordinary man, and his countenance when in repose was the saddest I have ever known.” Whitney added: “His sad countenance aroused universal sympathy: his bonhomie, geniality and humor drew all men involuntarily to him: his physiognomy was indicative both of great perception and equally of great reflection: his wonderfully expressive eyes indicated keen, shrewd discernment, deep penetration and patient and continuous reflection, as well as life-long and earnest sorrow.” According to the long-time colleague: “His face was the most mobile I ever saw. I have seen him while betraying a silly and inane expression. Also while animated with the most over-flowing spirit of fun and mischief; likewise, when feeling profound contempt, armed with the most cruelly quizzical expression, and, anon, in seasons of the visitation of that awful, mysterious melancholy, with a face as inexpressibly sad – much sadder that of Dante or St. Francis of Assisi.”17 The Cincinnati Commercial’s Murat Halstead wrote that it was impossible to look on Lincoln’s visage “and believe that he is insensible to the responsibilities pressing upon him. I know he always had a doleful sort of physiognomy, but his features had not, two years ago, the pale and pinched appearance that they now wear.”18

But Lincoln’s mirth was as memorable as his melancholy. “Mr. Lincoln’s ‘laugh’ stood by itself,” wrote Artist Francis B. Carpenter who spent months at the office painting the cabinet discussing the Emancipation Proclamation. “The ‘neigh’ of a wild horse on his native prairie is not more undisguised and hearty. A group of gentlemen, among whom was his old Springfield friend and associate, Hon. Isaac N. Arnold, were one day conversing in the passage near his office, while waiting admission. A congressional delegation had preceded them, and presently an unmistakable voice was heard through the partition, in a burst of mirth. Mr. Arnold remarked, as the sound died away: ‘That laugh has been the President’s life-preserver.’”19

War Department telegraph operator Charles Tinker recalled: “His strong, intelligent, clean-shaven face, always illuminated by an attractive smile, impressed you with its gentleness. His deep sunken gray eyes were shaded by heavy dark drooping brows, which veiled their expression in a suspicion of disappointment and sorrow. His movements were quick and nervous, and he often sought rest for his long body by reclining in most awkward positions.”20 The Marquis de Chambrum observed Lincoln over the last several weeks of the president’s life: “I have seen many attempts at portraits of Mr. Lincoln, many photographs; neither his portraits nor his photographs have reproduced, or are likely ever to reproduce, the complete expression of his face; still more will they fail in the reproduction of his mental physiognomy.”

He was very tall, but his bearing was almost peculiar; the habit of always carrying one shoulder higher than the other might at first sight make him seem slightly deformed. He had also a defect common to many Americans— his shoulders were too sloping for his height. But his arms were strong and his complexion sunburned, like that of a man who has spent his youth in the open air, exposed to all inclemencies of the weather and to all hardships of manual labor; his gestures were vigorous and supple, revealing great physical strength and an extraordinary energy for resisting privation and fatigue. Nothing seemed to lend harmony to the decided lines of his face; yet his wide and high forehead, his gray-brown eyes sunken under thick eyebrows, and as though encircled by deep and dark wrinkles, his nose straight and pronounced, his lips at the same time thick and delicate, together with the furrows that ran across his cheeks and chin, formed an ensemble which, although strange, was certainly powerful. It denoted remarkable intelligence, great strength of penetration, tenacity of will, and elevated instincts.”21

His early life had left ineffaceable marks upon the former rail-splitter, and the powerful President of the United States made no efforts of bad taste to conceal what he had been under – what he had become. That simplicity gave him perfect ease. To be sure, he had not the manners of the world, but he was so perfectly natural that it would have been impossible I shall not say to be surprised at his manners, but to notice them at all.22

After a moment’s inspection, Mr. Lincoln left with you a sort of impression of vague and deep sadness. It is not too much to say that it was rare to converse with him a while without feeling something poignant. Every time I have endeavored to describe this impression, words, nay, the very ideas, have failed me. And, strange to say, Mr. Lincoln was quite humorous, although one could always detect a bit of irony in his humor. He would relate anecdotes, seeking always to bring the point out clearly. He willingly laughed either at what was being said to him, or at what he said himself. But all of a sudden he would retire within himself; then he would close his eyes, and all his features would at once bespeak a kind of sadness as indescribable as it was deep. After a while, as though it were by an effort of his will, he would shake off this mysterious weight under which he seemed bowed; his generous and open disposition would again reappear. In one evening I happened to count over twenty of these alternations and contrasts.
Was this sadness caused by the warnings and threats in the midst of which Mr. Lincoln lived? by those letters which, soon after, were found carefully classified on his table under the general heading of “Assassination Letters?” I am inclined to think not. No one more than he possessed that confident audacity so common among Americans, and which cannot be termed courage, because it is not the result of determination.

Was it owing to the constant anxieties of his first years in office? to the civil war scenes cruelly disturbing the peaceful soul of this descendant of Quakers?
These questions remain unanswered for me, and will probably never be answered at all.

Another Civil War contemporary, Homer Anderson, recalled seeing President Lincoln at the Virginia front late in the war: “Upon that occasion at City Point my observation of Mr. Lincoln was very close, and I have been credited with being an accurate observer. I tried to see something homely about him, something uncouth, something shambly. I saw none of these things. I noted his unusually tall figure (but he would not appear odd on that account today, because there are more tall men now than then); he was dignified in appearance; he was becomingly dressed in black in the style of the day and as became a man of his age and position. He had the manner of a gentleman – I may say of a gentle gentleman; his voice as we heard it was subdued and kindly; his eyes were mild but all-observing; and his face that he once himself described as ‘poor, lean and lank,’ was a strong face marked with lines of mingled gentleness and sadness that redeemed it from being homely. The close grasp of his hand attested the sympathetic great heartedness of the great man. The picture he impressed upon my mind that day has never faded. How I prized it, when, just one week later the hand of a coward gave the majestic Lincoln ‘to the ages’ and caused him to be numbered with the victims of that terrible war.”23

Lincoln’s proclivity to cogitate and ruminate should not be confused with a tendency to despondency. Lincoln had much to be despondent about but he was rarely and only briefly immobilized by his moods. Telegraph operator Charles Tinker wrote: “He wore a high silk hat, quite out of date, which elongated his stature painfully; and often, when sitting down, would place it in his lap and use it as a depository for his handkerchief and accumulating papers.” Tinker remembered that “during the years of my acquaintance with him I saw little change in his appearance or manners, other than a marked pensive, almost saddened mood as he labored under the burden of his great responsibilities, in the stirring times of the nation’s peril, in which he was the master pilot of the ship of State, over the troubled sea of her history into the harbor.”24 Union officer William Doster thought Lincoln “homely” on most occasions but when “he appeared on the front balcony of the White House in answer to the call of a crowd, as he did just after his return from Richmond and the surrender of [Robert E.] Lee, and slowly rolled out his pithy sentences, tinged with Western humor, he seemed to me positively handsome.”25

Several Union soldiers visited photographer Mathew Brady’s office one day to have negatives processed into photographs. They were surprised when President Lincoln and his secretary arrived to have a photo session. The soldiers arranged to watch the process: “The operator announced that he was ready and they went into the camera room, but the President stood where we could see and hear him. He asked whether he should stand as if addressing a jury ‘with my arm like this,’ stretching out his right arm. The operator came to him several times, placing the President’s arms by his side, turning his head, adjusting his clothing, etc. ‘Just look natural,’ said the operator. ‘That is what I would like to avoid,’ Mr. Lincoln replied.”

In the meantime each of us tried on the President’s tall hat and it fitted Lieutenant Riggs finely.
The President came back to us and told us of a custom saw-mill built in the early days out in his part of the country, a very up-to-date single-gate mill, of which the owner was proud. One day a farmer brought from some distance an oak log, by ox team, to be sawed into plank and waited for the product. The log was adjusted and the saw started and all went lovely — for a while. A crash came! It proved that in the early days of this oak tree an iron spike had been driven into it and covered from sight by later growth, but the saw found it. The saw was broken and other damage done to the mill, to the grief of the owner. He shut off the water and while sorrowfully investigating the cause of the disaster, the farmer anxiously inquired, “Say, yer ain’t spiled the plank, hev yer?” “Goll dern yer old log — just look what it has done to the mill!” replied the mill man.

“That camera man,” continued the President, “seemed anxious about the picture; but, boys, I didn’t know what might happen to the camera.”

The operator came from the dark room, holding the negative up to a window, and asked the President to look at it, suggesting that it was very natural. “Yes,” said the President, “that is my objection. These cameras are painfully truthful,” saying this with an assumed solemnity.

Two other negatives, with little change in pose, were taken, and the President was asked if he had any choice. He replied, “They look about alike as three peas.'”26

After the Civil War, Lincoln aide John Hay described the difference between “two life-masks [of Lincoln]: the one made by Leonard W. Volk in Chicago, April 1860, the other by Clark Mills in Washington in the Spring of 1865. The first is of a man of fifty-one and young for his years. The face has a clean, firm outline; it is free from fat but the muscles are hard and full; the large mobile mouth is ready to speak, to shout or laugh; the bold, curved nose is broad and substantial, with spreading nostrils; it is a face full of life, of energy, of vivid aspiration. The other is so sad and peaceful in its infinite repose that the famous sculptor Augustus St.-Gaudens insisted, when he first saw it, that it was a death-mask. The lines are set, as if the living face, like the copy, had been in bronze; the nose is thin and lengthened by the emaciation of the cheeks; the mouth is fixed like that of an archaic statue; a look as of one on whom sorrow and care had done their worst without victory is on all the features; the whole expression is of unspeakable sadness and all-sufficing strength.”27

For Further Reference

  1. Yousef Karsh, “Winston Churchill.”
  2. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 157.
  3. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1075 (March 25, 1944)
  4. Carlo D’Este, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, p. 379.
  5. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, p. 35.
  6. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 324.
  7. Francis B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House, p. 80.
  8. James M. Stradling, “His Talk with Lincoln, being a Letter written by James m. Stradling, pp. 32-33 (Letter from John M. Stradling to John W. Gilbert, March 6, 1863).
  9. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 3 (Conversation with Orville H. Browning, June 17, 1875).
  10. Michael Burligname, editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, p. 171 (Sketch 7).
  11. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 97.
  12. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln 1847-1865, p. 159.
  13. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 187.
  14. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 141 (Charles T. White, “Lincoln the Comforter, McClure’s, December 1922)
  15. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, pp. 344-345 (Century Magazine, February 1920)
  16. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, pp. 146-147.
  17. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, po.116, 119, 135.
  18. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 446.
  19. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 150.
  20. Charles Tinker, A Simple Tribute to the Memory of Abraham Lincoln, p. 5.
  21. Marquis de Chambrun. “Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln,” Century Magazine, January 1893.
  22. Adolphe Pineton, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln,” Scribner’s Magazine, January, 1893.
  23. Homer Anderson, “Where I saw Lincoln”: Address at the Sixth Annual Lincoln Banquet,” February 12, 1909 (1909), pp. 16-18.
  24. Charles Tinker, A Simple Tribute to the Memory of Abraham Lincoln.
  25. William E. Doster, Lincoln and Episodes of the Civil War, p. 16.
  26. John L. Cunningham, Three Years with the Adirondack Regiment, pp. 51-53.
  27. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 140.
Posted in Essays