The two faces of Honest Abe

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This poster, on display at the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois, shows the two sides of Abraham Lincoln—smiling and grim. Photo of poster by Howard Fielding

Abraham Lincoln’s face, so familiar to us today, remains enigmatic seven score and seventeen years later.

An exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois, mentioned this in passing when we visited last year. Across the street at his presidential library, I spotted the above poster that enlarged the same photograph.

Other historical photographs and two life masks of the president confirm the asymmetry. It’s most visible in the left eye, which appears smaller and vertically misaligned with the right. Doctors studying Lincoln’s medical history found a similar case of misalignment, or strabismus, in his cousin. The life masks also revealed signs of fracture above the left eye. The cause is unknown, although one ophthalmologist studying Lincoln’s case said a horse kicked young Abe in the face.

Gutzon Borglum, who sculpted Lincoln for Mount Rushmore, the Capitol Rotunda, and the Lincoln Memorial, knew the difference. He studied the life masks and photos carefully and concluded Lincoln was “naturally a merry soul changed by sadness.”

The result is the president we know today: gentle and good-natured, yet grim and determined. It seems appropriate for the man who struggled with the house divided during the Civil War.

2 thoughts on “The two faces of Honest Abe

  1. Very interesting and most intriguing. I am now curious to find out if there were other great historical persons who had a similar trait.

    1. Good question, Shekhar! Probably the historical evidence would be hard to find. There are many photos of Lincoln, who was active at the dawn of photography. For anyone before that time we would have to work from skeletal remains (not very accessible) or life masks. Portraits by artists and contemporary accounts tend to be subjective. Most people (I’m one) are not symmetrical and tend to favor a “good side.” Those who studied his case say Lincoln was unusually asymmetrical.

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