Lincoln Through the Eyes of History: Harold Holzer on Francis Carpenter

Lincoln Through the Eyes of History: Harold Holzer on Francis Carpenter

SG:  When we first discussed your participation in this series of articles about Lincoln biographers, you asked if I thought that Francis Carpenter should be included.  Obviously, Carpenter does not “fit into” the list of biographers who have used research techniques in order to write about Abraham Lincoln.  Please defend our joint decision that Carpenter’s Six Months at the White House deserves a place in this series. 

HH: Of course, Carpenter did not need to do much research (although he did excavate many second-hand anecdotes). He saw Lincoln up close and first-hand almost every day for half a year as he worked as an artist-in-residence in the White House on his monumental painting, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. I think Carpenter deserves a place—an important place—as a biographer-in-residence because he wrote a source that every serious Lincoln scholar since has mined and quoted. Today, no book about the Lincoln presidency can be undertaken, or taken seriously, unless it uses and cites Carpenter’s memoir. And that’s because, aside from John Hay’s diary, no book offers better insight into what actually transpired in the executive mansion between February and July 1864, the year of Lincoln’s re-election. And no book presents a better overview of Lincoln’s thoughts, hopes, and doubts leading up, two years earlier, to his most momentous act: the Emancipation Proclamation. I admit I also had a personal reason for advocating to Lincoln Lore on Carpenter’s behalf. I started my own Lincoln career writing about art and iconography, and Carpenter—as both a painter and memoirist—has been the leading character, and Six Months at the White House my bible. Remember, it is subtitled The Story of a Picture, and from the first time I read it, the book struck me as the best account written about the creation of a Lincoln image—in this case the most influential of all Lincoln images. I’ve not only quoted Carpenter often, I’ve examined his personal papers and scrapbook, written articles about him, and later, a biographical introduction to a 2008 reissue of Six Months published by the White House Historical Association. Of course I own several editions of his 1866 original. The little volumes come in a variety of colors, so over the years I’ve acquired a rainbow of bindings. The one I owned first (green) is so tattered by now, so filled with underlined passages and post-it notes, it’s the only edition I consult. I don’t want to fray any more Carpenter books than I have to.

SG:  Did Carpenter write any other books?

HH: No, Six Months was his sole book. He did publish a few pieces before it appeared, most importantly “Anecdotes and Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln,” a seldom-consulted but very useful 41-page essay printed as an appendix to Henry J. Raymond’s 1865 book, Life and Public Services of Abraham Lincoln. The essay actually contains a few stories that did not make it into Six Months. Carpenter also wrote a series of articles about Lincoln, one published just two weeks after the assassination in the New York Independent, and another in June 1865 for the second issue of a new religious magazine, Hours at Home, published by Scribner’s. Alas, the only other book title in the Carpenter canon is The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln—which was actually nothing more than a presumptuously re-titled edition of Six Months at the White House (its text unchanged). Otherwise, Carpenter told his “story” of Lincoln solely in his art—not only First Reading, but numerous portraits of the president over the next 30 years, several paintings of Mary Lincoln, one small picture of Lincoln and Tad, and a beautiful Lincoln family painting that the artist created with the help of Mary Lincoln. Interestingly, while his painterly skills declined over time, and the reputation of his prime work ebbed, Carpenter’s book has consistently remained an essential tool for understanding Lincoln’s life in the White House.


SG:  Please explain the circumstances under which he was given such extraordinary access to the White House.

HH: It’s really a surprising story, but one has to remember that just before Carpenter appeared on the scene, Lincoln had granted another artist, Edward Dalton Marchant, three months’ worth of access to paint an emancipation painting of his own. As for Carpenter, he was a fairly well-established painter in New York City, having already painted two presidents: Fillmore and Pierce. Emancipation inspired him and fueled his ambition like no previous subject. He came up with the idea “to paint a picture which should commemorate this new epoch in the history of Liberty,” what he viewed as “an act unparalleled in human grandeur in the history of mankind.” And he wanted his to be a realistic commemoration devoid of allegorical gimmicks like broken chains and kneeling slaves. Realism, he told anyone who listened, was what the great proclamation deserved. Once he got hold of this notion, he was unstoppable. First he got a wealthy friend, Frederick A. Lane, to finance his project. Then he went to Samuel Sinclair, an editor at the New York Tribune, whom he convinced to write him a letter of introduction to Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, beseeching him to convince the President to grant him life sittings in Washington. Leaving no stone unturned, Carpenter also wrote to Lincoln’s old friend, Illinois Congressman Owen Lovejoy, saying: “I wish to paint this picture now while all the actors in the scene are living and while they are still in the discharge of the duties of their several high offices…especially Mr. Lincoln as [emancipation] is the great act of his life.” Lovejoy was convinced; he provided the necessary introduction to Lincoln, and in February 1864, Carpenter arrived in the White House and presented his case to the President, who promised to turn him loose in the White House. Armed though he was with good testimonials, Carpenter also had an ace in the hole, which I’m sure he played to the hilt to help him get through the doors. I’m talking about his childhood friend, William Osborn Stoddard, who now served as the so-called “third secretary” to Lincoln, assisting John Nicolay and John Hay. It’s really an extraordinary American story: two kids from a farm town in upstate New York who both ended up in the Civil War White House—one to paint an iconic picture, the other to serve on staff and ultimately write a number of his own books about the President. Obviously, Lincoln enjoyed having Carpenter around: he let him set up a makeshift studio in the State Dining Room, permitted the artist to sketch the architectural and decorative details of his private office, sat for life sketches and a preliminary oil portrait, and encouraged his Cabinet ministers to do likewise. He even let Carpenter bring a photographer into his White House office (for the first time in history) to take pictures the artist could use as models. Most important of all, Lincoln allowed Carpenter to walk him to Mathew Brady’s Gallery just a few days after the artist’s arrival. The result was the extraordinary photographic sitting of February 9, 1864, which produced both of the models that have been adapted for Lincoln’s portraits on the five-dollar bill, not to mention the penny profile and the iconic photo of Lincoln studying an oversize book with his son, Tad. I credit Carpenter with creating those poses.


SG:  Was the publication of a book Carpenter’s idea?

HH:  That’s hard to say. I’ve never found definitive evidence to prove Carpenter himself initiated the project, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. He was such a skillful marketer, even if he admitted, “I had little or no training for literary work.” All Carpenter ever said of his “little book” was that “it grew” from “simple enthusiasm and affection.” I think the project also “grew” out of the ongoing and interlocking relationship that then existed between art and publishing. Carpenter had arranged for his painting, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, to be engraved. Its publisher was to be J. C. Derby, whose New York firm, Derby & Miller also happened to be rushing Henry Raymond’s Lincoln biography into print right after the assassination. But the engraving was taking a long while to accomplish—it would not come out until 1866—and I suspect Carpenter was getting anxious that he might lose public interest if he didn’t quickly lay claim to a special relationship with the now-martyred Lincoln. I imagine it was publisher Derby who suggested to his restive client that he write an essay for the Raymond book. But who knows? Carpenter himself might have come up with the idea, he had so many stories to share. In any event, as we say today, that effort, along with Carpenter’s 1865 magazine and newspaper articles, got him a book deal—ironically not from Derby but from Hurd & Houghton, another prominent New York publisher, the forerunners of Houghton Mifflin. To me the question is why Henry Raymond allowed his own book to serve as a launching pad for Carpenter, potentially a rival author; and why the canny publishing veteran J. C. Derby let the Carpenter book project slip away from him and into the hands of another company?

SG:  The author frequently comments on visitors to the White House and Lincoln’s response to them.  Are most of these incidents reported elsewhere?

HH: Some are and some aren’t. a few are tales told by people who witnessed them, or had heard them from others. Going through Carpenter’s book is a bit like navigating Herndon’s essential Lincoln biography. What Herndon actually saw or heard for himself is priceless; what he picked up elsewhere, less so.  Carpenter’s recycled stories are often charming, but they aren’t pure gold. (To his credit, he never appropriated a second-hand story without crediting its source.) What is invaluable is what Carpenter observed for himself over his six months at the White House, and what he heard from Lincoln’s own lips. He saw the President at work and observed his daily routine. He got to listen in on some pretty meaty conversations, although Lincoln occasionally joked to his most uninhibited visitors to be cautions because an artist was in the room. Most important to history and historians, Carpenter got Lincoln to describe the July and September Cabinet meetings at which he first proposed and then promulgated emancipation. And apparently Carpenter was the only person, certainly the only future author, ever to ask Lincoln to recall those scenes! How do we know Lincoln “hesitated” before signing the final proclamation, because he worried that his hand, strained by New Year’s Day handshaking, would produce a “tremulous” signature? Because he told Carpenter the story! How do we know Lincoln read aloud to his son, Tad? Because FBC peeked into a room and saw the scene for himself. Do we need to season all of this with the proverbial grain of salt? Sure. Carpenter would later claim, or at least imply, that he lived in the White House for those six months. That’s an exaggeration, and regrettably, it’s been repeated routinely ever since. Then truth is, he never got a bedroom of his own there; but he did work there daily for half a year, and that’s saying a great deal.


SG:  What was Carpenter’s opinion of Mary Lincoln?  Her opinion of him?

HH:  Well, for a time they got along famously. Carpenter was a clever fellow, and he wasn’t going to get on the wrong side of the woman whose home he turned upside down with paints, a giant canvas, and an easel so big it looked like scaffolding! We know Mary at first liked Carpenter. She expressed “great pride in the success” of the First Reading picture. Seven months after her husband’s murder, she gifted the artist with a sacred relic: “a very plain cane” that had been “handled by him.” Later, the artist proposed painting a portrait of the Lincoln family—showing them as they might have looked when they gathered together (they rarely did) in 1861 before the death of their beloved son, Willie. Mary not only acquiesced; she provided Carpenter with a photograph of her late child, suggested another of Robert, and predictably recommended a flattering image of herself so the composite scene could be crafted from photographic models. And when Carpenter went on to issue an engraved version of the preliminary Lincoln portrait he had painted in the White House, Mary provided a rare personal endorsement, hailing it as “the most perfect likeness of my husband that I have ever seen.” Most remarkably, Mary shared with Carpenter the frequently quoted (and dramatized) account of her last carriage ride with her husband a few hours before their fateful April 14, 1865, visit to Ford’s Theatre. The stories of Lincoln’s cheerfulness on his final day alive—his optimistic plans for their future—all come from a breathtakingly personal letter his widow wrote to the artist. But the friendship did not long endure. When Carpenter’s book was reissued under its revised title, she went ballistic. “I can scarcely express to you,” she told a friend of the late President’s, “how indignant I feel, when such men, mere adventurers, with whom my husband had scarcely the least acquaintance, write & publish such false statements about him.”  She was just getting started: the Lincolns had permitted Carpenter to work in the White House, she now claimed, only because they sympathized with his “indigent circumstances,” but once there, Carpenter had “intruded frequently into Mr, L’s office, when time was too precious to be idled.”  As she put it: “To think of this stranger, silly adventurer, daring to write a work, entitled, ‘The inner life of Abraham Lincoln.’ Each scribbling writer, almost strangers to Mr. L., subscribe themselves, his most intimate friend.”  Mary dismissed the painter as “a second edition of Mr. L’s crazy drinking law partner, Herndon, writing himself into notice, leaving truth far, far in the distance.” The two never spoke or wrote to each other again, which is really a shame. Imagine the stories Carpenter could have heard from Mary had he retained her friendship—though he never once quoted any of Mary’s revealing letters to him.

SG:  As a leading authority on art related to Abraham Lincoln, what is your assessment of Carpenter’s work?

HH: Immensely popular and hugely influential. The best-selling print of First Reading was so popular that the steel plate nearly wore down from overuse. Sadly, Carpenter kept noodling with the Lincoln portrait in his original canvas until he had made a blur of Lincoln’s once-vivid features. When Congress finally acquired the painting in 1878, its Lincoln no longer resembled the man in the engraving. Carpenter had some equally bad luck getting his Lincoln Family painting engraved; by the time it came out as a popular print, the market had been flooded with inferior Lincoln Family images. Yet no one could claim more influence than Carpenter in molding the public and private images of Lincoln. Carpenter perfected the “Great Emancipator” image that long dominated popular culture, and also invented the genre that humanized the late President, and gave Americans hope that the late President had managed to find some solace from his wife and children during the darkest days of the Civil War. And to think that Carpenter simultaneously embellished his own reputation as an image-maker with an enduring memoir! Usually our most cherished Lincoln books contain illustrations. Carpenter’s unique legacy is that he created an “illustration” that was accompanied by an important book.


SG:  What is the general assessment of historians for Six Months at the White House?

HH:  I think it’s still positive—and grateful. As I write, I’ve just been thumbing through Lincoln books at random. I haven’t found a bibliography yet that doesn’t include Carpenter. He’s just unavoidable and essential. More than once, a colleague has admitted to me that he’d remembered a crucial anecdote he wanted to include in a new manuscript, but experienced a bit of trouble recalling its source; more often than not, he would find it in Six Months. This is by no means the unanimous view in Lincoln circles; what issue is? I remember that Don Fehrenbacher once took Mary’s side, and argued that Carpenter exaggerated both his access to Lincoln and his long narrative accounts of the run-up to emancipation. In his book Recollected Words of Lincoln, he featured 11 pages of Carpenter anecdotes, rating most of them with the letter-grade of “C”—for “a quotation recorded non-contemporaneously,” which I don’t quite comprehend. A few of them even received a “D”—for “a quotation about whose authenticity there is more than average doubt.” My late friend must have been a brutal grader in his days at Stanford! After all, nearly everyone buys into the story that Lincoln hesitated in signing the final Emancipation Proclamation while resting his weary hand. That’s straight out of Six Months at the White House. And it’s important not only because Lincoln paused, but because tens of thousands of people of color and abolitionists were kept waiting in Northern churches while Lincoln held off authorizing black freedom.

SG:  While much of the book contains reports of events, etc., there are examples of Carpenter’s assessment of Lincoln.  Do these opinions basically agree with others who worked in close proximity to Abraham Lincoln?

HH: Yes, I think Carpenter’s friend Stoddard, along with John Hay and other contemporaries, shared the belief that Lincoln worked incredibly hard, and that he deeply mourned the losses incurred on the battlefields of the Civil War. They’ve agreed that he read the bible, was something of a fatalist, adored and was quite permissive with his young son, Tad, and while he definitely enjoyed telling stories, was a visibly sad man. Where Carpenter treads unique ground is the deeply nuanced portrait he paints—in words—of the complexities involved in accomplishing emancipation. Carpenter is not hesitant about attesting to Lincoln’s greatness. But I prefer the anecdotes that speak for themselves—like the scene from their first meeting, when Lincoln declared, “Do you think, M r. C___, that you can make a handsome picture of me?…in a tone so loud as to attract the attention of those in immediate proximity.”


SG:  Is there anything that you would like to add about the importance of this book?

HH:  I think we should not lose sight of the fact that it was as admired in its day as it has proven influential since. An advertisement in 1867 described it as the “great success of the year,” noting that “one million persons have read, are now reading, or are about to read Carpenter’s book.” Maybe a bit of hyperbole there, but it came after only a year in print. An 1879 reprint sold another 27,000 copies. Why? Because it was both accessible and authoritative. And because the publishers of Carpenter’s equally popular pictures (in engraved form) promoted the book whenever they sold the images, while publishers of his book inevitably plumped the images. Many contemporaries had equal or even greater access to Lincoln, though for a concentrated time period—those famous “six months”—Carpenter may have run a close second to the White House secretaries. But few people used that access as ingeniously or immediately as Carpenter did. Remember, Nicolay and Hay did not publish their Lincoln biography until 25 years after Lincoln’s death. Carpenter gave the public the first taste; and in his modest little book, whether it came in red, brown, or green binding, he came close to offering the most as well. His stories have yet to be challenged or contradicted—and sometimes, reading the conversations he recollected, we can almost hear Lincoln’s own voice.


Harold Holzer is the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.