Geopolitical Cartoons: President Lincoln and Reconstruction (1865)

This week’s geopolitical cartoon features President Abraham Lincoln (16th President of the United States) and his second-term Vice President Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s first Vice was Hannibal Hamlin). The cartoon shows the two friends (referring to each other as Andy and Uncle Abe) attempting to mend a “tear” in the United States with sewing string. Vice President Johnson is showing perched on top of the globe and sewing the rift that runs from Florida through Georgia, through Tennessee (Vice President Johnson’s home state), and to Ohio. I’m not entirely sure what President Lincoln is supposed to be doing (and that’s probably part of the satire), but it appears he might be attempting to balance the globe so that the Vice President can “mend the Union.” The caption reads “The ‘Rail Splitter’ at Work Repairing the Union”. Vice President Johnson tells President Lincoln, “Take it quietly Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than ever!!” President Lincoln replies, “A few more stitches Andy and the goold old Union will be mended!” Perhaps he’s removing the rail, quietly, from underneath the globe.

The ‘Rail Splitter’ at Work Repairing the Union, 1865 (via juggle-images.com).

First, how do we know its 1865? Well, wikipedia seems to think so. But the characters, their familiarity with each other, and the fact that they’re trying to “mend the Union” all indicates that the Civil War between the northern states and the southern states (1861-1865). Further, Johnson, a Tennessean, watched as Tennessee voted to secede during the Civil War, he fled and remained the state’s senator during the Civil War. The wikipedia article notes that Johnson advised the future President of the Confederate States of America (Senator Jefferson Davis) that if southern senators remained in the Senate (rather than quit, as they threatened to do if their states seceded) their Democratic majority could prevent any infringement upon their perceived states’ rights by President Lincoln (then in his first term). Thus, a southern unionist Senator Johnson was not necessarily pro-Lincoln.

The next interesting tidbit is calling President Lincoln a “rail splitter.” At first, I thought it was a play on his apparent nickname as the “Rail Candidate” during the 1860 Presidential nomination campaign. According to the President’s wikipedia page, his supporters “embellished” stories of his frontier days with his father. The splitter, I had assumed, was due to his perception of having split the union after he won the Presidency. Evidently not, my urban bias didn’t play out in my favor this time! According to a variety of websites, rail splitting is a skill in which one uses an axe, sledgehammer, and wedges to split a log. The “rails” are then used for fencing, this particular author notes that he was able to split a 12-foot log into four rails in 60 seconds.

The Rail Candidate, 1860 (via wikipedia, if it fails to load click here, its big!)

This last picture drives home the perception of some journalists of Lincoln’s supporters claiming him to be a hardy frontiersman. Published in 1860, clearly visible this time, it shows future President Lincoln straddling a rail held aloft by an African-American (who were slaves at the time) and a Lincoln/Republic party supporter. The rail is inscribed “Republican Plat-form”, satirizing the Republican parties focus on the slavery issue and on President Lincoln’s frontiersman credentials. While the African-American is saying something we today would consider wildly inappropriate and racist, it was common-place in the 1860s. Moreover, the sentiment that the slave is carrying President Lincoln on “nothing but [this here] rail” makes wonder if it was some foreshadowing? After the Civil War ended and Reconstruction began, President Lincoln that the U.S. Federal government would have a strong role to play in the education and economic empowerment of the “freedmen” as the freed slaves were called. The compromise result was the Freedmen’s Bureau. Finally, the party supporter’s sentiment that by proving Lincoln’s frontier credentials will ensure him the Presidency strikes a little to close to home.

Though taken after he re-won the Presidency the below picture of President Obama is a bit like the “Rail Candidate.” Perhaps, the “Shotgun President”? But, more seriously, the image of the “frontiersman” is quite clearly still a driving force in American political culture.

The “Shotgun President”, Feb 2013 (via americanglob,wordpress.com)

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