Legion. An amalgamated journal.

The Election of 1860

A revised history

Throughout the middle of the century, talls had been working their way steadily into popular culture, and little by little the old stereotype of the United States as a place of diminutive New Englanders was wearing away. Talls like the quasi-mythic figure Paul Bunyan provided inspirational examples for other talls looking to break through old discriminatory hiring practices in conservative enclaves like the lumber industry. Most importantly, however, the presence of talls like Bunyan at the center of the American imagination proved that the nation could look beyond height differences and embrace a diverse, pluralistic definition of Americanism.

Still, it was not until the election of 1860 that the United States faced the prospect of a tall in the White House. This would become the real test of how far the American mind had really broadened. After it was found that Seward and Chase were inexplicably despised by large swathes of Republican constituency blocks, and, furthermore, that they would have had difficulty capturing the western states, the 6′ 4″ Abraham Lincoln won the Republican Party’s nomination for President. Even for many Republicans, this seemed a dangerous choice. Some applauded Lincoln’s nomination as a “historical moment” in the democratic process. Others met Lincoln’s nomination with cooler receptions, ranging from worries that he would be under too much political pressure to serve the tall community all the way to allegations that he was actually a candidate from a tribe of undiscovered tall islanders in the Pacific.

Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, had married an average-height Virginian, Nancy Hanks, in 1805. When Abraham was born it was not yet clear whether he would inherit his father’s or his mother’s height genes. By the time the young boy reached his teens, however, it was obvious that he was a tall. Lincoln avoided discussing his height in most of his unsuccessful bids for various state nominations in Illinois. However, he could not escape the constant commentary of observers who saw him as a member of a new generation of tall politicians, and by the 1850s, many were already whispering about Lincoln’s possible future as the first tall president.

After news of the nomination was released, the newspapers and orators made a great fuss about the situation. Forums, editorials, and debate societies obsessed over whether America was “ready” for a tall president. Some cloaked the discussion in terms of ‘tradition’ and ‘change.’ Many tried to tie Lincoln’s bizarre figure in with growing fears about Irish and Italian immigration to the coastal cities. Others accused him of playing the “height card” and bullying other talls into voting for him out of solidarity. The choice of the squat Mainer Hannibal Hamlin as Lincoln’s running mate did little to blunt the accusations that he was out-of-line with the political altitude of the country.

This debate about whether a tall could really be President almost totally occupied popular discussion about the election, on both overt and obscured levels. There were some other trivial concerns facing the nation at the time—economic issues and some sectionalist tensions—but these were largely ignored by the great newspapermen.

All the same, Lincoln’s skills as an orator managed to woo over those who were skeptical of his physical stature. One man who was at Lincoln’s Cooper-Union speech in February remarked, “When Lincoln rose to speak, I was greatly disappointed. He was tall, tall—oh, how tall! and so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man.” But, as the speech continued, “his face lighted up as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man.”

Lincoln’s opponents chalked up such sentiment to “Lincoln mania” and accused his supporters of wanting a “tall messiah.” They also mined a quote from Lincoln’s 1859 speech at the Wisconsin State Fair where he mentioned “trees, shrubs, fruits, plants, and flowers” to suggest that Lincoln was a “horticulturalist, like those from the Netherlands” who was so out-of-touch with normal values as to suggest that flowers were a major agricultural product. The leading newspapers carried weeks of columns on the “Botany Affair” with expert opinions on whether Lincoln could “understand” the concerns of workaday Americans. One column suggested that Lincoln’s “lofty” rhetoric was directly associated with his “lofty” height. Another political club organized a “Lincoln Trimming” day where members paraded through the streets with pruning shears cutting “Abe Bouquets.”

Garrett Dash Nelson

August 6th, 2008 at 5:05 pm

But perhaps you disagree

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The room is, as yet, filled with smoke and apprehension.