How photography and phrenology helped Abraham Lincoln become president

The US midterm election in Illinois’s District 12 is this year. Voters have to choose. They can choose between a calm and reserved Congressman, or one who has earned the nickname “Meltdown Mike” for his uncontrollable rage on the floor of Illinois’s House of Representatives in 2012. Do they want a Congressman who has earned the nickname Meltdown Mike, thanks to a violent outburst of uncontrollable anger on the Illinois House of Representatives floor in 2012?

It’s not as simple as it seems. Republican Mike Bost, and his supporters, have not shrugged off Bost’s tirade in which he screams bible phrases, punches his microphone, and throws papers into the air before slouching in his chair. Bost tried to use this performance as proof of his political passion.

These clips that went viral on YouTube appear to show an individual who is un-spun and unadulterated, a powerful visual proof of emotional sincerity in a world where manipulation is rampant.

While the video has been a source of much discussion, the true story is actually the technology involved.

We believe we know what we are watching: someone caught in a moment of unguardedness, a glimpse at something real. Bost is aware that voters want and expect this. This is why Bost is using his outburst to promote himself. We seem to appreciate the candor of Bost’s explosion, as it gives us a glimpse at the “true candidate”.

Cynics are bound to doubt this. The point isn’t whether or not we believe Bost is sincere; it is that this shows how new technologies have altered what we, as voters, have come to expect of our politicians.

This isn’t a story about YouTube. It’s a story that begins with the advent of commercial photography and goes all the way back to Abraham Lincoln, another Illinois politician.

Face it

Lincoln, a virtual unknown in the United States in 1860, needed to create a public face in preparation for his first presidential run. Lincoln, a virtual unknown on the national stage in 1860, needed a public image as he prepared for his first presidential campaign.

Lincoln was a proponent of the new technology that emerged in the 1850s. He was the very first president to have sent his supporters multiple prints of photographs. Lincoln’s image was sold for a dollar per dozen and appeared across the country.

These card-portraits were popular because they gave consumers a deeper connection with the subject than one might expect. This was due to their intimate knowledge of that subject. The idea was a product of two popular sciences: phrenology and physiognomy.

These scientists believed that the face and head of a person could be interpreted as a map revealing their character. Each feature’s size, shape, and proportions could be analyzed and interpreted in order to determine the inner surface of the person under consideration. A high forehead indicated a great intellect, while a fuller lower lip signified patriotism. Each feature revealed something about your true nature.

The photograph allowed you to get to know someone who otherwise was a stranger. If you could read the face, you were able to judge their character. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a Harvard professor in 1863, said: “The image tells no lies.”

This “science” was popular and had a direct impact on politics. A writer, who called himself a “practical Phrenologist,” offered to be a guide for an electorate that, as he said, “had neither the time nor the opportunity to gain reliable information about the candidate.” He promised to “reveal to you the character Abraham Lincoln” through his abilities.

It was not just a random curiosity. The author said that it was “the duty of each citizen to use his power and influence on the right channels” so people could select the best leader for their nation. Lincoln was fortunate that this author only had positive things to say about him.

Get to Know You

Lincoln couldn’t have known how his response to the crisis would change American politics. The public was able to see the inner character of politicians through photography. This created expectations. The crowd began to believe that they were entitled to peek into the private lives of politicians. The new methods of seeing people turned the private into public and provided a quick way to assess a candidate’s personality.

This trend continues to this day. We judge public figures based on how close we are with them. Formality and reserve are suspicious. Only unguarded disclosure can reassure you of your honesty. We value emotion over reason when it comes to politics.

We should acknowledge that new technologies are driving a shift, for better or worse. Politicians have rightly focused on the ideological divide in US politics. But the story of Lincoln’s face reminds us that technology has a unique ability to change our expectations of our leaders.

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