The Railsplitter

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The Railsplitter
Unknown Artist
Oil on canvas
108 x 84 in.
Chicago History Museum, Gift of Miss Maibelle Heikes Justice
1917.15, ICHi-52428 

In this larger-than-life portrait, Abraham Lincoln holds a heavy, long-handled hammer, or maul, to split logs. Lincoln had split many logs as a youth on the Western frontier, but by the time this painting was created, he had become a prominent lawyer. So why did the artist portray Lincoln this way? It’s all about politics. On May 16, 1860, the Republican Party nominated Lincoln to run for president. His rural upbringing appealed to many Northern men (women could not yet vote), most of whom were farmers as Lincoln had been. They also liked his free soil stance opposing slavery in the Western territories.

Lincoln’s supporters nicknamed him “The Railsplitter” to recall his frontier past and displayed this painting at their lively campaign rallies. An unknown artist created the image, and it is not known where this picture was placed or exactly how it was used. The artist probably borrowed Lincoln’s face from an existing print or photograph and put him in an imaginary frontier landscape. The White House, where this self-made man would live if elected, appears in the distance—can you see it? Lincoln won the November election but his victory alarmed many Southerners who feared that, as president, he would act against slavery in their states, even though he had always argued that the Constitution did not allow abolition where slavery already existed.

1. Can you think of a modern-day politician who wants to be thought of in a certain way, as Lincoln did as a “railsplitter”?

2. Based on the photographs of Lincoln you have seen, do you think that this image looks like him?

3. If you were asked to make a portrait of someone without them actually posing, how would you go about doing it?

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