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Lincoln Rises to Top of “The Political Gymnasium” in Currier & Ives 1860 Presidential Election Print
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ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Print. The Political Gymnasium, lithograph cartoon. New York: Currier & Ives, 1860. Backed by linen. 1 p., 17½ x 12¾ in.

Inventory #25454       Price: $3,750

This political cartoon created by artist Louis Maurer for Currier & Ives lampoons the candidates for the presidency in 1860.[1] On the left, Constitutional Union vice presidential candidate Edward Everett of Massachusetts holds up his running mate John Bell of Tennessee while saying, “There is nothing like having the Constitution, to give us strength to put up this Bell successfully.” Bell confidently declares, “I have perfect confidence in Mr Everett’s ability to uphold me.” Beside them, Horace Greeley of the New-York Tribune attempts to pull up on a bar labeled “Nom. for Governor” and moans, “I’ve been practising at it a long time, but can never get up muscle enough to get astride of this bar.

In the center, Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln straddles a tall sawhorse of split rails and declares, “You must do as I did Greely, get somebody to give you a boost, I’m sure I never could have got up here by my own efforts.” Beneath Lincoln, Republican editor James Watson Webb of the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer boasts, “I’ll bet a quarter I can beat any man in the party at turning political Summersets.” To the right Northern Democratic presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois boxes with Southern Democratic presidential candidate John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. As Douglas says, “Come at me Breck, and after you cry enough I’ll take a round with the rest of them,” Breckinridge responds, “If I do nothing else I can at least prevent you from pulling Lincoln down.” At the far right, Republican Senator William H. Seward of New York appears on crutches and says to Lincoln, “You’d better be careful my friend, that you don’t tumble off; as I did before I was fairly on, for if you do you’ll be as badly crippled as I am.

Historical Background

Currier & Ives produced prints intended for sale to the general public for display in homes and workplaces. Their images provided a historical depiction of America’s development from an agricultural to an industrialized society. Currier & Ives did not support a specific political party, but its political cartoons captured the strengths and foibles of all candidates. Their complicated cartoon images required readers to interpret the text and pictures in the context of current political events. For many voters, Currier & Ives prints were important to their understanding of candidates and issues in elections. An 1892 study of political caricature concluded that “caricatures relating to the great campaign of 1860 were the most successful of the kind ever issued in this country.”[2]

The election of 1860 was a four-way race among Lincoln, Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, and Constitutional Union candidate John Bell. Each man had a particular view on the expansion of slavery, which had become the dominant issue in American politics. Lincoln opposed slavery and especially its expansion; Douglas remained committed to “popular sovereignty,” his plan to let each state’s voters decide slavery’s status for themselves; Breckinridge was the unabashedly proslavery candidate; and John Bell ran on the single issue of preserving the Union above all else (with slavery).

Lincoln quickly rose to the top of the electoral pack, though he won the White House without a single electoral vote from any southern state. Here, Douglas’ position of popular sovereignty is shown to be checked by John Breckenridge, essentially splitting the proslavery vote. Bell is supported by his popular vice presidential candidate, Edward Everett, who had been Massachusetts Governor and Senator, U.S. Secretary of State, and President of Harvard University. Because he was the initial favorite but lost the Republican nomination to Lincoln, Seward appears on crutches. In the election, Breckenridge took second place, carrying the entire lower South, Maryland, and Delaware. Bell placed third in the electoral contest, winning Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Douglas finished dead last with the electoral votes of Missouri and some of those from New Jersey. The time-honored tradition of compromising on slavery was no longer viable. The movement toward secession began in the closing days of Buchanan’s presidency, and South Carolina led the way on December 20, 1860, more than two months before Lincoln took office.

Louis Maurer (1832-1932) was born in Germany and studied anatomy, mechanical drawing, and lithography before immigrating to the United States in 1851. In 1852, he joined Currier & Ives and worked there until 1860. During the Civil War, Maurer was a shooting instructor in Palisades Park, New Jersey. He later was a partner in the lithography firm of Heppenheimer & Maurer until his retirement in 1884.

Currier & Ives was a printmaking business based in New York City from 1835 to 1907. Founded initially by lithographer Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888), the firm became Currier & Ives in 1857, when Currier invited his bookkeeper and accountant James Merritt Ives (1824-1895) to join him in partnership. Ives had insight into public tastes and helped expand the firm’s focus from current news and catastrophes to include political satire and even sentimental scenes. Each image was produced on lithographic limestone printing plates on which the artist drew by hand. Over the course of its 72 years, the firm published at least 7,500 lithographs, with artists producing two to three new images every week for more than sixty years. Many of the prints were also hand-colored. The company closed in 1907, after the deaths of its founders, when business had declined due to new printing technologies and changing artistic tastes.

[1] For Maurer as the artist, see Frank Weitenkampf, American Graphic Art (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1912), 258: “Mr. [Joseph B.] Bishop, who had his information from James M. Ives, stated that all of these caricatures of 1856 and 1860 were drawn by Louis Maurer. The latter, however, told me that they were not all by him, and identified a number as his work. These include…The Political Gymnasium....

[2] Joseph B. Bishop, “Early Political Caricature in America,” The Century Magazine 44 (June 1892), 225.

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