1860’s Politics: A Study In 1864 Presidential Campaign Artwork

Emerging Civil War 1860's Politics HeaderArt is created to be appreciated and to tell a message or story. Can we study artwork from a historic presidential election and learn about American ideas at the time? Absolutely. It’s amazing how much symbolism and propaganda can be featured in a fairly simple illustration.

Today, we’ll study a print from the 1864 Presidential Election. Originally created and published by Currier & Ives and now preserved by Library of Congress, this artwork has a grandiose title: “Grand national union banner for 1864. Liberty, union and victory.”1864 Presidential Election

Here’s some interpretation from the Library of Congress website:

Print shows a campaign banner for 1864 Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln and running mate Andrew Johnson. A drawn curtain reveals bust portraits of the two candidates in roundels framed in oak leaves. Above the portraits is a “Temple of Liberty,” within which stands a female figure holding a staff and liberty cap. Four American flags flank the temple. Perched on the temple’s dome is an eagle with spread wings holding a banderole in his mouth and arrows in his talons. Rays of light ending in stars emanate from the temple. A vignette below the portraits shows a man plowing with a team of horses in front of farm buildings. The peace and prosperity to come with Lincoln’s reelection, evoked by this bucolic scene, are emphasized by cornucopias on either side spilling over with fruit.

(Artwork and Text retrieved from: Library of Congress Prints & Photograph Online Catalog.)

A few details stand out to me: the eagle, the man with a plow, and the cornucopias.

1864 Presidential ElectionThe Eagle – A popular symbol for governments throughout history, the eagle represents many positive attributes. In this particular artwork, it’s the only reference to the Civil War. The eagle is depicted holding arrows in his talons and crouching protectively over the temple of liberty. This is 1864; the Emancipation Proclamation has already been made, and there is a movement for the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Is the eagle hinting that U.S. military (symbolized by the arrows) will continue the fight to defend liberty in the country? Significantly, the artwork focuses on prosperity imagery, but the eagle and military power is also clearly there also.

1864 Presidential ElectionThe Man With A Plow – An interesting piece of symbolism, considering that many Northern men were in the army. However, the man with the plow could “foretell” the return to normality that will occur when the war is over. It could also represent hard work, a very American characteristic. Perhaps the hard work theme would also remind voters about Lincoln’s “humble origins” – there isn’t a log cabin or split rails on this particular print, but Lincoln was known for his “common man” image. Additionally, it could serve as a reminder of the Homestead Act of 1862 which helped to open the west for settlement and new opportunities – particularly for immigrant families.

1864 Presidential ElectionThe Cornucopias – No battlefield scenes or war-weariness allowed here. As a symbol for blessing and plenty, the overflowing cornucopias hint at the prosperity, success, and abundance that will follow if Lincoln and Johnson are elected. Situated on either side of the work scene, the bountiful imagery implies that it will be achieved through hard work. Could it also hint that victory – both for the candidates and for the divided country – will come through unceasing effort?

That’s a lot of analyzing! And maybe I’m reading too much into the symbolism, but it does provide some things to consider.

Campaign artwork of the modern era tends to be bold and sometimes flashy – symbolism that will be easily recognizable, which is a good idea in modern branding. Still, I wonder what Currier & Ives would put on detailed artwork for modern political candidates. That’s another interesting thought to consider…

4 Responses to 1860’s Politics: A Study In 1864 Presidential Campaign Artwork

  1. The plowing farmer…common man, yeoman, son of the soil…creating his own prosperity through hard work; this also represents Andrew Johnson. He grew up poor in Raleigh, North Carolina, apprenticed to a tailor, then worked in that trade in several frontier towns before going into local politics.

  2. Of interest is Lincoln’s falling out with the “radical” block of Republicans. Lincoln and his friends responded by holding a national convention of the “National Union Party” in Baltimore which nominated Lincoln and war-Democrat Johnson. (“Radical” Hamlin was dropped as VP candidate.) The “radicals” for their part, nominated Fremont once again as the “Republican Party” candidate in their Cleveland convention.

    The “Radicals” would have their pay-back with the impeachment of Johnson. The “radical” (or later “liberal” wing) of the Republican Party would continue to have major influence in the party and its nominees for President.

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