Punch Lincoln: Some Thoughts on Cartoons in the British MagazineSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Abraham Lincoln is the central figure of American mythology and—so far as historians can admit to such—of American history. The same can be said of the Civil War, the central event of both American history and mythology. One is tempted to be apologetic about making such broad statements in an age of scholarship that is inhospitable to "kings and queens and great men" and tends to minimize the importance of events, for it sees the story of humanity in terms of long-range processes. Yet apologies are not in order; scholarship can accommodate varied approaches to illuminating the past. In any case, written history is ultimately an act of faith, whatever road one takes to the past. Of course, structure and the longue durée are important, but a giant in the earth, or a crucial moment (to paraphrase Don Fehrenbacher) may weigh more in the scales of history than dead ages.  This brings us back to Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War.
The war answered two questions decisively. First, would there be a United States of America or a multiplicity of smaller rival entities; second, if there was to be a United States of America, what kind of country would it be. The answers the war gave were that the United States would be one nation, and that it would be one without slavery and with a developing system of liberal democratic capitalism. The cost was tremendous. To simplify matters to the utmost, the casualties of the two sides came to 1.5 million people in a nation of 31.5 million. Translating that to the United States of 1991, a nation of 250 million would mean casualties of twelve million.
The preeminent figure of the Civil War was Lincoln, who took a road from his parents' painful illiteracy to the Gettysburg address Page [End Page 1] and the Second Inaugural. In the process he came to be known as the "Great Emancipator" and the "Savior of the Union," saintly titles that make historians very uncomfortable. It is also to the point to remember that barely into his second term as president he was assassinated; perhaps the best way to understand that event is as an act coming from a desperate and angry part of the American people. Even before his murder he was one of the most abused presidents of American history. It is not surprising, then, that in a faraway land the humor magazine that made it its business to heap ridicule on many of the high and the mighty of the Western world, among others, made Lincoln a target, too (Figure 1).
Punch not only reflected but also shaped the opinion of the British mainstream. It began in 1841, distinguished at first from other humor magazines not so much by brashness or even political radicalism as by palatability to bourgeoise Britain. As it grew more mature, it grew less radical, even by the 1860s, but over the long run its most distinguishing attribute was longevity. In 1991 it celebrated its sesquicentennial with, among other things, a scholarly conference. The following year, however, 1992, the magazine ceased publication. But its memory will linger for long.
Among literate Anglophiles, and others as well, the humor of Punch is legendary. A sample:
1845:Advice to persons about to marry—"Don't."
1854:"Who's 'm, Bill?"
"'Eave 'arf a brick at 'im."
1872:Go directly—see what she's doing, and tell her she mustn't.
1895:"I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr. Jones!"
"Oh no, my lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent."
Also worth citing is an 1884 caption from a George du Maurier cartoon that, as much as anything, preempts my critics from using the same against me: "Don't look at me, Sir [or Madam], with—ah—in that tone of voice."
Of course, not all have liked Punch then or since. When its editor, Page [End Page 2] Sir Francis Burnard, was told that "Punch is not as good as it used to be," he replied, "It never was." When W. S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan, asked whether many jokes were sent to the magazine, the reply was, "Hundreds." "Why don't you print some of them?" inquired Gilbert. 
In quoting Punch, I hope to suggest what attracts me to the subject. Punch was, and for me remains, "a fellow of infinite jest." He was at his best—and also most important—in what insiders called "the big cut," the full-page weekly editorial cartoon. Punch institutionalized the editorial cartoon that survives to this day. With the brilliant pencil of John Tenniel, later Sir John, a cartoonist for half a century; with the skill of his engraver, Joseph Swain; and with the wit of the inner circle who occupied the famed Punch table and decided the contents of each week's cartoon, the magazine became something of a British institution. 
During the American Civil War, Tenniel and company sparkled. And they paid a great deal of attention to the events overseas even though at first they largely ignored Lincoln. From the time he first appeared in the May 1861 issue to his last appearance almost exactly four years later, more than 20 percent of Punch's weekly cartoons focused in whole or in part on the American war. By contrast, the France of Napoleon III, although of great interest, received half as much attention, and the British domestic scene twice as much. If one out of five "big cuts" dealt with Lincoln and the war, the cartoons were not evenly distributed. There were long lulls. During the first half of 1864 Punch seems to have thrown up its hands, as if to say that Britain could do nothing, and so Volume 46 of the magazine carries only a single big cut that is at all related to the American Civil War. Volume 47, however, for the second half of 1864, has ten editorial cartoons out of a possible twenty-six, close to 40 percent. Lincoln's reelection campaign was coming up then, a truly remarkable development in the midst of a Civil War, with the American president fully prepared to vacate the White House and so largely abandon the hope for the survival of the United States. Punch showed Page [End Page 3] excellent judgment by giving so much attention to the subject, although not by the preferences that Mr. Punch expressed.
Earlier, at the end of 1862 and in early 1863, for a period of six weeks during the Trent Affair, so-called, when the United Kingdom could have gone to war with the United States, every single editorial cartoon dealt with the Civil War. As might be said in this country, Mr. Punch batted a thousand. Lincoln, although he disappeared for all of 1861 after his initial debut, showed up more often than any other foreign figure. In no small part he became the symbol of the United States, and his image grew uniformly and ever more sharply negative. I suspect the British public cared about all this, but the American public cared much more. As a Northern general had explained to William Howard Russell, the Times's correspondent, "there was no nation on earth whose censure or praise the people of the United States cared about except England." This reflected the psychic equation between the two countries. The Americans at times loomed before the British, as they did during the Civil War, but the British loomed much larger before the Americans, up to the war and well beyond it.
The scholarly study of caricature in general is very much in its infancy. The same can be said, but much more emphatically, about the study of Lincoln caricatures. The first book on the subject, published in 1909 by William S. Walsh, considered Abraham Lincoln and the London Punch. Walsh showed good judgment, for he printed most of the Civil War cartoons as well as a running commentary, cribbed mostly from the magazine. A quick look at Walsh's text illustrates not only how much historical writing has changed since the Lincoln centennial but also how much American culture as a whole has changed. Here is Walsh's description of a January 1861, cartoon ( Figure 2). "Mrs. Carolina was represented as a vulgar virago holding a cat-o-nine tails in her right hand, and shaking her clenched left fist in the face of a serenely defiant youth, clad in a star-spangled shirt, to whom a little brat of a nigger appealed with clasped hands." Walsh comes no closer to analysis than what is evident here. It might also be added that the Carolina cartoon marks the height of the North's, hence Lincoln's, popularity in Punch. Page [End Page 4]
In 1929 Albert Shaw's two-volume cartoon history Abraham Lincoln amassed a great deal of visual material—cartoons and otherwise—as illustrations for an amateur history of Lincoln and his time. Yet the proposed multi-volume study never reached beyond "The Year of His Election." 
Rufus Rockwell Wilson, in 1945 and 1953, offered Lincoln in Caricature, the best collections on the subject, which were expansions of the author's 1903 pamphlet of the same title. Lincoln in Caricature was the valuable culmination of a lifelong hobby of collecting Lincoln cartoons. Here is the explanation for "The Federal Phoenix" ( Figure 3): "The savage cartoon 'The Federal Phoenix' by Tenniel appeared in the London Punch on December 3, 1864, and gives unwelcome proof of the angry mood in which the English Conservative leaders and a majority of their followers received the news of Mr. Lincoln's re-election.... How it impressed the public for whom it was intended can only be conjectured, but to one who was a babe in arms when the man thus held up to condemnation passed from life, it seems as brutal in motive as it was misleading in fact."  This is commentary on one of the finest Punch cartoons of the American president. That the book remains the standard reference work on Lincoln and caricatures speaks for itself.
Harold Holzer, Mark E. Neely, Jr., and I edited in 1984 The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print. That book only briefly touched cartoons and then only the separately printed domestic variety.  The periodic literature, as far as I know, contains only two articles worth mentioning. One from 1954 by a University of Texas English professor is a cursory overview. The other from thirty years later by Mary Jane Means, an adjunct professor of communication and theater arts from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, is a stylistic analysis. War with "Punch." Lessoff's work was distinguished by reaching as far back as 1842 and as far ahead as 1872. He included cartoons and text from Punch, as well as a fourteen-page attempt by one more amateur historian to put the cartoons in context. The volume is unpretentious, but beyond that very little has changed since Walsh early in the century. 
To sum matters up, interest continues in Lincoln cartoons from the past, cartoons continue to appear in the present, but we must wait for the future for useful scholarly work. I am reminded of the way Mark Neely in 1979 began the first scholarly article of the first volume of the new series of the Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association, quoting James G. Randall: "The hand of the amateur has rested heavily upon Lincoln studies." What might be added is that without the amateur no work to speak of would have appeared on the subject at all.
But to return to Punch Lincoln. The Victorian era saw the birth and (in nearly all cases) the death of dozens of humor magazines in London alone. Punch was only one of them. In the 1860s many of the magazines dealt with Lincoln and the American Civil War. Most are not known to the students of U.S. history. Yet they contain many wonderful surprises for those interested in Lincoln, shown by one minor, whimsical example from Punch itself from the April 8, 1865, issue.  "Mr. Punch's First of April Levée," cartoon and verse, takes on the high and mighty of the moment ( Figure 4):
Here only one comment is needed. The rough Lincoln does not resemble Punch's better-known caricatures of the Northern chief because the artist is not Tenniel but Charles H. Bennett (whose initials carved into his cartoons can be readily confused with the monogram of another Punch artist, C. H. Bradley). Bennett was well known in his time as an illustrator. He was not quite Tenniel, with Alice in Wonderland and so much more, but still "one of the brightest and most talented droughtsman Punch has ever had," as that wonderful historian of the magazine M. H. S. Spielmann described him.  Bennett was best known for his "Bunyan's Pilgrims's Progress." It is fortunate that he "did" and "did in" Lincoln, too.
I could go on showing "new" Lincolns but instead will quickly retreat in fear of creating false expectations. The present research will not only lead to previously unknown Lincoln images—and I hope to an understanding of their meaning and significance—but also to losses. To illustrate, one of my favorite Lincoln cartoons has been John Tenniel's "I.O.U. Indian" from the February 1, 1862, issue of Punch ( Figure 5 ).  It shows a lanky figure with something of a beard, footing a war dance, and dressed like a Native American, at least an English caricaturist's conception of such. His naked upper body is painted with stars and stripes, as are his pants. Wild West boots, painted face, feathered headdress, necklace of animal teeth, rattle, tomahawk, a quiver of arrows, and a spear complete his get- Page [End Page 10]
Punch table regular John Silver noted in his diary only that the "I.O.U. Indian" was suggested on January 22, 1862, eight days before it appeared.  A little research in standard sources, however, revealed the developments that formed the background for the cartoon. Charleston, the seat of secession and emblem of the rebellion, carried unusual symbolic importance. (Several attempts would be made by the Union side to capture it, including innovative combined operations by land and sea forces. Not until 1865, a little after Lincoln's birthday, would the city fall.)
Symbolism aside, Charleston was an important Southern port in 1862. The Federals had wanted it neutralized since the start of the war to help enforce the blockade announced by Lincoln. The blockade became a centerpiece of diplomatic activity, critical for both the United States and the Confederate States. The British did not like the blockade, especially the loss of cotton, but they did not attempt to dismantle it.
In the fall of 1861, the U.S. navy made plans to sink boats laden with stones in Charleston Harbor in support of the blockade. The North, starving for victory, seized on the tactic with glee. The New York Herald, for example, reported on the last day of 1861: "It was thought that the sand would settle around the hulks and form an impassable bar that no artificial or natural means will ever move. The city of Charleston may thus no longer be considered as a seaport town." Rather drastic medicine this was to cure rebellion.
Although such warfare was not entirely unheard of, it was at least quite unorthodox, and reminds one of Charles Royster's provocative book The Destructive War.  Before a great storm of outrage could break out in Britain and elsewhere, the Trent Affair burst on the diplomatic scene and occupied the center of public attention, Punch included. Charleston Harbor, however, was not entirely forgotten; if anything, the Trent crisis may have heightened the shrillness of Page [End Page 12] the British response to what was dubbed "the stone fleet." In mid-December the Times wrote of the sinking of old whaling boats with their granite cargo as the work of savages, "an act of hostility to the whole human race" that would destroy a harbor "for all time." "People who would do an act like this would pluck the sun out of the heavens to put their enemies in darkness; or dry up the rivers, that no grass might forever grow."
About the same time, Lord Russell, Britain's foreign secretary, wrote to his ambassador in Washington, Lord Lyons, that the stone fleet indicated that the U.S. government despaired of restoring the Union. Otherwise, the North would not have permanently blocked a major harbor. The project was "worthy only of times of barbarism." In the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee expressed similar contempt.  When the Trent matter was settled and Confederate ambassador designates James M. Mason and John Slidell were released, the Charleston stone boats seemed to come to the fore. The Times wrote about the needs of civilization, the Romans and Carthage, and how "among the crimes which have disgraced the history of mankind, it would be difficult to find one more atrocious than this."
Historians should not deny Britain the sincerity of its stand, especially its desire to instruct its New World relative in the art of civilization. Misunderstanding of the American military plan and unhappiness with the blockade were at the root of Britain's harsh, self-righteous attitude, however. One might even suggest that to a degree the misunderstanding was willful on the part of the British. In time, it grew clear that matters had been exaggerated. In any case, Secretary of State William Seward backpedaled, explaining that only minor channels at Charleston were blocked by the sunken boats and that no permanent injury would be done to the harbor. As it happened, the peculiar naval maneuver turned out to be a dud; the water made new channels away from the sunken boats before long. The navy, in turn, abandoned plans to create more such obstructions. 
Twentieth-century readers might get the impression from the tone Page [End Page 13] of the Times that the atomic bomb had just been dropped. The apocalyptic language of Britain's leading newspaper makes the "I.O.U. Indian" of Punch seem almost moderate. As for its choice of a Native American to represent the United States, that depended on the characteristic British view of Indians. As on the Continent, this view ranged from admiration for simple virtues to repulsion for sensationalized savagery. Tenniel's cartoon conjures up the savage. America is shown in "retrogression" on the scale of civilization. For good measure, a special British dislike of the New York Herald, with its expatriate editor George Gordon Bennett, from Scotland, is added. So is the British dread of a national debt, another frequent target of Punch and the press in general. Hence the name "I.O.U. Indian."
But is the figure Abraham Lincoln—as I and others have happily assumed? The answer is no. A careful look at the features Tenniel gives to his American president—whether as a liar, buffoon, posturing military man, perplexed politician, coon, or phoenix—should convince us of this (Figures 6–10). Textual evidence indicates the same. A brief article on the page opposite the cartoon, a purported report from the "Ethnological Society," describes the "I.O.U. Indian." Evidently he "was originally English, and ... his ancestors passed over to the New World in the seventeenth century. For many years he preserved, the noble characteristics of his stock, and showed himself wise, brave, and independent. But the deteriorating influences of climate, and still more a vast infusion of inferior animalism, in the form of convict Irish, deboshed Germans, and the accumulated scum of other nations, combined to demoralise the Englishman, and a few generations have brought him more and more closely into assimilation with the aboriginal Indians of the Western Continent." And as to the question in point, the report notes that the I.O.U. Indian has recently chosen a chief magistrate because there was more of him than of any of his rivals." 
Of course, finding an old Lincoln cartoon not to be the American president after all, but rather a symbol of the United States, is not necessarily a loss to the study of history. Indeed, the matter raises interesting questions about when the Lincoln figure was used to represent the American republic. When were other symbols used? Why? How much interest did Punch—indeed, the British public—have in Lincoln as a person? What do the cartoons and the accompanying text tell us about the United States? What do they tell us about British perceptions of Lincoln and his nation—and about Page [End Page 14]
Have my years of researching and teaching Punch Lincoln led to anything more than trivia? It is too early to tell. The main shapes are only starting to emerge. What they will show when put together is not yet fully clear. I started with no preconceived notions but one: that Lincoln and the Civil War were important and that studying details related to them—however unimportant in themselves—were likely to lead to important results. That was a reasonable research design, the classic variety where the student starts with no thesis but examines evidence to see what it tells. Following it I hope not to disappoint myself—or future readers.
So far, a chief pleasure of studying these cartoons has been the sense of adventure, the travel on what was supposed to be terra firma but that turned out to be terra incognita, as the "I.O.U. Indian" illustrates.
Humorists, to use the colloquial they are so fond of, want to see people laugh themselves to death. The editors of Punch were no exception. In Lincoln's case they succeeded, if in a less-than-direct fashion. Not that the American president, who liked humor, laughed himself sick over Punch. In fact, we do not even know whether he read the magazine, although he did pay attention to Britain and its press. But on April 14, 1865, Lincoln went to see a Tom Taylor comedy, Our American Cousin. That evening, as on other evenings, the play reached the point where an English fortune hunter learns that the American suitor of her daughter is no heir to great wealth. The lady therefore turns icy:
Mrs. Mountchestington: "I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, that you are not used to the manners of good society."
Trenchard: "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Wal', I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old mantrap!"
"Sockdologizing old mantrap." The last words Lincoln heard on earth were those of playwright Tom Taylor, witty Punch editor, originator of biting anti-Lincoln cartoons. When the news reached London, the consequences were drastic, at the Punch table, too. If we are looking for milestones in British-American relations, we probably have one here. But that is a tale for another time. Page [End Page 21]
Research for this article was supported by a grant from the American Philosophical Society. I am indebted to Walter L. Arnstein of the University of Illinois and Anthony S. Wohl of Vassar College for helpful comments.
- Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln in Text and Context: Collected Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 91.
- See William Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiricies (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983).
- The most useful works on Punch are M. H. Spielmann, The History of "Punch" (London: Cassell, 1895); R. G. G. Price, A History of Punch (London: Collins, 1957); Arthur A. Adrian, Mark Lemon: First Editor of Punch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966); Richard Altick's various works; and the special issue of Journal of Newspaper and Periodic History 7 (1991).
- As if to prove the historic popularity of Punch, all but the last two quotations come from The Oxford Minidictionary of Quotations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 279–80.
- For Tenniel especially, see Frankie Morris, "John Tenniel, Cartoonist: A Critical and Sociocultural Study in the Art of the Victorian Political Cartoon," Ph.D. diss., University of Missouri, Columbia, 1985; Rodney Enger, Sir John Tenniel: Alice's White Knight (Aldershot, Eng.: Scholar Press, 1991).
- William Howard Russell, My Diary: North and South, ed. Eugene H. Berwanger (New York: Knopf, 1988), 324–25.
- William S. Walsh, Abraham Lincoln and the London Punch: Cartoons, Comments and Poems, Published in the London Charivari, During the American Civil War, 1861–1865 (New York: Moffat, 1909), 14.
- Albert Shaw, Abraham Lincoln: His Path to the Presidency, a Cartoon History (New York: Review of Reviews, 1929); Shaw, Abraham Lincoln: The Year of His Election, a Cartoon History (New York: Review of Reviews, 1929).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Lincoln in Caricature: 165 Poster Cartoons and Drawings for the Press (Elmira: Primavera, 1945); Wilson, A Historical Collection with Descriptive and Biographical Commentaries (New York: Horizon, 1953), 308.
- Harold Holzer, Gabor S. Boritt, and Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print (New York: Scribners, 1984).
- Oscar Maurer, "'Punch' on Slavery and the Civil War in America, 1841–1865," Victorian Studies (1957): 5–28; Mary Jane Means, "The American Civil War through the Eyes of 'Punch': A Stylistic Analysis of Cartoons," Pennsylvania Speech Communication Annual 40 (1984): 43–56.
- Howard Lessoff, comp. and ed., The Civil War with "Punch" (Wendell, N.C.: Broadfoot, 1984).
- Mark E. Neely, Jr., "The Lincoln Theme since Randall's Call: The Promises and Perils of Professionalism," Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association 1 (1979): 10, quoting J. G. Randall, "Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?" American Historical Review 61 (1936): 270.
- Punch, April 8, 1865, 144–45.
- Spielmann, History of "Punch," 525–26.
- Punch, Feb. 1, 1862, 45.
- Jan. 22, 1862, entry, Henry Silver Diary, Punch Library, London.
- Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901), series 1, 12: 416–25, 510–15.
- New York Herald, Dec. 31, 1861. The newspaper also carried a map of the obstructed harbor.
- Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (New York: Knopf, 1991).
- The Times [London], Dec. 31, 1862.
- Quotation from Ephraim Douglass Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War, 2 vols. (New York: Longmans, 1925), 1: 255.
- Official Records ... Navies, 12: 423.
- The Times, Jan. 11, 1862.
- Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War, 253–58, still provides the best, although not altogether accurate, picture of the "stone fleet" in Charleston Harbor.
- Punch, Feb. 1, 1862, 44.
- Tom Taylor, Our American Cousin, ed. Welford Dunaway Taylor (Washington: Beacham, 1990).