What does it really mean to look presidential?

By intern Anali Alegria
Black and white illustration of Abraham Lincoln (bust)

As November 8 draws nearer, I have been thinking about what "electability" means for an American president. What makes someone look presidential, and how does the presidency change the look of the president? How can teachers help their students consider the nature of the American presidency this fall and throughout history? With this I mind, I considered the life, presidency, and changing appearance of Abraham Lincoln.

Illustrated portrait (a bust) of Abraham Lincoln

During the election of 1860, Lincoln was praised for looking presidential. After Lincoln was photographed by Mathew Brady during his speech at the Cooper Institute in Manhattan, New York, Harper's Weekly made the photograph into a full-page portrait of Lincoln, who would soon receive his party's nomination. Lincoln was portrayed with a regal high collar, his hair smoothed and his features subtly refined. This "presidential" portrayal was so successful that Lincoln later said, "Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president."

In the spring of 1860, just before Lincoln was named the Republican nominee for president, Leonard Volk created a plaster cast of his face. Years later, John Hay, one of Lincoln's White House secretaries, commented that the cast shows, "a man of fifty-one, and young for his years. . . . It is a face full of life, of energy, of vivid aspiration."

But this image of Lincoln—of an intelligent and confident leader—only really reflects Lincoln as a candidate. Five years later, after becoming president and leading the Union though four years of the Civil War, Clark Mills created another cast of Lincoln's face. In the second cast, Lincoln looks drastically different. His full beard seems to cover a face that is far more gaunt. The bags under his eyes have become more pronounced, and the wrinkles on his forehead seem to indicate a permanently furrowed brow. As John Hay observed, his face is "so sad and peaceful in its infinite repose . . . a look as of one on whom sorrow and care had done their worst without victory is on all the features." The youthful energy and optimism that had once made Lincoln look "presidential" is no longer there.

two masks of Lincoln. The bottom masks shows how much aging the President underwent in a few years, with wrinkles, hollow cheeks, and other signs of aging

These two masks, snapshots of the beginning and the end of Lincoln's presidency, offer an amazing opportunity to think about the role of the president and the challenges that a president must face. Using Smithsonian's X 3D website you can view the life masks side-by-side in 3D as you explore these topics in class and have students consider the challenges of the Civil War and the difficult decisions that Lincoln faced while in office.

President Barack Obama's transformation over the past eight years offers similar opportunities for discussion of the role of the president. At the 2016 White House Correspondents' Dinner, Obama joked, "Eight years ago I was a young man, full of idealism and vigor . . . and look at me now! I am gray and grizzled…" His comments produced a chuckle from the crowd—they were funny because they are all too true.

two pictures of Obama juxtaposed against each other. He sits at his desk in the Oval Office listening to someone on the phone. In the left, he has dark hair. In the right, he has aged and his hair is gray.

What challenges do presidents face during their time in office? What difficult decisions do presidents have to consider while in office? And what exactly do presidents do each day that takes such a toll? This activity from the museum's exhibition The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden (a title well illustrated by these portraits) takes a day in the life of President Harry Truman to help elementary and middle-school kids consider the "glorious burden" of being the president of the United States.

After examining Lincoln's life masks, considering Obama as a contemporary example, and exploring the American Presidency interactive, students will better understand the role of the president—and how the office of the presidency changes what it means to "look presidential."

Anali Alegria is an intern in the Office of Education and Public Engagement. She is an undergraduate at Harvard University studying history. She recommends the museum's e-book The Mind Behind the Mask: 3D Technology and the Portrayal of Abraham Lincolnto learn more and find related activities.