A few years ago in Washington, D.C., outside the landmark cottage on North Capitol Street NW where President Abraham Lincoln once worked on drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, passers-by stared in wonderment as tour buses pulled to the curb and disgorged 50 or so men clad in black frock coats and stovepipe hats, most of them sporting scraggly chin beards. They were members of a national association of Abraham Lincoln impersonators, in town for a convention, and they’d decided to tour some of the historic places where the subject of their mimicry had lived and worked. Theirs was no casual fascination. One Lincoln double, an insurance agent from Louisville, told the Washington Post that he had spent $2,600 on a suit of clothes custom-tailored to replicate those worn by Lincoln, including a stovepipe hat fashioned from beaver skin, and had meticulously glued the tip of a pencil eraser on his cheek to simulate Lincoln’s familiar facial blemish. Pretending to be Lincoln, he explained, was “a full-time, life passion.”
That people go to such elaborate lengths to resemble Lincoln is just one sign of the 16th President’s enduring appeal, nearly a century and a half after his death. George Washington came first, John F. Kennedy was more dashingly handsome, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who guided the nation out of the Great Depression and with America’s allies, vanquished the Axis powers in a world war, arguably garnered just as impressive achievements. But when it comes to being a pop culture superstar, Abraham Lincoln is, well, the Elvis of American Presidents.
It’s not just that Lincoln is widely perceived by Americans as perhaps the greatest President in history—he’s consistently ranked either first or second in polls conducted by Gallup since 1999. (Washington, in comparison, has had difficulty cracking the top five on the list.) He’s also a multimedia sensation who continues to garner a degree of exposure that many celebrities could only dream about.
“Lincoln is an American brand every bit as recognizable as Mickey Mouse or the Golden Arches,” Bradley University sociologist Jackie Hogan, author of the 2012 book Lincoln, Inc.: Selling the Sixteenth President in Contemporary America, explained recently to an interviewer.
Prime evidence: Lincoln, who was born 182 years before the Web was invented, but put his full name in quotes, and he still manages to garner an astonishing 40.6 million hits on Google. An estimated 15,000 books have been written about him. (“To put that in perspective, if you were somehow able to read one Lincoln book per day—a daunting task given that many of them top seven hundred pages—it would take you roughly forty years to reach the end of your Lincoln library,” writes Hogan. ) Additionally, he’s been featured as a character in than 300 movies and TV programs, more than fictional heroes such as Batman, Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. In 2012 alone, Lincoln starred on the screen in flicks ranging from director Steven Spielberg’s high-minded docudrama Lincoln, which has garnered nearly $155 million in box-office and 12 Oscar nominations, to Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, a low-budget straight-to-DVD horror flick that imagines the Great Emancipator wielding an ax to battle hordes of Confederate undead.
Indeed, there are listings for close to 70,000 Lincoln-themed products available on the Web—posters, mouse pads, commemorative coins, couch pillows emblazoned with Lincoln quotes, coffee mugs depicting the President with his dog, Fido, even “Abe Lincoln is my Homeboy” t-shirts. A robotic Lincoln, whose facial expressions are created by 16 different miniaturized motors, continues to be one of Disneyland’s biggest attractions. His name and likeness has been used to sell everything from insurance and luxury cars to pest-control services. There’s even plumbing company in Baltimore whose trucks is emblazoned with a logo depicting a brawny, t-shirt-clad Lincoln wielding a drain plunger.
Lincoln’s pop culture superstardom isn’t a new phenomenon. In his own time, Lincoln’s compelling personal story—his rise from impoverished, self-educated frontiersman to the holder of nation’s highest office—and homespun, rough-hewn ambiance may have helped many ordinary Americans to identify with him in a way that they didn’t with higher-born politicians. Additionally, Lincoln’s muscular decisiveness as President—he didn’t hesitate to use force to preserve the Union, even at the expense of suppressing northern Confederate sympathizers’ civil liberties—helped forge an image of a tough president.
“People (thought), ‘We really need a man of action to lift us out of the doldrums,’” DePaul University Lincoln expert Mark Pohlad recently explained to the Chicago Tribune. “He was living in the most violent time our country has known.”
Lincoln also was the first politician to use photography to document and publicize his campaign and Presidency, and those images may have made his distinctive appearance resonate even more. And while he was a controversial, even polarizing figure during his Presidency, Lincoln’s assassination also helped to elevate him—as it John F. Kennedy’s murder also did-- as a national martyr. The train bearing his body home to Illinois took a 1,700-mile route so allowed ordinary mourners to pay their last respects, and as many as 1.3 million of them viewed his open casket.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lincoln’s iconic status was reinforced. Towns and counties were named after him, and states began to declare his birthday an official holiday. A growing trade in Lincoln memorabilia developed. One company, for example, offered photographic portraits of Lincoln, available for prices ranging from 50 cents to $5 for a photogravure image printed on India paper. A blood-stained sample of his hair was offered for sale for $600, and financier J. P. Morgan reportedly bid $50,000 for a copy of the Gettysburg address bearing Lincoln’s autograph. In the era before radio and record players became commonplace, sheet music publishers sold numerous compositions about Lincoln, ranging from lofty orchestral scores to minstrel songs. By the early 20th Century, Lincoln’s name was being utilized as a commercial brand. In 1905, for example, Lincoln’s son Robert granted permission to a financial services company to use his father’s name and image.
In the 20th Century, Hollywood also was quick to latch onto Lincoln and build up his image as a folk hero, with movies such as director John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), in which dashing, virile leading man Henry Fonda portrayed the future President as an earnest young storekeeper with dreams of greatness. In the decades that followed, TV actors such as Hal Holbrook and Sam Waterston helped to further craft Lincoln’s likeable image. And a 1990s revival of interest in the Civil War era, driven in part by Ken Burns’ much-watched documentary series on the conflict, may have helped to boost Lincoln’s visibility as well. On a less lofty level, Lincoln’s instantly recognizable profile and likability also made him a foil for humor. He shows up, for example, in the 1989 time-travel comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, delivering a parody of the Gettysburg address that concludes with the exhortation, “Party on, dudes!”
There are signs that Lincoln’s iconic influence will continue. He’s already resonating with a new generation, thanks to his appearance as a fearsome fighter in video games, and as a wrestler in TV commercials for the soft drink Mountain Dew. A popular YouTube video even depicts him as a rapper, having a lyrical showdown with a present-day pop culture phenom, martial arts movie and TV star Chuck Norris.