How Mathew Brady May Have Helped Abraham Lincoln Get Elected

The innovative 19th century photographer Mathew Brady, known for his portraits and Civil War pictures, might have made an impact on more than just the media industry. In fact, the 16th president of the United States might owe him a debt of gratitude.

Brady photographed many individuals, including writer Edgar Allan Poe and President Andrew Jackson. According to the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, he published a book with 12 portraits, The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, trying to capture the images of the age's historically important people. The volume sold for $15 — about $400 now, according to American Battlefield Trust.

One of Brady's larger-than-life subjects was Abraham Lincoln, and some surmise that this particular portrait may have even gotten the statuesque man who ended slavery elected. Before Brady, Lincoln had little street cred. He was rustic, literally born in a log cabin, rural — hardly the politico poster boy of the 1800s. According to Smithsonian magazine, "It was a salted-paper print of Abraham Lincoln, taken on Feb. 27, 1860, the day Lincoln addressed a large Republican audience in the lecture hall at Cooper Union in New York, that may have had a significant impact on American history." 

The future president and the photographer

The photo showed Lincoln clean shaven, wearing an elegant suit with a high collar that hid the length of his long neck. The image of Lincoln as a sophisticate appeared in all sorts of publications, including Harper's Weekly, and was used as the cover of the published version of that speech. As Harold Holzer wrote in Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, "Looking at the original photography today, it is not at all difficult to understand why it inspired so many copies in so many media. Brady succeeded in making Lincoln look dignified, resolute, and powerful, all at the same time." 

Brady became a favorite photographer of Lincoln's and would take other photos of him, including those that are the basis for his image on the $5 bill and the penny coin. It was Brady whom Secretary of War Edwin Stanton asked to record the aftermath of the President Lincoln's assassination.

Mathew Brady ended up photographing 19 presidents, from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley (presidents 6 through 25), according to Mental Floss, with the exception of President William Henry Harrison (#9), who died after just serving one month of his term.