lincoln portrait Young Lincoln portrait

by Edward J. Kempf, M.D. Wading River, N.Y.

Enigmatical Expression

The right side of Lincoln's face was animated and emotionally expressive, whereas the left side functioned more weakly, looked duller, and was out of harmony. The meaning of the duality and changes in his facial expression baffled everyone. Strangers, who estimated the man by his dull, perplexed face and sad, tired eyes, were always astonished at the quick change of his expression to alertness when he became interested in their conversation and wanted to make some contribution to it. Many strangers, including lawyers, generals, and members of his cabinet, upon first acquaintance, thought themselves superior to this ugly, dull, sad, weak-looking man, only to find themselves amazed and mastered by the ready wit, common sense, logical intelligence, and strength of character that became evident upon his being required to look out for himself.

As his law partner from 1843 to 1861, Herndon was no doubt the most frequent, intimate, and interested observer of Lincoln's personality and physical constitution day after day. He {10} has stated that Lincoln's most marked and persistent characteristic was a predisposition to become melancholy or sad and depressed. This attitude showed in his facial expression when he was sitting alone or when he was in a group and not taking an active interest in the conversation. Many other intimate friends of Lincoln were similarly impressed, as recorded in various biographies. Some of his friends thought, because of the muddy, leathery condition of his skin, that this facial lapse was due to indigestion and insufficient secretion of bile.

Herndon imagined that the morbidity was caused by some “occult” condition, which could not be explained by observation or reasoning. It was “ingrained,” he said {2} and “could not be reduced to rules or the cause assigned . . . It was necessarily hereditary . . . It was a part of his nature and could no more be shaken off than he could part with his brains. Simple in carriage or bearing, free from pomp or display, serious, unaffected, Lincoln was a sad looking man whose melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” Herndon observed that “the look of sadness was more or less accentuated by a peculiarity of one eye (left), the pupil of which had a tendency to turn or roll slightly toward the upper lid, whereas the other one maintained its normal position equidistant between the upper and the lower lids.” He also noticed that the tip of Lincoln’s nose and his mouth turned toward the right. “Mr. Lincoln was a peculiar, mysterious man-had a double consciousness, a double life. The two states, never in the normal man, co-exist in equal and vigorous activities though they succeed each other quickly. One state predominates and, while it so rules, the other state is somewhat quiescent, shadowy, yet living, a real thing. This is the sole reason why Mr. Lincoln so quickly, passed from one state of consciousness to another and different state” (letter from Herndon to J. Weik, Feb. 2, 1891, Hertz{2}).

Josiah Crawford (Herndon and Weik {10}) remembered that as Lincoln became occupied with reading, his lower lip stuck out. This, he thought, was only a lifelong “habit.” Actually, as his mask (1860) and photographs show, the right half of the lower lip always protruded more than the left half and was pulled with the other muscles of the mouth slightly to the right side. When he was reading quietly or thinking actively, the degree of dominance in neuromuscular activity of the right side of his face tended generally to increase. When he was mentally inattentive, the lack of nervous stimulation tended to let the right side of his face decrease in activity faster than the relatively hypotonic left side, giving his expression a perplexed quality, which was misunderstood by those who would read his face.

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