Old Abe at the Bar

On this day 150 years ago, the British humor magazine Punch published the above cartoon, by John Tenniel.

President Lincoln appears as a slick, devious bartender in this cartoon from the summer of 1862. Attired in a showman’s striped suit and star-spangled vest, he flashes a sardonic grin as he deftly pours a volatile mixture (tagged “New York Press”) back and forth between a glass labeled “Victory” in his right hand and another labeled “Defeat” in his left, until it is impossible to distinguish the contents of one from the other. The bar is well-stocked with bottles of “Bunkum” (lies), “Bosh” (nonsense), “Brag” (boasting), “Soft Sawder” (flattery), and “Treacle” (cheap, sweet syrup). An accompanying verse, titled “Old Abe at the Bar (of Public Opinion),” scorns American fondness for mixed drinks and sweetened cocktails, in contrast to the honest Englishman’s taste for unadulterated beer and ale. Americans, it seems, are unable to take either their liquor or their bad news straight: they can only swallow their “hard stuff” either watered down or sweetened up.
Politically-minded Londoners had ready access to copies of the New York newspapers (including the despised New York Herald, a copy of which lies abandoned on the countertop of Lincoln’s bar), usually within two or three weeks of publication. Tenniel, like many of his readers, held the American press in low esteem, frequently questioning the truthfulness of its news reporting, and reacting with indignation at editorials critical of British institutions or foreign policy. Sometimes the London press reprinted the most inflammatory excerpts from Northern papers (international copyright was seldom observed for ephemera such as newspapers), and followed these up with responses that were as likely to dwell condescendingly on perceived deficiencies of American vocabulary and writing style as they were to provide substantive rebuttal of content.


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