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William A. Beers (New Haven, Conn.)
Go to Beers' National Photograph Gallery
Carte de visite
Private collection of Ron Coddington
Apologies from Candidate Lincoln
On March 6, 1860, just eight days after his memorable Cooper Union speech in New York City, Republican Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln stood before the citizenry of New Haven, Conn. He gave a speech about slavery that mentioned the word 55 times.
Also included was this passage that referenced economic freedom in context to his “Rail Splitter” image: “When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life. I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat — just what might happen to any poor man's son! [Applause.] I want every man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition — when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.”
About a week later, he wrote an apology to the photographer pictured here, William A. Beers, and his business partner, Sereno Mansfield. Lincoln’s note tells the full story:
To Beers & Mansfield
March 14, 1860
Mess. Beers And Mansfield.
Gentlemen: Your request to take a photographic likeness of me, while in your city, was duly received; but at a time when my arrangements were so made that I could not call upon you before leaving. I would have written sooner, but the matter passed out of my mind; and is now recalled by the sight of your note. I beg you will believe me guilty of no intentional disrespect. Very Respectfully,
Oh, the what ifs! If Lincoln had rearranged his schedule and complied, or if Beers and Mansfield had sent the note earlier, we might have had another image of Lincoln perhaps comparable to the celebrated Cooper Union portrait by Mathew B. Brady.
Beers and Mansfield eventually parted ways. Mansfield left photography and established a stationery business in Philadelphia. Beers continued to practice his chosen profession until about 1903. By 1911, he lived in squalor in New Haven when brother Masons came to his aid. He died in 1913 at about age 77. Mansfield died four years later.
Beers was about 25 when the Civil War began. His name does not appear on any military service records. Also of note is the 1850 date printed on the mount of this carte. Beers was about 14 in 1850, seemingly too young to have been working. According to the 1887 History of the City of New Haven to the Present Time, Beers first became involved with photography about 1852-1853.
(Text provided by Rod Coddington, 22 April 2020)