Only three other similar, but variant, images are known of this event. (one in The Thomas Walther collection, one in the Library of Congress and the other in the photo collection of the Architect of the Capital), which is the first presidential inauguration and event to be documented by photography. One of the other images (Architect of the Capital) is said to be in very poor condition (barely visible).
At his inauguration in March 4, 1857, James Buchanan wasted little time clarifying his stand on the all-important slavery issue. Speaking to a crowd enjoying 1,200 gallons of ice cream furnished for the occasion, he declared slavery a matter for individual states and the Constitution to decide. The new president said, "It is the imperative and indispensable duty of the government of the United States to secure to every resident inhabitant the free and independent expression of his opinion by his vote. This sacred right of each individual must be preserved. That being accomplished, nothing can be fairer than to leave the people of a territory free from all foreign interference to decide their own destiny for themselves, subject only to the Constitution of the United States."
Two days later, the United States Supreme Court rendered its decision in the case of a slave named Dred Scott. Scott's owner had taken him to what is now the upper Midwest, an area where the Missouri Compromise of 1820 forbade slavery. Scott claimed that his residence in a "free" state made him a free man. The Court--comprised of five Southerners--saw matters otherwise. They claimed that the Constitution did not recognize slaves as citizens of the United States, and they thus had "no rights which any white man was bound to respect," including the right to sue for their freedom in a federal court. A slave, they claimed, was property and nothing more, with no more rights than a horse or a chair. As property, their ownership was protected and guaranteed by the Constitution. Since Scott had been a slave in Missouri, his escape to Illinois could not affect his status as a slave. And Illinois could not emancipate him, because no state could deprive a slave holder of property without violating "due process of law," and therefore violating the Constitution. Thus the Court refused to hear Scott's case. It then stated its non-binding opinion that the Missouri Compromise had been unconstitutional and that slavery could not be banned in the new territories or new states.
The Court's decision on this case was influenced by Buchanan, who wrote letters to directly lobby and influence the outcome. The court tipped Buchanan off that it was about to decide in favor of the South, and Buchanan in turn put a clause in his inaugural address declaring that the Supreme Court was about to decide, and urging "all good citizens" to obey the ruling that was to come. Thus Buchanan would be implicated in the decision, and would be vilified by those opposed to it.
The Library of Congress claims that this image is by John Wood, who was the photographer for the Architect of the Capitol from 1856 to 1861. He then entered the Civil War as a photographer of maps for General McClellan. More information on Wood and these photographs is available on the Library of Congress site.
It was known that Woods experimented to increase the sensitivity of the collodion wet plates to get more definition in the crowds.
Provenance: From the Col. John R. Johnston album. Johnston was a colorist and painter for the Jessie Whitehurst studios in the mid to late 1850s. He was also a performer and a singer. Because his collection of images has a number of performers/actors in it, it is possible that some were acquaintances of Johnston's, whom he shared billings with. It is possible that he also practiced photography himself as an amateur and an aid to his portrait and landscape work. The family originally lived in Cincinnati and then moved to Baltimore around 1855-56. The album was put together during the mid to late 1850s.
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Medium Salt print from wet plate negative
Mount on original mount
Photo Date 1857 Print Date 1857
Dimensions 8-11/16 x 11-3/8 in. (221 x 289 mm)
Photo Country United States (USA)
Photographer Country United States (USA)
Contemporary Works / Vintage Works, Ltd.