13 September 2009

Even The Government Gets History Wrong: Presidential Photographs

I happened to be at WhiteHouse.gov, and was scanning the History page. Near the bottom, I read that "President James Polk (1845-49) was the first President to have his photograph taken."

I thought to myself, Now that can't be right.

I know I've seen photographs of earlier Presidents.

The website JamesPolk.com says, "James K. Polk was not the first President to be photographed - William Henry Harrison gets that distinction..."

I found the picture of President Polk (one of my least favorite Presidents).

I mean, who conquers Mexico, then gives it back?

The above daguerreotype is from the collections of the Library of Congress, and was taken in February of 1849 by Matthew Brady, who would later become famous for photographing less pleasant aspects of the Civil War.

1849 is admittedly very early for photography in America, but it wasn't the beginning.

I know that George Washington never lived to see photography, so there are no photographs of him.

John Adams nearly lasted to the infancy of photography, but he and Jefferson died on the same July 4th day in 1826; daguerreotypes weren't patented until around 1837.

Poor short Madison (I would have probably liked him) died even before the aforementioned two: 1817. Next was James Monroe, but he too died well before the age of photography. The President of whom I was certain had sat for one or more actual pictures was John Quincy Adams. Like all other Adams (well, not his drunken brother Charles), he lived a long life.

Sure enough, around 1843, John Quincy sat for a photo-op.

John Quincy Adams, Sixth President

This picture can date earlier, but no later than 1848, because that's when he died.

William Henry Harrison served for one month before dying of pneumonia in 1841 (Note: Don't give verbose speeches in the rain). Therefore, this picture must date prior to his death.

Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So we have learned that the earliest President to sit for a photograph was John Quincy Adams (#6), and the first President to be featured in a photograph was possibly also Adams, but probably Harrison (#9).

Another photograph of John Quincy. The Wikipedia entry says this negative was created around 1855. Um, he was dead by then. And I don't know that daguerreotypes had negatives since they ARE negatives.

Perhaps James Polk was the first sitting President to have his photograph taken, though it would appear that Harrison holds that distinction as well.

I think WhiteHouse.gov should take a second to clarify that little issue.

I found a daguerreotype of Lincoln before he was President, dated 1846, taken by Nicholas H. Shepard.

Still earlier than Polk.


  1. There is no extant WHH daguerreotype. It was lost to posterity. The photo you display is a painting..yes look closely. I too wish there was one. Also Madison died June 28th 1836 not 1817. The 2nd JQA is also a lithograph and not a photo. India ink I believe. Tyler had a daguerreotype taken while President and I've seen embellished representations of it, but not the actual dgtype. All for now..the topic fascinates me...d.hardiman@comcast.net

  2. Polk has the distinction of sitting for the first daguerreotype ever taken of a President INSIDE the White House - do you think that's what they meant? There is a daguerreotype still existing of Polk sitting with his cabinet in the White House, and that is the first ever inside White House walls.

    And I don't know why Polk ranks as one of your least favorite presidents - he's one of the few to set up a list of objectives and actually accomplish everything during his term! He didn't "give Mexico back" - he took half of it first in a peace treaty. The US expansion during his four years is legendary and he worked very hard, often doing menial tasks other presidents would leave to subordinates.

  3. Serious mistake in the above ...

    "Poor short Madison (I would have probably liked him) died even before the aforementioned two: 1817"

    Here's is what actually happened: Adams and Jefferson died July 4, 1826. Five years later to the day James Monroe died July 4, 1831. James Madison died 5 years later almost to the day on June 28, 1836. He just missed being photographed by about two years.

    The mysterious thing is that the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th Presidents nearly all died on a major anniversary of the Declaration Of Independence. I wonder if they were trying?

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  6. I learned that the 1841 photograph of William Henry Harrison was actually an oil panting portrait of the sitting US president on his inauguration day. So the actual real-life photo of Harrison doesn't really exist or that it was lost.