The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.
The Lincoln Memorial was one outcome of the 1901 Senate Park Commission, which sought to reimagine Washington D.C.’s National Mall as a grand display of neoclassical architecture. Through taking classical European architectural themes (white marble, open-air porticos, and pillars) as their prototype, these designers and architects were attempting to evoke an idealistic image of ancient Grecian social and political norms. Abraham Lincoln was seen by many in the early 20th century to be the quintessential American embodiment of these principles. “As early as the 1880s, memories of the terrible Civil War had begun to shed their goriness and particularly to assume the form of a national epic,” and within this epic, there was no hero larger than Lincoln. As such, the members of the Senate Park Commission drafted a series of potential memorials to the 16th U.S. President in the first decade of the 20th century. It was not though until 1911, when a sufficient amount of bipartisan agreement was attained, that the plan was able to take off in earnest.
Under President William Howard Taft, a Lincoln Memorial Commission was established, and it swiftly commissioned architect Henry Bacon to head the project. Born in 1866, Bacon was already well known for his Greek Revivalist style, demonstrated by his work on the 1889 Paris World Expo, the Boston Public Library, New York’s Pennsylvania Station, and so on. Taking the ancient Athenian Parthenon as his main inspiration, Bacon drafted a “temple-like hall,” closed by thirty-eight Doric columns, within which a large statue of Lincoln and engravings of both his Gettysburg Address and second inaugural address would be held. The marble for the monument was transported all the way from Colorado’s stone quarries and, once this difficult process had commenced, building was able to begin in the spring of 1914. When the dust settled on the construction site in 1918, the price of the project rang in at over $2,000,000.
Immediately, the site became an enduring testament to the large role an individual devoted to the common good and public service can achieve. However, at the same time, it became clear that Lincoln’s memorialization could not ensure that all of his ideals would too be cast in stone. Despite the steps Lincoln took toward American racial equality throughout the Civil War period, President Harding took the memorial’s dedication ceremony as a chance to eerily assert that “the supreme chapter in American history is [union,] not emancipation” (the granting of previously enslaved African Americans full and equal citizenship rights).
Unsurprisingly then, the twentieth century would see the memorial become a vivid site of political contestation. Civil rights activists in the late 1930s, relying on Lincoln’s generally-accepted status as a promoter of democratic ideals and liberal equality, began to imagine the memorial as a fitting space within which to amplify the continued fight for racial and economic justice. In 1939 the memorial, for the first time, became the center of a mass civil rights demonstration after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to book the African-American opera singer Marian Anderson for a performance at Constitution Hall in Washington. Organizations like the NAACP saw incidents like this one as means to expose the significant “dissonance between the ideals Lincoln represented...and the reality of their lived experience,” as the abuses of American segregation continued.
By the 1960s, these tensions were still glaringly apparent. As Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech from the steps of the memorial in August of 1963, these words from Lincoln’s second inaugural address stood, engraved, above him: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” However, as Dr. King revealed, the forms of slavery that Lincoln had worked to do away with, had simply been transformed in the context of Jim Crow segregation, not eradicated. “One hundred years later,” he explains “the life of the Negro is still sadly cripped by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Nearly sixty years after Dr. King’s speech, protestors have again taken to the site to express continued inequality in the United States in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.
A key tenant of public service is to render the public sphere more equitable and accessible to all. Lincoln’s legacy, embodied in the Lincoln Memorial, allows us to consider and to debate over the ways in which various public servants have historically contributed to this project, while also reminding us that there is always more work to be done.
Thomas, Christopher A. "The Marble of the Lincoln Memorial: "Whitest, Prettiest, and ... Best"." Washington History 5, no. 2 (1993): 42-63. Accessed February 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40073208.
Schwartz, Barry. "Collective Memory and History: How Abraham Lincoln Became a Symbol of Racial Equality." The Sociological Quarterly 38, no. 3 (1997): 469-96. Accessed February 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4121155.
Sandage, Scott A. “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963.” The Journal of American History, vol. 80, no. 1, 1993, pp. 135–167. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2079700. Accessed 5 Feb. 2021.
Eberly, Keith R. ""To Thee We Sing": Racial Politics and the Lincoln Memorial." OAH Magazine of History 23, no. 1 (2009): 55-58. Accessed February 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org.oca.ucsc.edu/stable/25164895.
“‘I Have A Dream’ Speech, In Its Entirety.” NPR, January 18, 2010, https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety.
Nichols, Mackenzie. “Protestors Gather on Lincoln Memorial Steps to Support Black Lives Matter.” Variety Magazine, June 6th, 2020, https://variety.com/2020/scene/news/lincoln-memorial-protest-black-lives-matter-george-floyd-1234626998/.
Lincoln Memorial: The Story and Design of an American Monument by Jay Sacher
The Lincoln Memorial and American Life by Christopher Thomas
Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory by Barry Schwartz
Lincoln and the Radicals by T. Harry Williams