In the midst of the current controversies over the Martin Luther King and Dwight Eisenhower memorials in Washington, it’s worth examining the human impulse toward memorialization, so that we can appreciate what is at stake in the inevitable battles—aesthetic and moral—over the shapes our collective memory will take. The best guide for this inquiry, to my mind, is Frederick Douglass, the great 19th-century abolitionist and agitator, who for all his radicalism was also, in key respects, profoundly conservative.

After the Civil War, and even as he campaigned for expanded rights for blacks and women, Douglass devoted great efforts to remembrance of things past. He was a master of the eulogy and the anniversary address. The most important of these performances was his 1876 “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” delivered at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, one mile due east of the U.S. Capitol. This was one of the very first statues of Lincoln to be unveiled, and it bears the further distinction of having been paid for with money donated by newly freed slaves. Although there was a separate attempt by Congress to commission a national memorial to Lincoln, that effort took almost half a century to come to fruition.

Douglass often began his com-memorative addresses by reflecting on the significance of the act of commemoration. In a typical passage, he said that the desire to erect monuments

is native to the human heart, and among the holiest of all. It is composed of two elements, pious gratitude on the one hand, and an earnest desire to perpetuate illustrious examples of “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are of good report” [Phil. 4:8] and to make them the property of posterity.

According to Douglass, what moves us is the twofold motive of gratitude and perpetuation. Memorialization is an act in the present that expresses our debt to the past and our gift to the future. In acknowledging the nation’s ancestral benefactors, we enshrine examples that can be emulated by generations to come. Thus, memorialization accomplishes the task of cultural transmission.

Douglass pointed out that this faculty is unique to human beings and calls it “the highest attribute of man’s nature.” Other “creatures of earth” possess minds, but only humans are capable of re-minding by translating our “subjective consciousness” into “objective form.”

Of course, the use of this sublime faculty is not always welcome or wise. As he said, “tyrants and oppressors .  .  . who .  .  . rode to high places upon the necks of fallen millions .  .  . have their monuments” (usually erected at their own instigation). The last two decades have seen hundreds of objectifications of Lenin and Stalin and Saddam Hussein and now Qaddafi toppled and dragged and dismembered. While the desecration of the human body, living or dead, is always wrong, the same can’t be said of the demolition of a statue. The monuments of tyranny deserve their ignominious fate. (Even the Lenin statue rescued from a scrapyard in Slovakia by an enterprising American and now erected in Seattle has become the favored target of pranksters, protesters, and performance artists.)

In an interesting speech from 1861, early in the Civil War, entitled “Pictures and Progress,” Douglass described how this expressive faculty, which he called the “picture making faculty,” becomes a battleground of “contending interests and forces.” He testified to the power of the imagination for both good and evil; as he said, “the master we obey in making our subjective nature objective, giving it form, color, space, action and utterance, is the all important thing. .  .  . [I]t will either lift us .  .  . or sink us.” According to Douglass, our civic life is decisively shaped by “symbols and songs.” It matters who and what and how we memorialize.

The Freedmen’s Monument was dedicated on Good Friday on the eleventh anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Speaking before a racially mixed crowd of 25,000 which included President Grant and numerous members of the Supreme Court and Congress, Douglass made clear that he thought Lincoln worthy of honor, and worthy of honor in particular from blacks, for the act of emancipation. However, he also had serious reservations about the execution of the monument—reservations that were shared by others at the time and have only become more pronounced since. The sculpture by Thomas Ball depicts Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation in one hand, extending his other hand over the crouching figure of a nearly naked black slave. Douglass was reported to have departed from his written text to criticize the slave’s submissive posture, remarking that “a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”

There had been an alternative design by the female sculptor Harriet Hosmer, which was rejected as too costly. It would have depicted Lincoln atop a central pillar, flanked by smaller pillars showing, among other figures, black Union soldiers. Douglass would doubtless have preferred this concept, embodying as it did the central role of Lincoln in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, while crediting as well the cause and consequence of that act, namely the military necessity to deprive the rebellion of the labor of the slaves and instead enlist the freedmen on the Union side.

As Douglass had insistently argued for more than a year before the issuance of the proclamation: “We are striking with our white hand, while our black one is chained behind us.” Douglass rightly wished that the monument had conveyed less paternalism and more of the reciprocal heroism involved in Lincoln’s unchaining of the sable arm.

As the featured speaker at the dedication of a statue with which he was dissatisfied, Douglass brilliantly and subtly corrected certain implications of the monument. Without lessening the heartfelt gratitude toward Lincoln, Douglass supplied the missing element of black dignity and equality. Two decades later, the more manly spirit of freedom would be given sculptural form by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in his Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, and Ed Hamilton would capture it again a century later in his African-American Civil War Memorial erected at 10th and U Streets in Washington in 1997.

What do we learn from our two Lincoln memorials? The theme of the first is emancipation; the theme of the second, the national Lincoln Memorial that anchors the Mall in Washington, is union. This is explicit in the inscription, which reads: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” The theme of union is symbolically present also. There is a peristyle of 36 Doric columns, representing the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death, and the states are named in the frieze that wraps the building. Above that frieze is another, naming the 48 states that made up the Union at the time of the monument’s construction. Thus, the point is made that Lincoln’s saving the Union gave rise to its subsequent growth and flourishing. Also present throughout are images of the eagle and the Roman fasces, traditional symbols of sovereign authority. On one interior wall is incised the text of the Gettysburg Address, the great rallying speech for the cause of union, on the other the text of the Second Inaugural, laying the foundation for the restoration of brotherly union between north and south.

In an odd twist, reflecting I think the difference between successful and unsuccessful memorialization, the Freedmen’s Monument lost its audience over time. Although early on it was the site of annual parades and programs celebrating emancipation, those observances tapered off in the 20th century. Because of discomfort with its representation of race relations, the statue never became a site to which hopes or demands for racial advance could attach themselves. The Freedmen’s Monument spoke to the past as an expression of gratitude, but not to the future as a model for emulation.

The Lincoln Memorial, meanwhile, has gained “audience share.” Although designed to celebrate the union of the states, it has acquired a strong connection with racial union as well.

At the dedication ceremony in 1922, the keynote address was given by a noted African-American leader, Robert Moton, who succeeded Booker T. Washington at the helm of the Tuskegee Institute. Despite that honor, Moton was seated in the segregated black section rather than on the speakers’ platform with Chief Justice Taft, President Harding, and other dignitaries. Moreover, the planning commission vetted Moton’s speech, insisting that he not link his theme of the Negro’s debt to Lincoln with a call for the nation to acknowledge its unpaid debt to the Negro. The censoring of Moton led to calls in the black press for a boycott of the memorial until it could be more fittingly dedicated.

One could argue that a truer dedication occurred on Easter Sunday 1939, when Marian Anderson began her open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” after she’d been denied permission to sing in Constitution Hall. Finally, in 1963, Martin Luther King returned to Moton’s original idea, summoning the nation to make good on its promissory note of freedom and justice for all Americans.

Whatever reservations one might have about the new King monument, it seems right that it is situated on the line of sight between the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, since King drew on both the Declaration’s assertion of human equality with respect to rights and the beginning of the vindication of that commitment in the statesmanship of Lincoln.

Worth remembering, too, is that there was serious opposition to the design of the Lincoln Memorial. Leading architects and critics of the day, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis Mumford, were appalled. Many thought something more humble would have been more in keeping with the beloved folksy figure of Honest Abe. They made the case for a log cabin shrine. Perhaps they had a point; the log cabin bespeaks greatness by evoking the distance between Lincoln’s origins and his accomplishments and so suggesting democracy’s possibilities.

Nonetheless, it would be hard to imagine such a modest monument inspiring the nation as the Lincoln Memorial undoubtedly has, with its solemnity and grandeur. In Lincoln’s first great speech, his Lyceum Address, he called for a political religion—a temple of liberty upheld by pillars hewn from the rock of reason. We can be grateful that the memorial took the form it did, with Lincoln on the judgment seat superintending the destiny of the Republic.

Diana Schaub is professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society. She is the co-editor (with Amy and Leon Kass) of What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song.

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