The Magazine

Monumental Battles

Why we build memorials.

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By DIANA SCHAUB
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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. 

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