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Monumental Battles

Why we build memorials.

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