Not an Easy Sell: How the Lincoln Memorial Came About

Lincoln Memorial, the Parthenon-inspired tribute to Abraham Lincoln, has become a symbol of America's democratic beliefs and principles since its dedication in 1922, drawing millions of visitors each year.

But the massive marble and granite structure honoring Lincoln, who is often referred to as the "Great Emancipator," took nearly 60 years to open. Although many opposed its design, over the years the memorial became a powerful backdrop for the Civil Rights movement and is even the center of urban legends.

"It's been abused and used for all sorts of political activities and it’s sort of become an American backdrop," said prolific Lincoln historian Harold Holzer.

This is a big year for those interested in Lincoln's legacy. April 15 marks 150 years since Lincoln's assassination, and there are dozens of events planned in the Washington, D.C., area to commemorate the infamous day. On March 7, a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's second inauguration.

Opposition to a 'Meaningless' Temple

The efforts to construct a memorial for the 16th president of the United States originated in 1867. But it was not until 1913 that New York architect Henry Bacon was approved by Congress to design it.

Bacon thought a man who defended democracy deserved a temple modeled after the Greek Parthenon, a structure from the birthplace of democracy. Bacon's long-time collaborator, Daniel Chester French, was chosen as sculptor for the Lincoln statue.

Not everyone was impressed with the design, though.

The principal opponent was anticlassical sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who complained to then House Speaker Joe Cannon that the country was about to spend $2 million on a "meaningless temple of three thousand years ago," historian Richard Wightman Fox wrote in "Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History." The memorial ended up costing nearly $3 million.

According to Fox, renowned Chicago-based home designer George W. Maher thought the memorial should have "sculptured mono-liths" and "heroic bas-reliefs" depicting events in Lincoln's life.

"They wanted an 'American' monument," said Fox of the critics. "A lot of people thought, especially in the Midwest, that Bacon and French were part of an East Coast elite conspiracy to make Lincoln into this universal figure rather than a particularly American figure and they wanted a different kind of monument. They had some congressional support."

Lincoln's Role as Emancipator Played Down

Construction of the memorial began in 1914 and took eight years to finish. French started on the statue with a 3-foot-high version which then reached 10 feet. Bacon thought that was still too small. A new contract was signed, raising the statute to 19 feet, and doubling the government's cost for just the Lincoln statue from $45,000 to $88,000, Fox wrote.

The statue is flanked on both side chambers with inscriptions of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address. According to Holzer, Lincoln’s role as the emancipator of slaves was played down significantly in the memorial to appease its planners. It didn't include the Emancipation Proclamation.

Bacon wanted to reinforce that union was the memorial’s overarching idea, and the main goal of Lincoln’s presidency. Shortly before the dedication, he had a five-line pronouncement carved into a wall behind the statue’s head, Fox said. The words were written by New York Tribune art critic Royal Cortissoz: "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 dedication ceremony in 1922 further minimized Lincoln’s legacy as an emancipator. President Warren Harding and Chief Justice William Howard Taft praised the memorial as "the living emblem of North-South reconciliation," Fox wrote, and organizers of the dedication censored the speech of the program’s invited black speaker, Robert Russa Moton, principal of the Tuskegee Institute.

The dedication itself was a segregated event. Holzer said the African-Americans who came to "see this dedication for the memorial for someone they cared about" were pushed to the back of the crowd. "It was a stain on that day," he added. 

Backdrop to Civil Rights Movement

Going forward, however, the memorial became a powerful backdrop for the Civil Rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech."

The first event was in 1939 when a crowd of 75,000 fans, black and white, gathered at the memorial to listen to world-renowned African American contralto Marian Anderson. Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for  her to sing on the steps of the memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let the singer perform in their Constitution Hall because she was black.

"It was one of the biggest crowds ever assembled to hear a musical event anywhere in the country," Holzer said.

Among the most memorable and symbolic moments at the memorial was President Barack Obama's star-studded inaugural celebration in 2008.

"Even Lincoln probably would never have predicted, foreseen or believed that it happened," Holzer said. "But there he was, first president of color for whom Lincoln was a hero."

Coded Messages in the Rock?

The memorial has been the subject of several urban tales over the years, none of which ring true, according to Holzer. Lincoln's hands are not making the American Sign Language signs for his initials. French used molds of Lincoln's hands cast in 1860 to guide his work while sculpting, Holzer explained. It's also a myth that General Robert E. Lee's face is carved into Lincoln's hair.

And Lincoln's bones are not under the memorial; he's buried in Springfield, Illinois. In 1876, grave robbers dragged Lincoln's coffin out it its tomb and were going to hold the body hostage to liberate one of their jailed comrades. They were arrested and "Lincoln's body was buried in 20 feet of cement so it could never be disturbed again," Holzer said.

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