Reading Lincoln

Like the cathedrals of Europe, many of our monuments in Washington are rich with symbolism, and can be “read,” especially the great favorite of both residents and tourists, the Lincoln Memorial. This majestic monument took nearly 50 years from its inception to its dedication, and one of the biggest problems was site selection. For much of its early history, the National Mall was nearly empty and fairly swampy. In fact, the actual site for the Lincoln Memorial was under water up until shortly before it was chosen. It was only after the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river to deepen it and deposited the silt on the shore, that the area where the memorial now stands was created. When this location was first proposed, the then Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon said that he would never let the memorial be erected in that “g—d— swamp”. However, after the area was planted and landscaped, it began to look like a real possibility. It lined up beautifully across the Mall from Congress, just as Pierre l’Enfant would have wished it.

The architect Henry Bacon was chosen to build the memorial and his friend, Daniel Chester French was selected to create the stature of Lincoln. Bacon designed the building with the Parthenon in mind and the 36 columns of the structure represent the 36 states that made up the newly reunited Union at the end of the Civil War. The states’ names are inscribed over the tops of the columns and above them are all the states added up to the time of the memorial’s dedication in 1922. The three-chambered monument is embellished with eagles and wreaths, symbolizing bravery and victory, as well as cypress trees, which stand for eternity and it is decorated with marble from Colorado, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, limestone from Indiana and granite from Massachusetts, incorporated into the monument to symbolize the union of states. 

The statue of Abraham Lincoln is 19-feet tall and 19-feet wide, which creates the overwhelming impression of the solid resolution President Lincoln maintained to preserve the Union above all. French spent years studying photos of Lincoln, so he could depict him as he looked during the Civil War. His large head is bent slightly forward and his sunken eyes seem to look down at the people parading in front of the statue, and at the same time, they look out over the Mall toward Congress. His large hands rest on the square arms of the massive ceremonial chair decorated with ancient Roman emblems of authority and draped with the flag, another reminder of the union. Lincoln’s one hand is clenched to show strength, and the other is open to show compassion.

Legend has it that the back of Lincoln’s head is actually a profile of Robert E Lee, looking backward at his former home, the Custis-Lee mansion in Arlington Cemetery. The National Park Service discredits that story as well as the much more believable tale that Lincoln’s left hand is finger spelling an “A” and his right hand an “L”. This is credible because Daniel French had already designed the statue in front of Gallaudet University which shows teacher Thomas Gallaudet signing the letter “A” for student Alice Cogswell. Furthermore, it was Lincoln who approved the bill that made Gallaudet the first college for deaf people, and finally, French knew sign language and used it often since his own son was deaf. 

It is appropriate that there should be mystery surrounding the statue of Lincoln, because it is one of the most inspirational in the city. The memorial is one large homage to the union of the states and one of its beautiful murals celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the memorial dedication ceremony in 1922 was presented to a racially segregated audience. The eternally patient expression that French managed to carve into Lincoln’s face conveys the feeling that he understood all too well the irony of the situation.  After all, here was a man who was able to convey the necessity of the terrible sacrifices of war to save the union of our country in the ten sentences that make up the Gettysburg Address, whose words carved in stone share the sanctuary with him.

Donna Evers,, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run real estate firm in the Washington Metro area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va.; and a devoted student of Washington area history.

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