The memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever

In the tragic days following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln the nation sought ways to memorialize its martyred leader.

Monuments were erected throughout the northern states, and buildings and streets were christened in his honor. Settlers moving west across the plains named their newly built cities and counties for him – so much so that Lincoln is the fourth-most common county name in the United States. When a German ocean liner was seized by U.S. authorities upon America’s entry into World War I it was renamed the President Lincoln and converted to a troopship, the first of three U.S. Navy ships to bear Lincoln’s name.

With all these tributes, however, the country lacked one great national monument to its greatest President. A half century after his death, that would finally change thanks to the efforts of Illinois’ longest-tenured U.S. Senator and an accomplished Illinois architect.

Though the matter of a national Lincoln memorial had been discussed as early as 1867, it had been impossible to raise the funds necessary for its design and construction. In the early years of the 20th century legislation was introduced in Congress to establish a commission for the purpose of creating such a monument, but it was frequently stopped – ironically by another Illinoisan, House Speaker Joseph Cannon.

Cannon opposed the construction of the monument first on grounds of cost: the estimated $2 million price tag would make it the most expensive monument in American history. He was also deeply opposed to the proposal to build the monument in a swampy part of Washington called Potomac Flats. Cannon could not bring himself to allow such a site to host the nation’s monument to Lincoln, whom Cannon greatly admired and had even met in his youth. He blocked the appropriation in 1901, 1902 and 1908.

But in 1910 Cannon was deposed as House Speaker and Illinois Senator Shelby Cullom succeeded in enacting legislation to create the Lincoln Memorial Commission with the President of the United States, William Howard Taft, at its head.

The Lincoln Memorial Commission 
Cullom had been a personal friend of Lincoln, and by the time he retired from the Senate in 1913 he was the last surviving member of Lincoln’s funeral party. Departing the Senate just as Taft was leaving the Presidency, Cullom was chosen as the new head of the Lincoln Memorial Commission, a job he proudly held until his death in 1914.

The Memorial would be the western anchor of a civic redesign plan for Washington DC known as the McMillan Plan, named for the chair of the 1902 commission which created it, Michigan Senator James McMillan. Much of the McMillan plan was enacted and remains in place today. It envisioned a broad open space between the U.S. Capitol building and the Washington Monument; what today we know as the National Mall; flanked by the museums which became the Smithsonian Institution. The winning design for the Lincoln Memorial seemed a fitting addition to this ground in the nation’s capital, and it was approved despite concerns that its position on the western end of the mall was too close to the swampy Potomac to withstand the test of time.

The architect who submitted the winning design was Watseka, Illinois, native Henry Bacon. Bacon had studied at the University of Illinois and gone to work for the firm of McKim, Mead & White which had played an important role in the famous White City of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Bacon himself became known for beaux-arts and Greek revival style buildings. His credits included libraries, train stations, banks and university buildings throughout the northeast. Along the way he encountered sculptor Daniel Chester French and worked with him on a series of monuments. French was already famous in his own right for his statue of the Minuteman near the Concord battlefield in Massachusetts and a statue of George Washington which stands in Paris.

Bacon designed a structure reminiscent of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, as a tribute to Lincoln. Critics thought the design was far too grandiose for the humble Lincoln, but Bacon defended his proposal on the grounds that the Greeks had invented democracy and Lincoln had died to save it. Congress agreed and made an initial appropriation of $300,000 for the project.

Laying cornerstone at Lincoln Memorial. 
Ground was broken on Lincoln’s birthday in 1914, just weeks after Senator Cullom died. One thing the critics got right was their concern about the swampy ground of West Potomac Park. Much of the ground had to be drained and reclaimed, then fill was brought in to surround the subfoundation of the Memorial which was built on the bedrock below. Eventually there would be 122 steel-reinforced concrete piers just to support the tremendous weight of the foundation itself which was made of poured concrete arches topped by the marble floor of the Memorial. The foundation alone took 15 months to complete.

Bacon selected French to construct the centerpiece of the memorial: a statue of Lincoln seated, gazing out over the capital city. Three years into construction, the statue was doubled in size in order to better fit within the large structure. Bacon also made an important symbolic design decision: the stone used in construction would come from points all across the nation. Indiana limestone, Tennessee, Colorado and Alabama marble and Massachusetts granite all come together to form one great monument to the man who saved the Union. As the National Park Service history of the construction of the project puts it, “A country torn apart by war can come together, not only to build something beautiful, but also to explain the reunification of the states.”

Construction slowed during World War I, but did not stop entirely. French completed his 19-foot-tall, 175 ton statue in the winter of 1919-1920, building it from Georgia marble. The statue took five years to complete, with much of that time taken up in French’s study of Lincoln photographs and Lincoln himself, trying to gain the kind of understanding he would need to correctly portray the Great Emancipator. One example is Lincoln’s hands: Lincoln is seated with one hand clenched, a show of his strength and resolve, while his other hand is open, symbolizing his compassion.

With the outer portion of the structure complete, the interior artwork could be put in place. This would include two murals, Unity and Emancipation, and the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, which were carved into the interior walls.

Work continued on the grounds around the Memorial through 1921, which included the construction of a reflecting pool. When it was finally completed early in 1922 the Lincoln Memorial stood 99 feet tall, 190 feet long and 120 feet wide. The dedication came on May 30, 1922, with former President, now Chief Justice, Taft and President Warren G. Harding present to accept the Monument on behalf of the nation. Also at the ceremony was Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s sole surviving son.

The ceremony featured remarks from Robert Russa Moton, President of the Tuskegee Institute. He drew from Lincoln’s words to call upon the nation to complete the unfinished work for which Lincoln had given his life.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all we dedicate ourselves and our posterity, with you and yours, to finish the work which he so nobly began, to make America an example for all the world of equal justice and equal opportunity for all.”

The Lincoln Memorial was Henry Bacon’s final project. After its completion, Bacon earned an American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, presented to him by President Harding in 1923. He died a year later.

In addition to the statue, the Lincoln Memorial’s most famous features are its columns and its steps.

The memorial is surrounded by 36 Doric columns representing the 36 states of the Union in 1865. Each stands 44 feet in height. Atop the fluted columns is a frieze which carries the names of each of the states of the reunited Union.

Throughout the last hundred years, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial have seen history made time and time again. It was here that Marian Anderson performed her stirring Easter 1939 rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee” after she was banned from performing at Constitution Hall due to the color of her skin. When Harry Truman became the first President to address the NAACP in 1947 he did so from the Memorial. Countless foreign dignitaries have visited the Memorial to lay a wreath at the feet of America’s most internationally-renowned leader. On May 9, 1970, the monument was the scene of a middle-of-the-night visit by President Richard Nixon as part of what his chief of staff called “the weirdest day” of Nixon’s presidency.

But the most famous moment in the history of the Memorial came in August 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of 250,000 people assembled for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The speech was delivered from the steps of the Memorial, facing the U.S. Capitol and the Congress which King sought to spur into action on a civil rights bill. King’s speech has gone down among the greatest orations in American history, made especially poignant with Lincoln’s visage gazing from the background. A marker was installed in the floor on the exact spot where King stood to deliver the speech.

The Memorial has been a cultural symbol for portrayals of the nation’s capital in dozens of films. Jimmy Stewart gazed with awe at Lincoln’s statue in 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Playing a Secret Service agent in 1992’s In the Line of Fire Clint Eastwood looks up at Lincoln and quips, “Well Abe, I wish I could have been there for you, pal.” The Memorial and its reflecting pool are also the setting of an iconic scene in 1994’s Forrest Gump.

Beginning in 1929 the Memorial was depicted on the reverse of the $5 bill, and was added to the penny in 1959. With Lincoln’s face on the front and the Monument’s statue barely visible on the back, Lincoln became the first person to appear on both sides of a piece of U.S. currency.

Alongside the many inscriptions of Lincoln’s words which are found throughout the Monument, just above the statue, are found these words penned by the writer 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.”