Lincoln Memorial Being Assembled, 1922

This 1922 National Archives photo show the Georgian marble statue inside the Lincoln Memorial being assembled.

Although a monument to honor the nation’s martyred president was granted by the United States Congress in 1867, a site was not chosen until 1902 in a campaign spearheaded by Teddy Roosevelt. The site, directly facing the Washington Monument, was originally a swampland. Surprisingly, it was an extremely divisive project. Many opposed the site, due to it being a swamp and others deemed a humbler project would befit a man of Lincoln’s temperament, even suggesting a log cabin. Many soldiers and families who fought for the South opposed the idea of a monument altogether. 

Daniel Chester French was selected to create a Lincoln statue inside the memorial. French had already designed one standing Lincoln figure for Nebraska State Capitol and modeled the figure inside the memorial on his acclaimed John Harvard statue at Harvard. His previous studies of Lincoln for Nebraska project — which included biographies, photographs, and a life mask of Lincoln by Leonard Volk done in 1860 — had prepared him for the challenging task of the larger statue.

Twenty-eight blocks of white Georgia marble, totalling 170 tons, were carved to made the figure, which was seated not in an ordinary chair but in a classical throne, including fasces, a Roman symbol of authority, to convey that the subject’s eminence. French also incorporated the American Sign Language symbols, ‘A’ and ‘L’ to the President’s hands out of gratitude for the late president’s founding of Gallaudet University for the Deaf–something French’s hearing impaired daughter greatly benefited from.

The dedication ceremony on May 30th 1922, led by Former President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft (head of the memorial commission) and attended by Lincoln’s only surviving child, Robert Todd Lincoln, proved to be equally divisive. Although the blacks were emancipated, Washington D.C. was still officially segregated. Black attendees were shoved to the back and to add insult to injury, their cause was demeaned on the podium where President Harding noted emancipation was sought only as a means to “union and nationality.”


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