Two years after the end of his second term as president, Ulysses S. Grant met the great German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who brought up the American Civil War. “You had to save the Union just as we had to save Germany,” Bismarck said, according to journalist John Russell Young.

“Not only save the Union, but destroy slavery,” answered the General.

“I suppose, however, the Union was the real sentiment, the dominant sentiment,” said [Bismarck].

“In the beginning, yes,” said the General, “but as soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”

That conversation neatly captures the period’s two major opinions about the causes of the Civil War. Grant’s opinion may have been common during the Reconstruction era, when the federal government made it illegal to discriminate against African-Americans by passing the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. But with the advent of Jim Crow, conventional wisdom about the war began to change. It was now regarded primarily as a fight to keep the Union whole, not as a struggle to free the slaves. And that interpretation also extended to Abraham Lincoln, now celebrated not as the Great Emancipator but as the leader who had salvaged the Union and reunited the nation.

When the federal government decided to build a memorial to Lincoln in the early twentieth century, it embraced the conventional wisdom. Both the Congress that funded the memorial and the Lincoln Memorial Commission, which superintended its design and construction, ignored slavery and focused on the Union. But architect Henry Bacon designed the memorial so brilliantly that within a generation, its meaning could come to include Frederick Douglass’s interpretation of the Civil War. “The sectional character of this war was merely accidental, and its least significant feature,” Douglass said. “It was a war of ideas, . . . a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization.”

In 1902, the McMillan Commission, which the U.S. Senate had created to improve public spaces in Washington, published an influential planning study for the city’s future growth and development. The commission, whose members included sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and architects Charles F. McKim and Daniel Burnham, wanted to strengthen the three great anchors of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 plan of Washington—the Capitol, the White House, and the Washington Monument—by building three new memorials. These would expand the symbolism of the National Mall and radically change its architectural character. The three memorials would be the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the Mall, dedicated to the man who, more than anyone else, saved the Union; Memorial Bridge, connecting the proposed Lincoln Memorial to the Union army cemetery at Arlington, just across the Potomac River; and Union Square, a formal garden planned at the foot of Capitol Hill as a setting for equestrian statues of Civil War generals Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan. (Only the statue of Grant was realized.)

The proposed location for the Lincoln Memorial, facing the Capitol and the Washington Monument, would be fitting to honor “the memory of that one man in our history as a nation who is worthy to be named with George Washington,” said the McMillan Commission’s report. Not only was the proposed site “on the axis of the Capitol and the Washington Monument,” continued the report; it was a suitable “starting point for the bridge,” which could then cross the Potomac and head toward the cemetery. Over the years, seven or eight sites had come under consideration for a memorial to Lincoln. But the commission’s chosen site was the only one that would create symbolic links with George Washington, the Revolution, and the founding of the nation and with the South and Arlington Cemetery. It would, in a sense, extend the axis of the Capitol and National Mall westward, to Virginia, and indeed onward to the Pacific Ocean.

To give people an idea of the kind of memorial that the commission recommended, McKim prepared a design: a long, narrow, open pavilion raised on a large podium and formed by a colonnade of two rows of 40-foot-high Doric columns. The central feature, facing the Washington Monument, was a projecting row of ten columns that supported a long, large panel bearing texts from Lincoln’s speeches. In front of the memorial, also facing the Washington Monument, was a statue of Lincoln.

Other designs had already been proposed for a memorial to Lincoln. Between 1908 and 1909, Burnham proposed first a semicircular colonnade in front of the new Union Station (which he had designed) and then a circular colonnade between the station and the Capitol. Among others who made proposals, Representative James McCleary of Minnesota suggested that the memorial be a highway, like the Appian Way of ancient Rome, to run between Washington and Gettysburg. In 1910, Congress finally created the Lincoln Memorial Commission, which held a design competition the following year. The winner was Henry Bacon, who had worked on McKim’s design in the McMillan Commission’s report and on the earlier Shaw Memorial in Boston. However, dissension among a small group in Congress led by House Speaker Joseph G. Cannon resulted in a second competition to decide between Bacon and another architect, John Russell Pope. Bacon won that competition as well, on a five-to-two vote.

Daniel Chester French represented Lincoln as “a man and not a god,” as journalist Andrew Ferguson put it. (AP Photo)
Daniel Chester French represented Lincoln as “a man and not a god,” as journalist Andrew Ferguson put it. (AP Photo)

Bacon’s memorial, built between 1914 and 1922, is a brooding and introspective masterpiece of twentieth-century architecture. It stands as a memorial to Lincoln’s courage in the face of adversity and as a monument to his vision of a Union preserved, reconciled, and free of slavery. It is not, in the strictest sense, a Civil War memorial; rather, it is dedicated to Lincoln the man and to the ideas for which he stood. And indeed, unlike most war memorials, it boldly confronts complex political and moral questions and speaks directly to our conscience, reminding us of the reasons for which the Civil War was fought. Words—the instrument that the peacemaker used to shape ideas, build understanding, and forge compromises—are an unusually important component of the Lincoln Memorial’s architecture.

The exterior architecture of the memorial heralds its special purpose. It is set on a rectangular plateau, 14 feet above the ground, created by pink granite retaining walls. Built of white Colorado marble, the blank exterior walls of the memorial itself are enclosed in a colonnade of 36 Doric columns, each 44 feet high—one for each state in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. The memorial rests on a high stylobate—the three large steps that form the base of the colonnade—which permits viewers to see the shaft of the columns from bottom to top. There are no windows or balustrades. In front of the memorial, an unusually steep flight of steps rises nearly 23 feet from the ground to the memorial’s colonnade level.

Though these features convey a noble and public purpose, the building is not intimidating. This is the result of two optical refinements, both developed by the ancient Greeks for temple architecture, that suggest stability and diminished scale. First, the retaining walls, stylobate, colonnade, and exterior walls aren’t located in the vertical plane, as one might expect; instead, they perceptibly slope inward. Because of this, the exterior columns and the wall that they surround recede from the viewer. The attic is also set back. The result is a stepped, pyramid-like form that implies stability and permanence and diminishes the perceived scale of the building. Not only do the columns slope inward; their shafts bulge slightly in the middle, an effect called “entasis.” The combination of a receding exterior and entasis in its sculptural articulation suggests that the interior spaces are the most important in the building.

The plain exterior walls convey no hint of the interior plan. There is no door, only a single large opening in the exterior wall that faces the Capitol, through which Daniel Chester French’s statue of Lincoln can be seen, seated and deep in thought. The opening is the full height of the columns and the width of three bays of the colonnade. The large central room that contains the statue is separated by rows of Ionic columns from two smaller side rooms. The end walls of the side rooms, at right angles to the axis of the statue, contain panels on which the texts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address are carved. Each has its own architectural setting. The Gettysburg Address is framed by a delicate architrave and small cornice; the Second Inaugural Address, which is longer, is divided into three panels contained by fasces and an Ionic entablature without a frieze. Both texts are set on pedestals, with eagles framing the composition.

The statue of Lincoln sits on the main axis of the memorial and the National Mall, facing the Capitol. French prepared a full-size clay model of the sculpture and then worked closely with the Piccirilli brothers of New York, who carved the statue in marble. Nineteen feet high, the statue is visible from a great distance. Only when you get close to the memorial, standing at the bottom of the steep flight of stone steps leading up to the interior, is your view momentarily eclipsed. Once you enter the central space, you may glimpse the two panels of texts on the end walls of the adjacent rooms, but the seated figure of Lincoln is the first focus of attention. The viewer experiences it as benevolent, solitary, and introspective—never threatening.

Given its great size, the ease with which we instinctively empathize with its aura of loneliness is a remarkable achievement. It engulfs the viewer in an uncanny communion with Lincoln himself, incarnated in white stone. The statue may have been partly inspired by Phidias’s colossal seated figure of Zeus at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Before it was destroyed, it was nearly 43 feet high, more than twice the height of French’s Lincoln. But the building in which Zeus sat was shorter than the Lincoln Memorial, purposely made out of scale with the huge figure to suggest that no human creation could contain a god. Overlaid with gold and ivory, the statue was intended to overwhelm the viewer. The seated image of Lincoln, by contrast, seems small in relation to the memorial’s large interior space and establishes an intimate relationship with visitors.

In a rare move that few sculptors would dare, French represented Lincoln as he appeared in photos—as “a man and not a god,” writes journalist Andrew Ferguson. “This is one rumpled icon. The imperfections are hard to miss. His hair is uncombed. His tie is askew. His hands betray a fidgety disposition, and his eyes aren’t quite symmetrical. He’s really, really big, but he’s still a man.” French’s portrayal was strangely antithetical to what former secretary of state John Hay, arguing that the memorial should be located on the west end of the Mall, had asserted years earlier: that only “Lincoln . . . deserves this place of honor. He was one of the immortals. You must not approach too close to the immortals. His monument should stand alone, remote from the common habitations of man, apart from the business and turmoil of the city; isolated, distinguished, and serene.”

Inexorably, however, eye and mind are drawn away from the figure to the left or right by the panels of text in the side rooms. The memorial’s cross-axis is strengthened by the screen of Ionic columns, with their beautiful Greek capitals and elaborate bases, and by the presence of restrained murals by Jules Guérin, titled Reunion and Emancipation, above the panels of text. As the viewer approaches the panels and starts to read, the sculpture recedes. The words of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address seem to expand and enfold the interior of the memorial. Their weight is palpable; in the rich history of the English language, one would be hard-pressed to find examples of oratory as eloquent, concise, and comprehensible.

Lincoln’s words evoke the eerie stillness of the field after battle. The architecture resonates with the echo of his exhortation to see lasting significance in the conflict and to heed the call for a second beginning. The words have a biblical weight, so that one tends to read them slowly. Having absorbed their significance, visitors may leave without even looking back at the sculpture. The initial oscillation of attention between image and word, axis and cross-axis, is finally resolved by the dominance of the cross-axis, by the persuasive authority of the written word.

Bacon’s design of the center space and side rooms is so subtle that at first, one is hardly aware of the power of the cross-axis. Yet this is the crucial element of the design, for by turning the visitor’s attention to the side, Bacon secularizes the space and undercuts any suggestion that the memorial is a sanctum sanctorum at the end of the National Mall. If the statue were the sole object of the memorial, it might possibly be viewed as a cult object. But the presence of the statue is first offset and then undermined by the cross-axis and its focus on Lincoln’s words.

Bacon carefully builds up the desacralizing force of the cross-axis. He compresses the central space to avoid any hint that it’s like the long, narrow cella of an ancient Greek temple or the nave of a church. By designing the memorial so that the entrance is on its long side, Bacon effectively informs the visitor of the presence of the crucial interior cross-axis and proclaims that this isn’t a temple, a building form typically entered through its short side. Further, a temple’s entrance facade is usually articulated by a pediment supported by columns, features that establish the building’s main axis and create the expectation that there will be a long, narrow, and important interior space with an icon at its end. So it is significant that Bacon carefully avoids even a hint of a pediment front on the memorial’s exterior.

Bacon further undercuts any perception of the statue as an icon by its immediacy in the space, its accessibility from three sides, and the openness of the room. Similarly, the relatively even and bland lighting detracts from the importance of the center space. There is no modulation in degrees of darkness to suggest mystery. This consistency of light diffusion throughout the interior—a soft light, the result of illumination through an unseen glass roof and diffusion through translucent ceiling panels of Alabama marble—confirms the memorial’s secular nature.

The architecture of the interior is austere. Nothing is permitted to distract attention from the texts. There is a palpable tension in the space, a sense of imminent possibilities. The effect has troubled some critics, who complain of “emptiness.” This tension, the so-called emptiness, grows out of the contradiction between the insistent presence of the cross-axis and the modest architectural presentation of the text panels at each end of that cross-axis. It is precisely the element of modesty—the absence of architectural rhetoric, deep-cut lettering, elaborate architraves, and florid decoration—that allows a visitor to feel the weight of the words that enfold the space of the memorial’s interior. Lincoln’s words need no reinforcement; they need only to be read. What some have perceived as emptiness is rather an essential space for contemplation, in which a large number of people can read the texts and feel that they are alone with their thoughts. This relationship was clearly understood by director Frank Capra in his movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The hero’s visit to the Lincoln Memorial emphasizes the tension between axis and cross-axis, image and word, and shows this tension finally resolved by the eloquent authority of the words that help him confront the crisis at the core of the plot.

Bacon’s design represented a significant departure from McKim’s early design for the McMillan Commission. By arriving at a closed form, Bacon rejected the commission’s view of the memorial as an open garden pavilion through which one could view vistas of the National Mall. Instead, his memorial effectively defines and closes off the west end of the Mall. This allows the memorial, with the graves of Arlington behind it, to face the Capitol and the Washington Monument and issue its ringing challenge to continue the task of perfecting the nation. Bacon’s desire to issue that challenge was one reason that he changed the small door of his early design into a large opening that rises the full height of the colonnade. Like the Washington Monument’s base and the terrace below the Capitol’s west front, the Lincoln Memorial’s floor level is significantly higher than the level of the National Mall. This effectively links all three across the space of the Mall. A 2,400-foot-long reflecting pool between the Lincoln and Washington memorials reduces the apparent distance between them and further cements their relationship.

As you leave the Lincoln Memorial, the eastward gaze of the statue directs your eyes to the Washington Monument, which recalls the American Revolution and the principles on which the nation is founded. Bacon’s connection of the principles of the Revolution to those celebrated in the Lincoln Memorial is driven home by Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Civil War was fought to restore and improve the independent nation created by the Revolution, and the Lincoln Memorial challenges us to continue the task of perfecting it.

Beyond the Washington obelisk, the dome of the Capitol is visible in the distance. The Capitol, too, is associated with the ideals of the American Revolution and the dynamism of the democratic process. But the dome is also a symbol of a new birth of the Union, for it was completed through Lincoln’s advocacy during his presidency. The first Capitol dome had been removed in 1856, but the construction of a second dome, larger and taller than its predecessor, had slowed down for want of money. In March 1862, Lincoln encouraged Congress to appropriate funds for the work as “a sign we intend the Union to go on.” The first dome of the Capitol, as conceived by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, had symbolized the right to free assembly; Lincoln expanded that meaning by transforming the dome into a symbol of the Union.

The Lincoln Memorial is set in a hub-like circle that connects the orthogonal grid of the National Mall to Virginia—specifically, to the southern area that was once part of Washington—by means of the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac. When the McMillan Commission report had proposed the bridge, it had quoted Daniel Webster, who in 1851 reiterated Andrew Jackson’s proposal to span the Potomac with “arches of ever-enduring granite, symbolical of the firmly established union of the North and the South.” So the bridge, a physical link between the capital city and Virginia, also symbolizes a strengthened Union.

It serves, too, as a reminder of the cost in lives to preserve that Union. The bridge extends southwest from the western end of the National Mall, pointing directly at Arlington House, set high in the Virginia hills. Before the Civil War, this hilltop estate was the home of Robert E. Lee. The property was seized by Union forces in 1864, during the Civil War, and the land was used as a cemetery for Union soldiers. So today, from the rear colonnade of the Lincoln Memorial, you see the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, with its graves of Union soldiers together with those of soldiers who died in subsequent wars. There is even a group of Confederate soldiers buried here.

But the Lincoln Memorial Commission’s design proposals had referred neither to slavery—the central issue of the Civil War—nor to the role that black soldiers had played. The commission was reluctant to offend the South, and most of the North accepted segregation. In 1909, Lincoln was a symbol of national unity, the savior of the Union, not the man who had freed the slaves. Take the art critic Royal Cortissoz, who wrote the lines carved into the memorial’s wall above French’s statue of Lincoln: IN THIS TEMPLE AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN IS ENSHRINED FOREVER. In 1919, Cortissoz explained the intended meaning of these words to Bacon: “The memorial must make a common ground for the meeting of the North and the South. By emphasizing his saving the union you appeal to both sections. By saying nothing about slavery you avoid the rubbing of old sores.”

At the ceremony to dedicate the memorial in 1922, blacks were relegated to second-class status and confined to a section reserved for “colored only.” That betrayal of Lincoln’s memory stood in marked contrast to the honor guard, consisting entirely of black soldiers, that General Grant had personally appointed to guard Lincoln’s coffin when it stood in state at the White House. As historian Scott Sandage tells us in a brilliant paper on the memorial:

Such views did not prevail . . . when Congress created a commission to memorialize Lincoln, chaired by President William Howard Taft. The early twentieth century celebrated the economic and political reunion of North and South. Lincoln’s ties to black freedom waned. . . . As Lincoln assumed the role of Christ in American civil religion, signifying national redemption, it seemed he could not be both the Great Emancipator and the Savior of the Union.

But Sandage points out that “like the nation he had described in his celebrated 1858 speech, Lincoln’s own marble memorial would quickly become ‘a house divided.’ ” And despite its beginnings, the Lincoln Memorial became a symbol of racial justice.

That association arose only in 1938, after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to let the great contralto Marian Anderson sing in their Constitution Hall because she was black. Desperate to find an alternate venue, Walter White, general secretary of the NAACP, contacted Oscar Chapman, then the assistant secretary of the interior, to ask whether Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, could be used. Chapman suggested the Lincoln Memorial instead and quickly secured the necessary approvals from President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Chapman assumed personal charge of the arrangements and also organized security, resisting suggestions that either the National Guard or soldiers from Fort Myers be used.

On Easter Sunday 1939, Ickes himself introduced Anderson to an audience of 75,000 people, black and white, who had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial:

In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. When God gave us this wonderful outdoors and the sun, the moon, and the stars, He made no distinction of race or creed or color. And 130 years ago, He sent us one of His truly great in order that he might restore freedom to those from whom we had disregardfully taken it. In carrying out this task, Abraham Lincoln laid down his life, and so it is as appropriate as it is fortunate that today we stand reverently and humbly at the base of this memorial to the Great Emancipator while glorious tribute is rendered to his memory by a daughter of the race from which he struck the chains of slavery.

Millions all over the world listened to the radio broadcast of the concert. It was one of the first integrated public events in the city’s history and the largest event held on the National Mall up to that time. It both changed the direction of the civil rights movement and redefined the significance of the Lincoln Memorial. Sandage writes that it

was, significantly, the first black mass action to evoke laudatory national publicity and earn a positive place in American public memory. . . . Without fiery speeches or banners, without even mentioning the DAR, black organizers transformed a recital of sacred music at a national shrine into a political rally. In an era obsessed with defining Americanism, activists successfully portrayed their adversary as un-American. It was a formula civil rights activists and other protesters would repeat at the Lincoln Memorial in more than one hundred big and small rallies in subsequent decades.

Through the Anderson concert, the civil rights movement was able to expand the significance of the Civil War in American history, reinterpret Lincoln’s role, and redefine the perception of black aspirations. “Blacks strategically appropriated Lincoln’s memory and monument as political weapons, in the process layering and changing the public meanings of the hero and his shrine,” Sandage notes.

Four years after the concert, the DAR invited Anderson to sing in their auditorium. But it wasn’t until 1955 that the Metropolitan Opera House in New York followed suit. She was the first black American to sing there and received a ten-minute standing ovation when she walked on stage. And it wasn’t until 1948 that President Truman signed executive orders commencing the integration of the nation’s armed forces and eliminating racial discrimination in federal employment. Nine years later, in 1957, President Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the desegregation of the city’s public schools.

Until that Easter Sunday afternoon in 1939, the Lincoln Memorial was just another benign and beautiful memorial on the National Mall. But then it became the nation’s established venue for addressing racial injustice. Its political significance, as well as that of the National Mall itself, had irrevocably changed. The savior of the Union was now one with the Great Emancipator.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a gathering of more than 200,000 people and issued a ringing challenge to America. King’s speech, one of the most moving in American history, is itself a tribute to Lincoln’s life and memory:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. . . . I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

Describing the event, the eminent historian Merrill Peterson wrote: “Thus did King, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, dedicate the country to a new birth of freedom in pursuit of the old dream.” Like the Anderson concert, the speech helped shame the nation and inspire it to confront contemporary racism. Both events redefined the significance of the Lincoln Memorial by forging new associations with the civil rights movement and the continuing struggle for racial equality.

Lincoln's words, carved into the walls of the memorial, make it a monument to ideas, not just to a leader.
Erich Hartmann/Magnum PhotosLincoln’s words, carved into the walls of the memorial, make it a monument to ideas, not just to a leader.

It is telling that the only reference to American slavery in the Lincoln Memorial was supplied by Lincoln himself. The Gettysburg Address, carved onto one of the side walls, mentions slavery only by implication. But in the Second Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4, 1865, and carved onto the opposite side wall, Lincoln stated:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war.

He went further: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”

After more than 60 years of Jim Crow, it took the Anderson concert to rekindle the true meaning of those words in the consciousness of America. Though Congress and the Lincoln Memorial Commission planned the memorial as a symbol of the enduring Union, black Americans and the civil rights movement reminded the nation of the unfinished business of the Civil War and, in fact, of the Constitutional Convention of 1787—to end slavery, attain racial justice, and provide full civil rights for African-Americans.

The memorial is thus a rare example of one that has grown in stature over time in terms of its symbolic significance. The architectural forms of a memorial do not change, but the meanings that they articulate may be intensified, expanded, and even altered by subsequent events. For that to occur, the memorial must not only be a conceptually powerful and fully realized work of art but also one that incorporates the complexity of the person and events commemorated. Without that encompassing quality, the forms will not take on fresh meaning over time but will instead remain static and limited in their frames of reference.

In the architecture of the Lincoln Memorial, there is not the slightest hint of military triumph or victory. The hand of peace extends to defeated brothers, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” The memorial is a moving and inspiring place to visit; it is also a disquieting one, for there remains a challenge, an ambient reminder of the nation’s still-unfinished business. Through the haze of memory that Lincoln’s words evoke, the smoke of battle lingers here, and the spirits of the soldiers buried across the river hover over all.

Top Photo by Liu Jie/Xinhua via Getty Images


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