Memorializing Lincoln: First Steps

April 21, 2020

Some 57 years after Abraham Lincoln’s death, this vast monument to him was completed in Washington, D.C., in 1922.


The memorial sits on a 109-acre site and weighs 38,000 tons (source: National Park Service) and is a sweeping 200 feet by 132 feet, towering 192 feet high. Constructed from Colorado yule marble, Tennessee pink marble and Massachusetts granite, the memorial cost more than three million dollars and took almost seven years to make after the cornerstones were laid.

When gazing at the grand Doric colonnades, it’s easy to overlook the history of memorializing Lincoln in this country. As the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln is known as the man who saved the union, and the president that freed the slaves. In Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves (Princeton University Press 1997), University of Pittsburgh professor Kirk Savage takes a close look at how early memorial attempts for Lincoln often had a rocky road from design to completion and erection, with much politicking and cultural change in between. [Story continued by clicking the link below]

Many memorial projects began immediately following President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, and it was an interesting journey to the completion of the memorials and statues of Lincoln now found in various location across the U.S. “Without the more clearly drawn parameters of local politics to fall back on, the makers of national monuments were forced in effect to invent their own public,” Savage comments, “But in that process of invention was the opening for real innovation.”

Particularly interesting to me was Chapter Four, “Freedom’s Memorial.” Savage takes readers through a fascinating account of the political and cultural response to one of the first memorial efforts by people of color, the Freedmen’s Memorial, which right from its inception was intended to cross regional boundaries and be paid for by donations from freedmen, and women. The project began, Savage writes, by a $5 donation from a freed slave named Charlotte Scott. When the local paper in her town in Ohio reported her effort, others contributed and the fund began in earnest. The Western Sanitary Commission (WSC) of St. Louis sponsored the project but it wasn’t long before the complexities of the undertaking emerged – structural divisions within, and increasing struggles between white organizers and black donors. Sculptor Harriet Hosmer was commissioned for the sculpture’s design. When it became clear that there was not enough money to complete Hosmer’s grand-scale memorial, WSC merged with the National Lincoln Monument Association in Springfield, Ohio. Political infighting began, with the latter announcing they had already decided on holding a design competition (to this day the only one, Savage points out) and could not honor Hosmer’s design. The winner was Larkin Mead, who downplayed the monument’s emancipation theme into a single scroll motif and instead focused on white soldiers.

President Abraham Lincoln 


Not to be thwarted, WSC then gave the Freedmen fund’s $20K to the National Lincoln Monument Association in an 1868 merger. They hoped to save Hosmer’s design, but their new partner had a design already in motion by sculptor Clark Mills (formerly accused of being a Confederate sympathizer) that was ultimately chosen. Much of the decision-making evidence from that choice is gone today. “Why would the sponsors of the Freedmen’s Memorial throw their chips in with a design and approach to a design so different from Hosmer’s?” questions Savage in his book. “Mills made no special effort to integrate his emancipation cycle into the larger framework.”


Harriet Hosmer's first design for the Freedmen's Lincoln memorial, 1866

 Sculptor Harriet Hosmer, 1830-1908

The story continues when WSC withdrew from the National Lincoln Monument Association in 1871 and commissioned another memorial that later appeared in Boston by sculptor Thomas Ball, but for this blog post, it is enough to understand the 19th century controversy over memorializing Lincoln continued to writhe for many years, reflecting the changes in national opinion on emancipation and then reconstruction and beyond.

As for Harriet Hosmer, thirty years later she was still designing and sculpting statues of Lincoln and attempting to get paid commissions for her work. “The great contrast between Hosmer’s original model for a Lincoln monument, designed for the Western Sanity Commission in the summer of 1866, and her final design presented in the 1890s tells us much about the historical distance traveled in between,” Savage says. “By the turn of the century, the last remnants of the political gains created by Reconstruction had been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which sanctioned the Jim Crow regime of ‘separate but equal’.”

The days of enthusiasm for the creation of optimistic emancipation memorials were over. To me, this background knowledge makes gazing at the 1922 Lincoln Memorial in the Capitol that much more interesting.