The Creation of the Lincoln Memorial


[5] “I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.”      ― Abraham Lincoln

The notion of creating a national monument for Lincoln had been circulating since he lay in his death bed, but numerous failures to pass bills, gain funds, and gain an initiative delayed its development. The building of the present day Lincoln Memorial was first considered in the late 1800’s when the Potomac River was being deepened, but was not actually put into action as the proposed area around the river was very swampy. Later landscaping efforts were made for the creation of the West Potomac Park which made the area more suitable for a monument. [1]

In 1911, Congress finally approved a $2 million bill and created the Lincoln Memorial Commission which was chaired by President William Taft. In The Lincoln Memorial and the American Life by Christopher Thomas, Thomas expresses his belief that Taft headed this project in efforts to call upon the memory of Lincoln. The Lincoln Memorial serves as a testament to Lincoln and his entire administration, but the themes displayed in its construction and design show specific focus on his efforts towards the reunion of the States. Thomas believes that this was in order to “valorize a reformist national politics that transcended narrow (including sectional) interests”. [7]

The commission first chose architect Henry Bacon, to create a design for the West Potomac Park. However, some of the members of the Commission did not agree with the location and thus also called upon another architect, John Russell Pope, to create designs for two other locations: Meridian Hill and Lincoln’s cottage at Soldiers’ Home. However, the commission ultimately reaffirmed its decision to build the memorial at West Potomac Park. The commission then assigned the two architects to make new designs . Pope’s designs were usually neoclassical in nature, but in addition to that style, he featured some other very interesting ideas. Pope also submitted some sketches of a ziggurat like structure, an Egyptian pyramid, and a stepped Mayan Temple like structure. (Klein, 2015). While the Egyptian style had been previously used for Lincoln’s tomb and the Washington Monument, the commission found Pope’s designs to be too grand and overbearing so there were dropped in favor of Bacon’s design. Many believe this decision to be backed by the the commission’s desire for “aesthetic conservatism” which reflected Taft’s largely conservative attitude [7]. The plans for the construction were finalized in 1913 and construction finally began the following year. [2]


John Pope’s pyramid design

John Pope’s ziggurat design

Bacon based his design on the Greek Parthenon as he believed that a memorial to a man who fought so hard for democracy ought to be memorialized with Greece in mind, the birthplace of democracy [3]. Bacon decided that there were to be 36 exterior pillars in symbolism of the 36 united states at the end of Lincoln’s life. Bacon’s choice of stone also factored in reunification as the entire structure features a variety of materials taken from Massachusetts, Colorado, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. The National Park Service states that this was to show that “a country torn apart by war can come together, not only to build something beautiful, but also explain the reunification of the states.” The design of the memorial has become iconic, particularly for its appearance on older pennies.  “E Pluribus Unum”, the words on the penny, means “One from many” and is further representation of the memorial’s connotations with reunification. Bacon’s designed the interior to include two chambers that house inscriptions of the Gettysburg Address and and the Second Inaugural Address.  The commission chose these two prominent speeches due to the public’s familiarity with them as well as their display of Lincoln’s views. The speeches show great focus on his strong stance on preserving the union by the reunifying the North and the South. His words capture the essence of the meaning of the Civil War and they still resonate today in the clear and powerful way they are written. They also expose his beliefs about slavery by showcasing his desire for emancipation with statements like, “a new birth of freedom”.  [4]

[6] The Lincoln Memorial designed by Henry Bacon

The commission assigned Jules Guerin and Daniel Chester French to create the murals and statue respectively. Guerin took upon the task of creating two murals for the two other chambers within the memorial. One chamber contains the “Emancipation” mural which is meant to represent Freedom and Liberty in the way it shows the Angel of Truth freeing slaves. The other chamber contains the mural, “Unity”, Address, returns to the reunification motif as it is meant to glorify the reunion of the North and South by showing the Angel of Truth clasping together the hands of two figures. The former mural is a testament to Lincoln’s role as an emancipationist, a characteristic the memorial does not feature much elsewhere[3]. As for the statue, French paid extreme attention to detail in his research of Lincoln in an effort to portray him in the finest manner possible. He spent years studying photographs and his administration and ultimately decided that his strongest qualities were his compassion and resolution. To relay these qualities, he focused on the positioning of Lincoln’s hands. Both hands are similarly placed, but one is clenched, which represents his resolute nature and his determination in finishing the war, while the other is open and more relaxed which shows his compassion and desire for a unified United States. Above the statue reads, “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” This further shows how this memorial pays particular attention to Lincoln’s role as preserver of the union which inherently hides many of his efforts put towards emancipation. [8]

The fasces are another motif that underlies the theme of reunification within the memorial. A fasces is a bundle of rods held together by a piece of leather and were symbol of power carried by leaders in ancient Rome. They appear throughout the monument: carved onto the outside wall, tucked by the side of the Inaugural Address, within the murals, and even under the statue’s hands.  In some cases, they appear with 13 rods as well as a bald eagle. These are ways in which the fasces are made to connect with the American identity and are a way of transmitting the message that the United States is strongest when together. The fasces are present in another American sites and symbols such as the Oval Office, the Senate Seal, and inside the Washington Monument. The ways the fasces are encrypted in the monument emphasize how integral it is to be unified which fits into the theme of reunification the monument displays. [8]

World War I slowed down the process of building but in 1922, the commission opened the monument to the public and has since then, become an integral part of America’s national identity as well as paving way for its further development [2]. A monument weaves events, people, and ideas into a more permanent narrative. Through this site, visitors can recall the official memory of Lincoln’s history which spanned a tumultuous time in American history, and progressed the nation a great deal. This site is now a symbol that exemplifies Lincoln and the ways he fought for American values. The memorial has become a material memory in the way it triggers remembrance of the president and what he stood for. Symbols hidden in the architecture such as the pillars, fasces, and murals, all emphasize the importance of a unified America which ties in with Lincoln’s role in preserving that union. His role in the emancipation of slaves, while diminished in comparison, is also seen across the monument. The intentions behind the memorial’s creation particularly reveal the ways in which Lincoln’s memory has become usable and will continue to survive within a medium that universalizes itself as part of America’s collective memory.

Works Cited

1. United States. National Park Service. “Lincoln.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

2. Klein, Christopher. “The Lincoln Memorial’s Bizarre Rejected Designs.” A&E Television Networks, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

3. United States. National Park Service. “Lincoln Memorial Design and Symbolism.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 09 Apr. 2015. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

4. United States. National Park Service. “Learn About the Park.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

5. Lincoln Memorial. Digital image. Huffington Post. N.p., 27 July 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

6. Lincoln Memorial. Digital image. National Park Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

7. Teed, Paul E. “The Lincoln Memorial and American Life (review).” Civil War History 54.2 (2008): 202-04. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

8. United States. National Park Service. “Secret Symbol of the Lincoln Memorial.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

1 thought on “The Creation of the Lincoln Memorial

  1. Jake Pulitzer

    I gathered from your work that the original intention of all the proposed designs of the Lincoln Memorial was a “specific focus on his efforts towards the reunion of the States” and of preserving the nation. I was not aware that multiple designs were proposed (although I should have assumed so). The Lincoln Memorial Commission, as I learned, had trouble choosing both a design and location for the Memorial.

    While my site of memory, the Petersen House, and its associated structures, Ford’s Theater and the Center for Education and Leadership, memorialize Lincoln jointly, the efforts to memorialize Lincoln’s assassination at these sites in many ways compete for purpose and attention. I contend that Lincoln’s role as “Savior of the Union,” his chief accomplishment in the eyes of his countrymen during his time, is not the focus of Ford’s Theater–Ford’s Theater promotes the dominant memory of Lincoln’s dramatic martyrdom as “the Great Emancipator” who contributed greatly for the American struggle from bondage to equality. This contrasts significantly with the Lincoln Memorial’s “connotations with reunification.” In concordance with the Lincoln Memorial, however, the Petersen House promotes the memory of Lincoln as the savior of the Union. The site has been restored as closely as possible to its appearance at the time of Lincoln’s death, a time when hundreds gathered to grieve the impending death of their beloved national leader. Visiting this simulacrum of the original house manifests a rememory of this grief.

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