“Abe” at The University of Wisconsin

On the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus there is a statue of Abraham Lincoln who is sometimes seen as a friend, sometimes as a judge, and sometimes as a symbol of the university to be judged for the university’s wrongs. Each of these treatments of the statue interacts with the way that Lincoln is remembered by the larger community.

Statue of Lincoln at the University of Wisconsin

Statue of Lincoln at the University of Wisconsin [10]

The statue of Abraham Lincoln on the campus of the University of Wisconsin was added in 1909 [1]. It is seven feet tall and sits on a pedestal that is six feet and six inches tall [3]. It is made of bronze and its base is made of granite [2] [3]. It features Lincoln sitting back in an ornate chair with a solemn expression. It resembles the seated Lincoln on the mall in Washington DC enough that some writers feel the need to point out that they are not the same [3]. The original version of the statue, made by Adolph Weinman, resides in Hodgenville, Kentucky where Lincoln was born [1]. Many wanted a copy of the sculpture after it went up in Kentucky [3] [7]. Richard Lloyd Jones is credited for convincing the sculptor to give the statue to the University of Wisconsin and no one else [3]. He was a UW graduate who had already developed a working relationship with Weinman. This understanding of how the statue came to the university seems almost coincidental and does little to affect illustrate the ways that Lincoln can be remembered as a president and a man. Instead he becomes an item that was won and a conquest. This view is extended and augmented in Lincoln’s relationship with the university students.

Some choose to see the statues presence on the campus in terms of Lincoln’s relationship with the state and the university, but in an article on the cleaning of the statue a University official is quoted as saying “any direct connection of Lincoln to Wisconsin is pretty minimal” despite the fact that his statue is very much a part of the university’s campus and the way the students identify [3]. Lincoln was popular in Wisconsin, and his contemporary elected officials there supported the abolishing of slavery, which can be used to support his relationship to the area [4]. The university claims him as a “patron” because of his support for the Morrill Act which gave the University and others land [1] [7]. These ties make Lincoln’s memory, embodied in the statue, more concerned with his actions and morals.

The statue holds a prominent space on the campus and is given a particular importance by both students and the larger community [1] [2]. Lincoln looks out sternly from his ornate chair, which imbues him with a certain amount of authority and reverence. His expression appears serious, contemplative, and perhaps judging. If he is passing judgement there is a question of who he would judge. Some rub his boots for luck on exams [1]. Lincoln the academic may be judging the progress of the students who pass him. Others do the same to ask for strength for an athletic event [5]. Lincoln the hard working frontier man may be judging them. President Lincoln may be judging politicians as he does in the country’s capitol [2]. The recognition of any type of judgement or power that the statue may hold is to remember Lincoln in connection with those traits. Students who rub his boot for luck at either sports or academics are giving to the memory of Lincoln some power in those fields.

When the statue was placed it was hoped by university officials that the statue would remind students of what it means to be American and the values associated with that [3]. The Lincoln the imagined is one who watches over the university and passed judgement. The judging Lincoln acts as a voice of reason, but for some the statue of “Abe” is more like a friend described as “watching over” and being “the big guy” who lends support [5]. Students reaching out to touch him ask for support, and they whisper their hopes to him [7]. This is a relationship of trust. When some students pull pranks that involve Lincoln he can be seen as either a complicit friend or as the butt of the joke. When the trusting relationship that so many students seem to build with the statue is considered it seems more likely that Abe is seen by most as a trickster who plays along with the pranks pulled by students. Lincoln memory on campus becomes the memory of someone to be trusted, talked to, and to have fun with.

Student Posing on Lincoln Statue

Student Posing on Lincoln Statue [2]

When a student graduates from UW they are given an opportunity to have their photo taken while sitting on Lincoln’s lap. These photos are taken by a professional photographer and according to the schools official site on commencement photos there is a suggested donation for these pictures, but no charge [6]. The money collected goes towards the Student Philanthropy Campaign. Many students also whisper to Lincoln about their hopes for the future [5]. Sitting on the lap of an older man and whispering what you want calls to mind the image of Santa, but does this image make Lincoln seem kinder or more judging? There is no implication that Lincoln will judge you unworthy of your dreams as Santa might. He hears you, he supports your body on his and he helps you. There is also an aspect of the posing people do on his lap that seems to be only about identifying with their university, and in some ways Lincoln has become a symbol of the university where both reputations affect each other. Some kiss Lincoln on the cheek as a thank you and for luck [5]. Part of the legend is that if you go to Lincoln before your graduation (as some do) you will not graduate [5]. The Lincoln who would deny someone their graduation is more similar to the Santa image. Lincoln is transformed through this practice of sitting on his lap, into a trusted judge of worth.

Student posing on Lincoln Statue

Student posing on Lincoln Statue [5]

There is also a legend that if a virgin walks past the Lincoln statue he will stand up [5] [3] [8]. Standing up for someone can be seen as a sign of respect, so the legend is indicative of a belief that the Lincoln stature may have “old fashioned” values. There is also the joke that since the statue has never stood up before there are no virgins at the university. This depicts a Lincoln who is omniscient and who to a certain degree does judge based on what he knows, but this judgment does not cancel out the collective memory of Lincoln, as a friend to the students, that is enacted by the trust they put in him to help them.

Lincoln is also a figure in holiday celebrations and protests on campus. On holidays he is given hats to fit the theme. In the recent past Abe was draped with clothing to protest sweat shops [3] [7]. He was painted red to protest McCarthyism [9]. In these protests Lincoln becomes both judge and judged. Through his relationship with the university, as a symbol of it, he is judged with it. Any failing of the university can be reflected on him, but some protesters use Lincoln’s image in support of their cause. They claim him to be on their side. He can be their friend but he is also sometimes more than that.

Memory of Lincoln at the University of Wisconsin is enacted through interactions with the statue. The students create a memory of Lincoln as their trusted friend over the course of their academic experience. He is the silent stoic guard of their success. Lincoln’s memory has also become involved in the reputation of the university as his statue has become a symbol the university.

Works Cited

1. “Campus Traditions.” University of Wisconsin–Madison. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

2. “Slideshow: Madison in 100 Objects.The Cap Times. Wisconsin State Journal, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

3. Finkelmeyer, Todd. “The Lincoln Statue Atop Bascom Hall Gets Scrubbed.The Cap Times. 19 Aug. 2009. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

4. Mentzer, Robert. “Why Wisconsin Loved Abraham Lincoln.Daily Herald Media. 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

5. Price, Jenny. “On Wisconsin Magazine.On Wisconsin Magazine. Spring 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

6. “Photography.Commencement. University of Wisconsin, Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

7. Waitrak, Kierra. “UW-Madison’s Lincoln Statue Turns 100.University of Wisconsin-Madison News. 22 June 2009. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.\

8. “University of Wisconsin Traditions.Surrounded by Reality. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

9. Peckinpaugh, Timothy. “Monuments in Madison, Wisconsin.Travel Tips. USA Today. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

10. “Abraham Lincoln Statue at Bascom Hall.” Photo Library. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.

1 thought on ““Abe” at The University of Wisconsin

  1. Jorge Vallecillo

    First of all, great post! The interaction with the statue that students have almost makes it seem alive.

    When reading this post, it reminded me of the first time I visited the campus when I was pondering on attending the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan a few years ago. The statue was not anything in substantial in terms of size, however, the details on the statue was impressive.

    My mind wonders on the imagined community created from the students on campus. How many of them know the history of the statue, and, in fact, the legacy behind Lincoln himself? Do students who sit on his nap, or even kiss him on the cheek; take for granted the reason the university placed the statue there in the first place? Or do they trust their judgments and take the invented tradition at face value? How many students at UNC see the line outside the Old Well at the beginning of classes and join right when they hear the invented tradition of good luck? Here we see two communities who have an imagined aspect where culture supports belongingness.

    What shocked me most from the post was the donations aspect taken from the photos. They show a form of usable memory from Lincoln, in order to gain a form of commoditized memory. Ironically, the money goes to the student philanthropy (love for humanity) campaign, and Lincoln himself is “The Great Emancipator,” as mentioned briefly in my post. Connecting the nourishment for humanity Lincoln did for America by freeing the country from segregation and specifically freeing blacks.

    –Jorge Vallecillo

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