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Reading Lincoln Aright

Clear thinking about our monumental heritage is badly needed before the next iconoclastic rampage erupts.

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(By STUDIO MELANGE/Shutterstock)

During the Juneteenth holiday weekend celebrating the abolition of slavery, I drove across our nation’s capital for a look at the Emancipation Memorial, a monument consisting of two life-size figures, Abraham Lincoln and a newly freed slave. The work of the Yankee sculptor Thomas Ball (1819-1911), the memorial—also known as the Freedman’s Memorial—was installed in Washington’s spacious, seven-acre Lincoln Park in 1876. The bronze statuary was paid for by donations from African-Americans, mainly soldiers who had served in the Union army. The funding campaign originated, however, with a former slave, Charlotte Scott, who had been emancipated when her Unionist owner moved from Virginia to Ohio during the Civil War. Congress foot the bill for the ten-foot-tall granite pedestal, which Ball did not design.

The Emancipation Memorial in Washington's Lincoln Park.
Credit: Catesby Leigh

Deeply moved by the news of the president’s death, Scott wanted a Lincoln monument, and that’s what Washington, DC got. But Frederick Douglass, who delivered a lengthy oration at its unveiling—the cord having been pulled by President Ulysses S. Grant—expressed serious misgivings about the freedman’s pose in a letter to a newspaper only days later, describing him as “couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal.” There’s no debating the subordinate position of the crouching freedman, over whom a standing Lincoln looms. And it is hardly surprising that calls for the monument’s removal proliferated at the time of the George Floyd protests. Given the intensity of the civil disorder, serious damage was a real possibility. The National Park Service, which is responsible for maintaining Lincoln Park, erected a fence around the monument during the protests.

The removal campaign failed—in Washington. But a copy of the Emancipation Memorial erected in Boston in 1879 was banished from its Park Square site.

My interest in the Emancipation Memorial was piqued by commentaries in its defense by two Ivy League historians, Allen G. Guelzo of Princeton and James Hankins of Harvard, that appeared in the Wall Street Journal and New Criterion. The Journal piece appeared in June 2020, when the protests were going full steam; it is an abbreviated version of the New Criterion essay that ran later in the year. It struck me that the professors were absolutely right to advocate the Lincoln Park monument’s retention, but seriously mistaken in their reasoning. My Juneteenth visit reinforced that conclusion. At least I can report that I didn’t encounter any angry demonstrators or any protective fencing. Just bicyclists, sunbathers lolling in the abundant grass, and parents and children at a playground in one corner of the park. The monument bears some graffiti, but it really wasn’t getting much attention. The fact remains that it has been a familiar Washington landmark ever since its unveiling.

The Guelzo-Hankins commentary might lead one to think that the Emancipation Memorial fulfills latter-day criteria for iconographic appropriateness in the treatment of its theme, insofar as the freedman is endowed with “agency.” The problem is that the professors rather drastically misrepresent its iconography. This matters more than one might think. Clear thinking about our monumental heritage is badly needed before the next iconoclastic rampage erupts.

Guelzo and Hankins tell us Lincoln “steps back” from the semi-nude freedman kneeling in front of him “as though to make room” for his rise to a standing position. Further along in the New Criterion essay they say, “Lincoln seems to stand back with one foot, as though in mingled amazement and appreciation of this new apparition, a free black man.” Lincoln in fact seems to be doing no such thing, and “the mingled amazement and appreciation” are another figment of the professors’ imagination. Lincoln’s visage projects authority and determination. There is no suggestion whatever of anything other than a static stance on his part, especially as one of his feet abuts a pedestal on which reside a book and a scroll, the latter standing for the Emancipation Proclamation. For a Florence-based sculptor who imbibed the neoclassicism of his era, a backward step would have been completely alien to the ancient standing-statesman genre to which Lincoln obviously belongs, his frock coat and other modern attire notwithstanding. The professors’ error possibly arises from the fact that, in profile, Lincoln’s torso arches back somewhat from his trunk. But the curvature of the spine happens to be an elementary fact of human anatomy.

Emancipation Group, an early version of the memorial's statuary.
Credit: Courtesy of the Colby College Museum of Art

Guelzo and Hankins also tell us that “Lincoln’s left arm is held out in a welcoming gesture, as though to clasp the young man by the shoulder as he rises.” Also untrue. That gesture is unchanged from Ball’s original design for the two figures, executed at half-life-size scale a decade before the Lincoln Park monument’s creation. In that earlier version, the professors tell us, Lincoln appears to be “casting some kind of spell” over a still more youthful freedman, given the latter’s “passive, almost dreamlike state.” To judge by the cast of the 1865 bronze in the Colby College Museum of Art, that isn’t true either, as we will see. In any case, this freedman was replaced, in the Lincoln Park monument, with a more mature and imposing figure whose head was modeled after a photograph of Archibald Alexander, a onetime fugitive slave. But in both statuary versions, Lincoln’s extended left hand is modeled with the forefinger separated from the others, a classical mode of articulating the hand that, in this context, is obviously meant to convey the idea of authority or power. Alexander is the beneficiary of Lincoln’s benevolent exercise of his office.

Rear view of the Emancipation Memorial.
Credit: Catesby Leigh

Guelzo and Hankins note that when the monument is viewed “from below” Alexander looks larger than Lincoln. They erroneously attribute this effect to “foreshortening,” a pictorial technique in which forms lying in a plane that is not perpendicular to the spectator’s line of sight are abbreviated in order to create a realistic impression of depth in perspective. But at least the optical illusion the professors note is real. It is also of minimal import. When we look up at the two figures from below the main impression is of Lincoln looming over Alexander. This is, again, a Lincoln monument. Lincoln is fully visible both from the front and the rear of the monument. From the rear, Alexander is largely screened by the stump of a whipping post with a floral vine growing on it and drapery cast over it, as well as by Lincoln himself. It matters, of course, that Alexander has a more powerful presence than his predecessor in Ball’s half-life-size version. But to suggest that the fact Alexander would be as tall as Lincoln if standing up “form[s] a visual correlative to the new state of legal equality between the two men” is to inflate, preposterously, the significance of a trivia-quiz factoid.

The 1865 bronze is a rather curious work. In that version, the young freedman sports the Phrygian cap of emancipation. His pose is closely akin to Alexander’s—leaning forward in the crouching position, with the fingers of his left hand resting on the ground. As for his “passive, almost dreamlike state,” his gaze is in fact directed to the Union shield that Lincoln is holding. That shield is perched over four stacked books and, on top of them, the partially unwound scroll bearing the Proclamation. (There is no pedestal in this earlier bronze.) The undeniable oddity is that the young freedman is looking at the shield’s concave interior with its grip, not the convex exterior bearing stars and stripes. Lincoln’s right hand clasps not only the shield, but also a victory wreath pressed against its exterior. Though rendered less intelligible by the shield’s orientation, the intended message seems to be that Lincoln is inviting the freedman to ponder the colossal martial effort that, under the martyred president’s command, brought about his liberation. In addition to his gaze, the stylized articulation of the fingers of the freedman’s right hand suggests contemplation. He is certainly not “rubbing” his left arm where it was recently shackled, as the professors claim. His left wrist still bears a shackle in the Colby bronze.

A detailed view of the memorial's Lincoln figure.
Credit: Catesby Leigh

In the final version, Lincoln’s right arm rests on the Proclamation scroll and a book, the pedestal beneath them being decorated with the Roman fasces symbolizing republican authority, a Union shield bearing thirteen stars (for the reincorporated Confederate states), and a portrait bust of George Washington in relief. Alexander, who wears no cap, is slightly reoriented relative to his younger predecessor, who was aligned so as to be looking at the shield. Alexander is situated perpendicular to Lincoln so as to peer out into the distance. He is a more engaging figure than Lincoln, whose modeling leaves something to be desired. We get too little sense of the animating form under the latter’s vesture, which almost looks as if it were clothing a mannikin. If the muscular freedman is not rising to his feet—the spectator’s take on this depends on the angle of vision—he is certainly about to. But his upper left leg (the left leg being the more visible one) is still pushing down on the calf, not rising from it. Alexander’s most definite muscular action is in his right arm, raised slightly above his right thigh, with the hand locking a sundered shackle in its grip. The freedman is taking stock of his new birth as a citizen.

The Guelzo-Hankins New Criterion essay tells an important story about how the Emancipation Memorial came to be. The professors are absolutely correct when they argue that interpreting it as a monument to white supremacy amounts to caricature. Their iconographic misinterpretation, however, obscures an important aspect of public monuments’ role: as landmarks indicating where we have stood as a political and cultural community over the course of our history. Nowadays, a monument to Lincoln or emancipation would not be conceived in the Emancipation Memorial’s explicitly hierarchical terms. And the professors would have done well to address that issue instead of burying it under a pile of wishful thinking.

During, and after, the Floyd protests we saw enough, and hugely more than enough, of the purgation of American civic art—largely as a result of fanaticism or cowardice—that can only serve to degrade the nation’s public realm. And, as I stated out the outset, other iconoclastic rampages carried out by barbarians who think they have a monopoly on truth and justice almost certainly lie in our future. That is why it is of crucial importance to come to terms with our monumental heritage in all its complexity and polyvalence—to make sure the vandals don’t catch us unawares next time around.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.


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