Making the Monument

Making the Monument

At the dedication for the Lincoln Memorial, President Harding portrayed Lincoln as the president who “maintained union and nationality” rather than the president who ended slavery. Changing the monument’s meaning took political struggle.

(Tshearer2562/Wikimedia Commons)

Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French
By Harold Holzer
Princeton Architectural Press, 2019, 368 pp.


Daniel Chester French is an unknown figure to most Americans, but his crowning achievement, the massive sculpture of Abraham Lincoln that visitors see upon entering the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, is a different story. No other American statue has achieved such widespread recognition.

For French, who was born in 1850, the Lincoln Memorial commission was the opportunity of a lifetime, but there was nothing inevitable about the form French’s Lincoln took or the meaning his Lincoln has acquired over the years. As Harold Holzer makes clear in his important new biography, Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French, French’s decision to sculpt a heroic Lincoln seated on a throne-like chair came only after much internal debate on his part. How his Abraham Lincoln would be interpreted remained unresolved during French’s lifetime. In President Warren Harding’s speech at the 1922 Lincoln Memorial dedication, he portrayed Lincoln as the president who “maintained union and nationality” rather than the president who ended slavery. Few would have predicted the Lincoln Memorial becoming, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., a “hallowed spot” for the civil rights movement. That change required political effort.

Holzer’s full-scale biography, the perfect companion to Christopher A. Thomas’s The Lincoln Memorial and American Life, comes at a time when there is a bitter national debate over what to do with the still-standing statues of Confederate generals and politicians erected in the South during the Jim Crow era. Holzer does not attempt to resolve this problem, but Monument Man reminds us that for Northern sculptors and artists, as much as for those in the South, the Civil War was a subject of passionate interest. The art wars that we are having today might have been taken on over a century ago had Northerners been more willing to confront the South over its perpetuation of the ideology of the Lost Cause.

French’s work coincided with that of his friend and rival Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who made the anguish of the Civil War his subject in his Boston Commons bronze relief of Colonel Robert Shaw leading his African-American troops into battle and in the Standing Lincoln he did for Lincoln Park in Chicago.

When he was awarded the commission for the statue of Lincoln that would go inside the Lincoln Memorial, French was at the height of his influence. As a a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and chair of the Fine Arts Commission in Washington, there was nobody of significance in the art world that French did not know. Nor was there any doubt of French’s ability to deliver sculpture suited for a major occasion. As Holzer points out, the success of French’s Abraham Lincoln has obscured the breadth of his accomplishments as a neoclassical sculptor.

French started his career at the age of twenty-five with the statue of the Minute Man he executed for his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. From then on, he did increasingly important and complex work. French sculpted the John Harvard statue for Harvard’s Memorial Hall, Alma Mater for Columbia’s Low Library, and the colossal statue of The Republic for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. During this period the Civil War was never far from French’s mind. Its impact is reflected in the contemplative Lincoln that French sculpted for the State Capitol of Nebraska, his Ulysses Grant statue for Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, and his equestrian statue of General Joseph Hooker on the State House grounds in Boston.

French’s Lincoln Memorial statue was an extension of these earlier projects, only on a much grander scale. Following Lincoln’s death in 1865, there had been talk of building a memorial for him, but it was not until 1911, two years after the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, that Congress established a federal Lincoln Memorial Commission. It took two more years before architect Henry Bacon’s design for the Lincoln Memorial—a Greek-style rectangular temple with thirty-six Doric columns, one for each state in the country at the time of Lincoln’s assassination—was approved.

It was within this neoclassical setting, inspired by the Parthenon, that French had to place his Lincoln. For a brief time, there was talk of installing an enlarged version of Saint-Gaudens’s Standing Lincoln, inside Bacon’s Memorial, and French himself entertained the idea of sculpting a version of the Lincoln he had done for the Nebraska Capitol. But soon it became clear to Bacon and French that only an original statue of Lincoln would be suitable for the Lincoln Memorial rising on the National Mall.

What French arrived at was a concept entirely different from the Lincolns that he and Saint-Gaudens had already done. French’s Lincoln was no longer a politician pondering the future. He was a president sure of the future. “What I wanted to convey was the mental and physical strength of the great war President and his confidence in his ability to carry the thing through to a successful finish,” French would say. His decision to portray a transcendent Lincoln gazing at the capitol at the other end of the mall reflected this view, and so did the scale of his statue, which stood nineteen feet high and weighed over two hundred tons. Had French’s Lincoln risen from his chair, he would have been thirty feet tall.

“I have no doubt that people will read into my statue of Lincoln a great deal that I did not consciously think. Whether it will be for good or ill, who can say,” French observed shortly after the Lincoln Memorial opened to the public. There was every reason for French to worry. At the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, President Harding was not the only one playing down Lincoln’s importance for African Americans. African Americans who came to hear the dedication speeches were herded into a “colored section” on the memorial grounds, and African-American dignitaries were seated in a section of their own a block away from the memorial. After he finished his talk, the only African-American speaker at the Lincoln Memorial dedication, Robert Russa Morton, Booker T. Washington’s successor as the head of what today is Tuskegee University, was ushered to a spot in the crowd rather than back to a place alongside his fellow speakers.

Today’s vision of the Lincoln Memorial as sacred space for protesting racial injustice took years to evolve. The first breakthrough occurred on Easter Sunday 1939, when the African-American classical singer Marian Anderson, with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, gave a free concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she had been barred from singing at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall, which had a white-artists-only policy. The second breakthrough came twenty-four years later during the 1963 March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. To his credit, Holzer gives both these political turning points the importance they deserve. He rightly sees them as enhancing the work of America’s “greatest monument man.”

Nicolaus Mills, an editorial board member at Dissent, is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial.

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