Abraham Lincoln had scarcely been elected as the sixteenth president when the death threats began to arrive. They continued all through his presidency with such regularity that he set aside a special section of his upright desk in the White House, marked simply “Assassination,” to hold them. He should have taken them more seriously. After giving a speech on April 11, 1865, proposing at the end of the Civil War that freed slaves and black Union Army veterans in Louisiana be given the vote, an enraged white supremacist promised that he would “put him through.” And three nights later, that is just what that white supremacist—the actor John Wilkes Booth—did.
One hundred and fifty-five years later, some of the descendants of the people Lincoln determined to free from slavery are, by a cruel twist of logic, demanding the toppling of the bronze Freedman’s Memorial (sometimes known as the Emancipation Memorial) to Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. “This statue right here embodies the white supremacy and the disempowerment of black people that is forced upon us by white people,” announced Glenn Foster, the founder of Free Neighborhood, at a raucous meeting held at the Memorial on June 23. Marcus Goodwin, a candidate for an at-large seat on the D.C. District Council, assembled a petition for the statue’s removal with more than 5,000 signatures. And D.C.’s Congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, announced in a tweet that, since Lincoln Park is National Park Service property, she was introducing legislation in Congress to move the statue because “the designers of the Emancipation Statue in Lincoln Park in DC didn’t take into account the views of African Americans. . . . It shows.”
But what, exactly, is the message of the Emancipation Memorial? And is it true that the views of African Americans were not taken into account by the artist and the patrons responsible for setting up the statue in 1876? The historical record suggests otherwise. The work’s sculptor, Thomas Ball, was not a black man—unsurprisingly, since there were no established black sculptors in the 1860s and ’70s when the monument was made. But the original impulse for the work came from a freedwoman, Charlotte Scott; the statue was entirely funded by the contributions of former slaves; the design of the statue was thoroughly revised in response to African-American sentiment; and the celebrations for the unveiling of the statue in 1876 were almost entirely the work of Washington D.C.’s African-American community. No work of American sculpture in the nineteenth century, in fact, was more the product of collective African-American agency than the Freedman’s Memorial.
No work of American sculpture in the nineteenth century, in fact, was more the product of collective African-American agency than the Freedman’s Memorial.
The creation of the statue was an unlikely intersection of two unrelated movements, both originating in the news of Lincoln’s assassination. Charlotte Scott was born enslaved in Virginia sometime in 1800 and labored for the family of Dr. William Rucker in Covington, Virginia. Rucker had no objections to slaveholding, but he was a Unionist and in 1862 was forced to flee across the Ohio River to Marietta, Ohio. There, Rucker freed Scott and began paying her wages. Lincoln’s assassination deeply moved her: “The colored people have lost their best friend on earth,” she said: “Mr. Lincoln was our best friend, and I will give five dollars of my wages toward erecting a monument in his memory.” Her five dollars went into the hands of Cornelius Durant Battelle, the pastor of the First Methodist Church in Marietta, who “received her offering and gave notice through the press that [he] would receive other donations and cheerfully do what [he] could to promote so noble an act.” At the same time, Rucker also contacted Brigadier General Thomas C. H. Smith (a fellow Mariettan, but in 1865 the commandant of the Department of Missouri), asking for help in publicizing Scott’s monument proposal. Smith had more than enough on his hands with the winding-down of the war, so he turned to James E. Yeatman and the resources of the Western Sanitary Commission.
Despite its name, the Western Sanitary Commission had nothing to do with sanitation. “Sanitary” was, in 1865, a catch-all term for any agency that raised civilian funds to aid Union soldiers (on the model of the modern uso). Just as important, though, was the fact that the Western Sanitary Commission had nothing to do with the far larger and more influential United States Sanitary Commission, which operated out of New York City and boasted the leadership of the Unitarian minister Henry Bellows, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and the lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong. The ussc hoped to expand its own branches into the West. But New York was another universe from Missouri, and in 1861, the then-commandant of the Department of Missouri, John C. Frémont, urged the formation of an independent Western version of the Sanitary Commission, headquartered in St. Louis. Under Frémont’s aegis, a Western Sanitary Commission was organized around five prominent St. Louisans: James E. Yeatman (a banker and the Commission president), John B. Johnson (a medical doctor), Carlos Greely (the Commission treasurer), George Partridge (a merchant), and the Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot, a New England transplant and the pastor of the city’s first Unitarian congregation.
Like its New York rival, the wsc raised funds to build military hospitals, outfit hospital steamboats, and pay for nurses and doctors. But the leadership of the wsc, beginning with Frémont, had always had a decidedly abolitionist tinge, and by 1863, the wsc had expanded its reach to assisting refugees, establishing freedmen’s schools for the newly emancipated slaves, and even organizing a Freedmen’s Orphans Home in St. Louis. This was not as easy a task as it might seem: although Missouri remained loyal to the Union in the Civil War, it was also a slave state, and Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation specifically exempted Missouri. It was not until January 1865 that a sufficiently Unionist state legislature finally moved to abolish slavery. The wsc commissioners, however, shared Frémont’s original anti-slavery impulse, and no one more so than William Greenleaf Eliot. He “opposed slavery . . . on moral and religious grounds, its wrong and injustice,” and was “a friend and sympathizer with the oppressed and down-trodden, doing much to alleviate their condition and to inspire a fellow-feeling in their behalf,” even to the point that he “once bought a slave women to save her from ruin, and . . . set her free.”
It was, in that environment, only natural for William Rucker to have written to his fellow Mariettan General Smith about Charlotte Scott’s gift, and for Smith to have turned at once to Yeatman and the wsc as the perfect vehicle for raising the funds necessary to bring Scott’s monument proposal to fruition. With Smith’s encouragement and the understanding that “the monument is to be built by black people’s money exclusively,” Yeatman energetically passed the hat to black Union Army units, as those blacks most likely to have spare cash to contribute. By June, “the colored soldiers of this district . . . feeling the great obligations they are under to our late President, Mr. lincoln,” had raised over $16,000.
Yeatman energetically passed the hat to black Union Army units, as those blacks most likely to have spare cash to contribute.
Although $16,000 was a colossal sum to come out of black pockets in 1865 (equivalent to about $250,000 today), there remained some uncertainty about what it could buy. One of William Greenleaf Eliot’s congregation, Wayman Crow, had as a protégé one of the rising stars of American sculpture, Harriet Hosmer, and it did not take much persuading to have Hosmer lay a proposal and model before Eliot and the wsc. After devising at least two preliminary models, what Hosmer provided the commission in 1867 was a grandiose, neoclassical affair, a plaza with “four statues . . . placed at the four outer angles . . . which display the progressive stages of Liberation: 1st. The slave appears exposed in chains for sale. 2nd. Laboring on a plantation. 3rd. Guiding and assisting the loyal troops. 4th. Serving as a soldier of the Union.” Lincoln would appear in four bas-reliefs around “an octagonal plinth,” showing the Great Emancipator in “1st. His birth and early occupations as builder of log cabins, rail splitter, flat-boatman and farmer. 2nd. His career as a Lawyer and his inauguration as President of the United States. 3rd. Four memorable events of the war, and 4th. The assassination of the President: the funeral procession and final interment at Springfield.” Hosmer was convinced that the monument would be “the most interesting and important of any of modern times.” There was only one problem: the whole project was estimated, in January 1867, to cost “a quarter of a million dollars”—1865 dollars. For the time being, the freedmen’s money went into the bank “at interest, and held with an indefinite hope of its enlargement.”
The monument project might easily have languished there, had not William Greenleaf Eliot taken a sabbatical to Europe in 1869. Passing through Florence, he stopped at the studio of the expatriate Massachusetts sculptor Thomas Ball. Ball, a self-taught painter and sculptor as well as a fine semi-professional baritone, was part of a rising wave of young Americans who had gone to Italy in the decades before and after the Civil War to study classical and Renaissance art. Sculptors in particular needed to work in Europe, as Protestant America did not look kindly on artists who wanted to improve their knowledge of the human body by studying undraped men and women. In any case, Eliot was surprised to find that Ball had created a half-size bronze memorial to Lincoln as the Emancipator just after Lincoln’s assassination. In 1865, Ball had been shaken by “the terrible news, just arrived from America,” of Lincoln’s murder. “I could not free my mind from the horror of it,” and “began a study, half life-size,” of Lincoln and an emancipated slave, “which had been bubbling in my brain ever since receiving those horrible tidings.” His model in clay was not yet finished before it was “ordered in bronze by Mr. — of Boston” (Ball did not identify whom in Boston). At least four bronze copies of this early version of the Emancipation Monument survive in various American museums.
Ball had no thought of turning his memorial into a full-sized monument until Eliot’s visit. The work was too small in scale for an outdoor public monument. But, as Eliot saw, it was dedicated to “one single idea, representing the great work for the accomplishment of which Abraham Lincoln lived and died.” It would also cost substantially less than Hosmer’s grandiose project, and that was a consideration worth pondering if the monument were ever to see the light of day. Back in St. Louis, Eliot “spoke strongly in its praise” and distributed photographs of Ball’s bronze group; it helped, too, that Ball indicated “that the price to be paid would be altogether a secondary consideration.” The commissioners were persuaded, “and an order was given for its immediate execution in bronze.” The new statue was not finally cast in bronze in Munich until 1874 (or 1875: the exact date of casting seems lost to time), and even then, Congress had to appropriate $3,000 further to purchase a site and a pedestal for the statue in Washington.
Seen from below, the foreshortening of the two figures makes the scale of the freedman’s body appear larger than Lincoln’s. His tensed leg and foot, displayed prominently to the viewer, emphasize his agency.
Despite Eliot’s enthusiasm, Ball’s design was accompanied by a certain touchiness from the very beginning. Ball’s original bronze, dated 1865, showed a slave boy, not a man, in a passive, almost dreamlike state, which made Lincoln appear to be casting some kind of spell over him. The boy’s original pose shows him resting on his haunches with his right arm drawn across his body, the open hand rubbing the left arm where it had lately been shackled. The pose was adapted from a well-known Hellenistic statue, Crouching Venus, showing Venus surprised while bathing: she screens her nakedness by turning away from the viewer and covering her breasts with her arm. Ball undoubtedly knew the Roman copy of the work acquired by the Medici and on view in the Uffizi museum. To a classically trained eye, the slave boy’s posture would thus have suggested a feminine pudor, proper shame or decency. Behind the slave boy is a whipping post, a broken ball and chain, and other implements of restraint and punishment. The whipping post has been snapped off at the top, and weeds have begun to creep up around it. A cloak lies over the post as though ready to cover the nakedness of the slave boy. On his head he wears the cap of liberty, but a student of the classics would have known that such a cap was also a status marker, showing that the wearer was a libertinus, a former slave, inferior in status to a freeborn Roman citizen.
The iconography of the original bronze also has striking differences from the later Freedman’s Memorial. Lincoln’s right hand holds a shield with the stars and stripes embossed upon it, which rests upon four massive folio volumes. The volumes bear no titles, but are probably meant to stand for the four volumes of the Corpus iuris civilis, the compilation of Roman law that was the basis of the Western legal tradition. The Emancipation Proclamation is pinned to the stack of books by the tip of the American shield, as though to suggest that the old law of the ancient slave empire has been corrected by the virtue of the American republic.
Ball’s “Emancipation Group,” as he called it, was a fine piece of sculpture for college-educated American gentlemen who appreciated its classical references, but it was less suited to serve as a Freedman’s Memorial. Sensitive to the possibility of offending the freedmen who had paid for the statue by representing the freed slave in a servile posture (such as the one found in a widely circulated Currier and Ives print of 1863), the commissioners decided that Ball’s original figure was too boyish and passive. They insisted that Ball redesign the freedman as an older, more powerful and independent figure. To that end, William Greenleaf Eliot proposed substituting for the child-like figure a black man from St. Louis, Archer Alexander, whom Eliot had come to know in a singularly dramatic way.
Archer Alexander was born in slavery in Virginia in 1828 and moved to Missouri with his owner’s son, Thomas Delaney. Delaney, in turn, sold Alexander to a farmer, James Hollman. The outbreak of the Civil War excited black hopes “that the day of freedom was at hand,” and in 1863, Alexander slipped away from his work-place in a brickyard in St. Louis and blended into the turbulent racial unsettledness of the city. He was hired as a day laborer by William Greenleaf Eliot, who gradually came to suspect that Alexander was a fugitive. When Alexander admitted this, Eliot (because Missouri was not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation) offered to buy his freedom from Hollman. Angrily, Hollman refused, and even tried to have Alexander kidnapped. But Eliot obtained a “military protection” from Franklin Dick, the provost-marshal of the Department of Missouri, and Alexander remained under Eliot’s eye until emancipation became a legal reality there in 1865. If there were anyone who, in Eliot’s mind, could provide a realistic model of a newly freed slave, it would be Archer Alexander, and, “at the request of the Western Sanitary Commission, the active agent in collecting the funds and erecting the monument, the figure of Archer Alexander, as the representative of his race, was substituted.”
The statue as eventually redesigned by Ball changed radically the way the freedman was represented. The new bronze, dated 1874, was nine feet tall, nearly three times the size of the 1865 bronze. The sculptural group sits atop a ten-foot-high granite pedestal and shows a muscular, semi-nude black male in the act of rising to his feet. Alexander the freedman is no longer passive, but rising “to break the chain that had bound him.” The figure is posed at a right angle to Lincoln’s standing figure, which steps back as though to make room for the rising figure. A more emphatic perpendicular posing of the two figures expresses that their actions are independent. Lincoln’s left arm is held out in a welcoming gesture, as though to clasp the young man by the shoulder as he rises. Standing, the figure of Alexander would be as tall as Lincoln (who was 6’4”), forming a visual correlative to the new state of legal equality between the two men. Seen from below, the foreshortening of the two figures makes the scale of the freedman’s body appear larger than Lincoln’s. His tensed leg and foot, displayed prominently to the viewer, emphasize his agency. His wrists still wear the shackles that had but recently been attached to chains; his right fist is clenched, the left falls by his side in a relaxed gesture. His head is held high, and there is a determined, hopeful expression on his face.
Although Lincoln stands, he does not rule. The young man is moving upwards on his own accord, and his gaze is directed somewhere far beyond Lincoln or any cues Lincoln might be thought to be giving. In another revision to the 1865 design, Lincoln seems to stand back with one foot, as though in mingled amazement and appreciation of this new apparition, a free black man.
The iconography of the redesigned statue has also changed. In the new version, Lincoln’s right hand grasps a scroll that contains the Emancipation Proclamation. The scroll Lincoln holds is partially unrolled, symbolizing the unfinished nature of the promise that it contains. It rests upon a pedestal bordered by fasces, the symbol of legitimate state power, a relief sculpture of George Washington, and thirty-six stars representing the states: twenty-five stars of the victorious Union above, eleven stars signifying the eleven states of the Confederacy below. At the base of the figural group is a single word: emancipation. (In addition to the 1865 and 1874 versions, there survives an intermediate version in marble, formerly in the possession of William Greenleaf Eliot and now in the museum of Washington University, St. Louis, the university Eliot founded. Slightly larger in scale than the 1865 bronze, the marble group represents the slave boy in a form essentially unchanged from the 1865 bronze, while the iconography of the pedestal supporting the Emancipation Proclamation is already that of the 1874 Freedman’s Memorial.)
There remained for the wsc the question of where the monument should be situated, and how much it would cost to buy land and provide a pedestal, and so the wsc continued to issue circulars, solicit funds, and commission prominent black leaders like the lawyer John Mercer Langston to bring “the subject to the attention and patronage of the freed people of the South . . . especially to the consideration of any colored troops still retained in the United States service.” The wsc found itself competing for funds with two other Lincoln monument projects, one in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, and the other sponsored by the prominent black clergyman Henry Highland Garnet, for a National Lincoln Monument in the form of an institute to educate the children of the freedpeople. “There,” declared one of the National Lincoln Monument’s promoters, William Howard Day, “let the riches of learning be brought, ready to be laid on the knee and in the lap of every colored child in the land.”
But Garnet’s project was multiracial in its backers and funding; the wsc was determined that the funding for its monument should be entirely a black affair. So it required, in the end, an act of Congress, setting aside Lincoln Park (where the Union Army’s Lincoln Hospital had stood during the Civil War), eleven blocks east of the Capitol, and making a $3,000 appropriation “for a pedestal for Ball’s bronze statue of Lincoln,” before Ball’s sculpture even had a home. The finished bronze Emancipation Monument was at last shipped to the United States in March 1876. In anticipation, the wsc moved to create a grand committee to oversee the dedication ceremonies, which were set for April 14, the eleventh anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. The “committee of arrangements” read like a who’s who of black America. John Mercer Langston headed the committee, and it also included Frederick Douglass, P. B. S. Pinchback (the former black governor of Louisiana and future counsel for Homer Plessy in Plessy v. Ferguson), C. C. Antoine (Louisiana’s lieutenant-governor), Blanche K. Bruce (a U.S. senator from Mississippi), Horace Morris (the editor of the Louisville Colored Citizen), Robert Brown Elliott (the former Congressman and speaker of the South Carolina state assembly), and fifty-six others.
Langston released the program for the dedication on March 14, calling on Congress to declare a “general holiday,” announcing Frederick Douglass as the “orator” for the dedication, and inviting “the friends of impartial freedom, equal rights, and free institutions . . . to join in the interesting and appropriate exercises of the occasion. Let us all join, without distinction of party or nationality, in honoring the American martyred President and emancipator.” And come they did, the Alexandria Gazette snorting on the far side of the Potomac on the eve of the dedication that “the city is swarming with negroes, decked out in holiday attire, and the ceremonies are being conducted under their auspices.” By Langston’s estimate, the crowds, arranged in a vast parade that marched at noon on April 14 from Seventeenth and K Streets to Lincoln Park, numbered “over a hundred thousand persons,” including President Ulysses S. Grant, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, the U.S. Marine Band, and “nearly all of the colored organizations in the city.”
The program began with an invocation from Bishop John M. Brown of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, followed by a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and a short speech by Yeatman briefly reviewing the history of the monument. Langston then stood to offer official thanks to the wsc and was ready to pull the drapery that concealed the monument when, on a sudden impulse and “moved by a deep sense of the fitness of such action,” he turned to Grant and invited him to “manipulate the cord,” which “would cause the fall of the drapery.” Grant stepped forward and “by touching the cord . . . unveiled the monument, consisting of a bronze group of figures of colossal size, which at once produced a grand and enthusiastic outburst of appreciation and applause.” Cannons went off, the Marine Band played Hail to the Chief, and “the popular demonstrations continued repeating themselves for many minutes” as “the people burst into spontaneous applause and exclamations of admiration.” The monument, reported the Washington National Republican, shows
the martyred President . . . standing beside a monolith, upon which is a bust of Washington in bas relief. In his right hand he holds the proclamation, while his left is stretched over a slave, upon whom his eyes are bent, and from whose limbs the shackles have just burst. The figure of the slave is that of a man worn by toil, with muscles hardened and rigid. He is represented as just rising from the earth, while his face is lighted with joy as he anticipates the full manhood of freedom.
One person who seemed more muted in his enthusiasm was Frederick Douglass, and the oration he delivered showed it. Douglass had frequently been critical of Lincoln in the first years of the Civil War, chafing at Lincoln’s apparent unwillingness to press at once for emancipation. That began to change after 1863, and especially after Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House for consultation on how to speed up the emancipation of slaves still penned-in behind Confederate lines. By 1865, Douglass was describing Lincoln as “emphatically the black man’s president”; that September he sharply condemned Henry Highland Garnet’s rival institute project, and spoke of a Lincoln monument as an expression of “one of the holiest sentiments of the human heart.” But in the intervening years of Reconstruction, much had gone sour in the promise of emancipation. Douglass’s newspaper, the New National Era, went bankrupt in 1874, along with the Freedman’s Bank that he had tried to save, and he had developed a deep and protracted quarrel with Langston—and many of the members of Langston’s committee—on issues that ran from the failure of the Bank to Langston’s hesitation at endorsing Grant’s re-election in 1872.
Now, at the dedication ceremonies, Douglass did not tremble at politely roiling Langston’s carefully orchestrated celebration. “I warmly congratulate you upon the highly interesting object which has caused you to assemble in such numbers and spirit as you have today,” Douglass began. But his hearers should understand that “Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model.” Quite otherwise: “In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man” and was “pre-eminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” Black people “were not the special objects of his consideration.” They were, at best, “his step-children: children by adoption, children by force of circumstances and necessity.” Nor was Lincoln necessarily the paladin of abolition. “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent.”
It has been easy, over the years, to fix on these words as a rebuke from Douglass to any blacks who adored Lincoln or who thought the Ball statue an adequate depiction of the real relationship of white and black in emancipation. But those who do so forget that Douglass had grievances of his own with Langston et al., and that Douglass was, unlike Langston and his committee, a preacher. Although most of Douglass’s career had been that of a secular lecturer and writer, his original molding as a public speaker was among the Methodists, and the imprint of the preacher remained with him throughout his life. He would, therefore, begin by laying out sinfulness and shortcoming, in the style of the jeremiad, but only to better contrast it by showing the path to redemption and the joy of deliverance. And this is the rhetorical strategy he followed at the Ball statue dedication. Looked at “in the light of the stern logic of great events,” Douglass continued, “we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.” True as it was that Lincoln “shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the negro,” Lincoln nevertheless “in his heart of hearts . . . loathed and hated slavery.” And if he seemed slack by the measurement of abolitionists, “measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” And for that alone, Douglass declared, working to his climax, “he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.”
And yet the touchiness about the Ball statue remained. In 1903, the art critic Lorado Taft complimented the Emancipation Memorial as a “lofty” presentation of Lincoln and “one of the inspired works of American sculpture.” But even Taft admitted that “its surface lacks vivacity of technic,” and suffers from a “monotony of texture.” Other critics were less sparing. In 1916, the black intellectual Freeman H. M. Murray wrote scathingly that the kneeling figure showed “little if any conception of the dignity and power of his own manhood”:
The group as a whole is an unsatisfactory representation. . . . The sculptor has given to the figures in this group attitudes and expressions which are too strongly suggestive of the conventional representations of Jesus and the Magdalene. In fact, Ball has come perilously near to making Mr. Lincoln appear to be saying: “Go, and sin no more,” or, “Thy sins be forgiven thee.”
In 1892, a Boston newspaper cruelly mocked the statue as an image of a shoe-shine boy, “blackening Lincoln’s boots.” Even Frederick Douglass took issue, five days after the dedication ceremonies, with the absence of a figure representing Grant, and with the figure of Archer Alexander, who, “though rising, is still on his knees and nude.” He should have been “not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”
More recent critics have inverted the entire purpose of the statue, as a monument not to emancipation, but to the continued subordination of black Americans to white supremacy. In his 2018 study, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, the art historian Kirk Savage echoed that sentiment. In Savage’s view, “Ball’s emancipated man is the very archetype of slavery: he is stripped, literally and figuratively, bereft of personal agency, social position, and accouterments of culture. . . . the monument is not really about emancipation but about its opposite—domination.”
If so, then, it is puzzling why no one in that crowd of thousands on April 14, 1876, saw such demonic messages in the Ball statue. James E. Yeatman thought that, once the figure of Archer Alexander had been substituted in the Emancipation Memorial, it was clear that Ball had made “the emancipated slave an agent in his own deliverance . . . exerting his own strength with strained muscles in breaking the chain that had bound him.” John Mercer Langston, standing with Yeatman, thought that “all rejoiced together in the wildest, most unmeasured enthusiasm.” William Greenleaf Eliot thought the statue showed Archer Alexander grasping “the chain as if in the act of breaking it,” thereby showing that “the slaves took active part in their own deliverance.” Even Archer Alexander applauded the statue: he “thank[ed] the good Lord” for delivering him “from all [his] troubles, and [that he] lived to see this.” (What irked Eliot in later years was the top-lofty attitude of those who stood “at a safe distance” from the conflict over slavery and then afterwards “severely censured . . . those who worked with faithful and self-denying energy . . . for their ‘temporizing, time-serving policy.’ ”)
In Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project,” Lincoln’s name appears only in an accusation that he regarded blacks as a “troublesome presence” and promoted forced colonization of freed slaves.
But we live in times of Afro-pessimism, in which the testimony of Eliot, Alexander, Langston, Ball, Yeatman and the others that day in Lincoln Park has little or no weight, and in which Lincoln can only appear as an avatar of oppression, and Archer Alexander only as a dispirited victim. In Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project,” Lincoln’s name appears only in an accusation that he regarded blacks as a “troublesome presence” and promoted forced colonization of freed slaves. In Hannah-Jones’s recent New York Times Magazine essay demanding reparations for slavery, “slavery’s demise” occurs in the passive voice, as though Lincoln, the Union Army, and the Civil War had never happened.
But the war did happen. It cost, by the most recent estimates, 365,000 Union lives and $13 billion (that’s $13 billion in 1865 dollars), until, as Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, every drop of blood drawn by the lash had been paid for by those drawn by the sword. To fling that away is to pretend that the deaths of the modern equivalent of over three million Americans meant nothing, that racism is a permanent feature of American life, that the evil eye can never wither. Worse still, to attack the Emancipation Memorial is more than a criticism, rightly or wrongly, of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. It suggests that there can never be mutuality of purpose, that all human relationships must be calibrated in terms of power and suspicion. The Ball statue is, ironically, a monument to black agency; even more, it is a monument to the mutual agency of black and white together in the search for human flourishing and an end to the great evil of “property in men.”
Even Frederick Douglass had second thoughts about his description of Lincoln that day in 1876. Ten years later he wrote that “In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race,” that Lincoln “was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.” Tear the statue down and we have testified, in art and in society, that we now believe that we live only as creatures of blood and impulse, slaves to the past, not free men and women.
1 Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907), of mixed African-American and Native American descent, was the first professional black sculptor. Her career was just beginning when the Emancipation Memorial was being planned.
2 The Harvard Art Museums; the University of Michigan Museum of Art; the Colby College Museum of Art; and the Art Museum of Montclair, New Jersey, the town where Ball died in 1911 at the age of ninety-two.
3 This would not even be the first Lincoln statue in Washington; that prize was claimed by Lot Flannery (1836–1922), who was at Ford’s Theatre the night of Lincoln’s assassination and whose 1868 memorial statue was installed on a forty-foot pedestal outside the D.C. city hall.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 2, on page 4
Copyright © 2024 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com