About the Memorial
Abraham Lincoln’s contemporaries did not require historical perspective to recognize his monumental impact on the nation. Lincoln not only saved the Union, preserving both its government and boundaries, he reinvigorated the nation’s founding principle – that all men are created equal. No national memorial had been contemplated for any president except George Washington, yet talk of building one to Lincoln began even as he lingered on his deathbed. There was an obvious appropriateness to the concept that Lincoln, the preserver of the Union, should join Washington, the founder of that Union, in being honored on the National Mall. Even the location of the Lincoln Memorial reflects this great symmetry in thought and design. The Capitol Building lies on a direct line with the monument to Washington, the president at the time Capitol construction was begun, and with the memorial to Lincoln, the president at the time the Capitol finally was completed. However, the fitness of this location would not be realized for several decades after Lincoln’s death.
Until the late 1800s, the current site of the Lincoln Memorial did not exist and the Washington Monument marked the shoreline of the Potomac River. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the river, the dredged silt deposited along its banks expanded the land to its current configuration. Almost immediately, the reclaimed land was proposed as the site for a memorial to Lincoln, but this nearly mile-wide swath of dredged mud formed an unappealing space. More and more people recognized the viability of the area after landscaping and engineering transformed its appearance by the early 1900s. The decision to place the memorial at its current location came in 1913, and construction was started the following year. Henry Bacon designed the building, Daniel French sculpted the statue, and Jules Guerin painted the two murals. Working together, they created an iconic symbol of our nation and our ideals.
When the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, the United States, although torn by the Civil War, felt unified as never before. Citizens of the North and South had fought together in a World War. They had shared the bloodshed and then the victory. As a result, the dedication ceremony celebrated, even reveled in the message of unity proclaimed by this memorial. Yet, as the ceremony exalted one thing, it largely overlooked another. Aside from the Union veterans in the soldiers’ section, those attending the 1922 dedication ceremony were segregated along racial lines. It seems that some of the people who dedicated the building failed to dedicate themselves to its full meaning. Some may have chosen to forget the meaning of equality represented here, but the memorial remained steadfast in its advocacy for equality.
This site continues to hold the meaning and to resonate with the message. In time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave new voice to the meanings that reverberated through the stone. King had made himself heard from a jail in Alabama, and Albany, Georgia, and from the west side of Chicago. Yet, when many think of Martin Luther King today, they think of his speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As he gave the memorial new voice, the memorial responded and amplified that voice. The nation was reminded that it must remain dedicated to its founding principles.
In 2009, the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and the four score and seven year anniversary of the May 30, 1922 ceremony, the National Park Service held a rededication retrospective at the Lincoln Memorial. We realize that the building does not require rededication; it has remained dedicated to its purpose and to us. The memorial has been as steadfast as stone; it never has stopped delivering the message. It is for all Americans, rather, to be rededicated here to all the ideals and meanings this place represents. The Lincoln Memorial remains here, with timeless patience, reminding us every day that we must always strive toward a united, equal, and free society. We only need to listen.
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