Commentary: Abraham Lincoln, the President and the Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Jeff Kubina, shared via Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License.


By Linda Stamato

Feb. 12, the birthday of our revered 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, draws our attention to Lincoln’s life and legacy, and to his noble memorial–a stunning, inspiring tribute to the man who lead our nation so ably.

It was dedicated 102 years ago, in May 1922, to honor the man who led the nation through its Civil War, preserved the union, and ended the enslavement of millions of African Americans.

The Lincoln Memorial. Photo via Wikipedia, shared under Creative Commons 4.0 International License.

Reportedly, 50,000 people attended the dedication, which was tarnished by the “custom” of the time in segregated Washington: African Americans were “shunted off to the rear,”  despite Lincoln’s own acknowledgment of “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil,” words carved on one of the memorial’s walls.

Lincoln knew what the war was about.

The monument was supposed to be about healing. But the nation, or a large part of it, was not ready for that.

Linda Stamato
Linda Stamato

Change has come. Yet evidence of how slowly often surfaces at the memorial. Recall that Marian Anderson sang there on Easter Sunday in 1939, after she was barred from performing seven blocks away at whites-only Constitution Hall.

Seventy-five thousand people attended, waiting for hours for the moment to arrive.

Anderson performed seven songs—including America–for the assembled crowd and the audience listening live over the radio.

The impact of her presence, and her singing in that space, was “transformative,” reported historian Harold Holzer, author of the 2019 book, Monument Man, about Lincoln sculptor Daniel Chester French.

Twenty-four years later, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech in that space to an estimated 250,000 people.  And 50 years after that, President Barack Obama spoke there on the anniversary of King’s speech.

View of the crowd at Aug. 28, 1963, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Photo by the U.S. Information Agency.

One president, the nation’s 45th, stirred up considerable controversy when he sought—and received—an exemption from federal law to sit and speak inside the memorial for a Fox News interview.

His presence—and his message–defiled the space. Others will differ, no doubt, but his words were nothing close to the inspiring words of Lincoln himself and of those who spoke–and sang–on the memorial’s entrance, where people are permitted to speak.

Here is some of the coverage of what Trump’s aides characterized as “a unifying moment.”

Other presidents, before being sworn into office, have visited the memorial the night before their inaugurations, ”as if to touch base with Lincoln and to be one with America’s greatest president.”

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton walk past the statue of President Lincoln on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 2013. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

The monument stands for so much more now than when it was first conceived. It is aspirational, a sacred space. It has captivated Americans since it was unveiled and has only intensified over time.

More than seven million people visit annually. It has become a shrine, perhaps the nation’s most hallowed. It is also a global symbol, extending the nobility of the man who inspired it to a level of regard few leaders achieve.

Inspired by the Parthenon, the structure is a fitting space to house the 19-foot-high marble Abraham Lincoln.  On one wall Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is carved; on another, his Second Inaugural address.

In the memorial’s cornerstone, a small chamber was cut for a copper box containing, among other things, copies of the Bible and the Constitution, a signature of Lincoln’s, a map of the Gettysburg battlefield, a dollar bill, a copy of the Washington Post from Feb. 12, 1915, and a small silk American flag.

I wonder what the pilgrims who visit the Lincoln Memorial in extraordinary numbers think about as they stand in Lincoln’s shadow. Do they contemplate what passes for leadership in some quarters today?

At the memorial’s 1922 dedication, the sole Black speaker, Robert Russa Moton, head of the Tuskegee Institute, went last. He ended his remarks this way:

“I sometimes believe that all of us, Black and white, both North and South, are going to strive to finish the work which Lincoln so nobly began to make America an example for the world of equal justice and equality opportunity.”

We must ask ourselves: How are we doing?  Consider Lincoln’s words:  “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

On this great man’s birthday, he who gave so much to this nation, who sought to turn enemies into friends, to unite a divided nation, let us commit to find peaceful ways to be one nation again.


Linda Stamato is the Co-Director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. She is a Faculty Fellow there as well. Active in the Morristown community, she serves on the trustee board of the Morristown and Morris Township Library Foundation and is a commissioner on the Morristown Parking Authority.

Opinions expressed in commentaries are the authors’, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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  1. This is a such good history. We don’t often read about the Lincoln Memorial with such historical details. Perfect day to remember the Memorial as well as the man. And Linda included his great quote: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” Thanks Linda!