Lincoln, the Statue, and the Man
By David S. Traub
Junto Staff Writer
The two-year bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth on February 12, 1809 has come and gone. But all the while a little statue of Lincoln has been sitting and will continue to sit, hidden away out of the public view, in a building at the University of the Sciences in West Philadelphia.
The statue is the work of the famous American sculptor, Daniel Chester French (1866-1924), but remains virtually unknown to most Philadelphians. No more than 33-inches height, it is a bronze replica of the working model for the larger marble statue of Lincoln by French to be seen inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
The statue did make a brief appearance on Independence Mall last Fourth of July for the Lincoln 200 Festival.
Curious to see the statue in its permanent home, I traveled to the University where the statue is in the entry lobby of Griffith Hall.
Griffith Hall, the main building of the former College of Pharmacy, is itself worth a visit with an exhibit space, murals depicting the history of pharmacy, and a display of antique apothecary jars and instruments all embraced by a fine example of interior architecture in the classical style. The statue itself was a gift from Josiah K. Lilly of the well-known pharmaceutical family and a graduate of the college.
Confronting the Lincoln statue, depicting him in a contemplative mood, I was prompted to contemplate the actual man and what I consider the evolution of an understanding of him that has occurred over the span of the bicentennial celebration.
For these last several years I have immersed myself in Lincoln studies, working on a fictional work about him and on several articles, one published in this paper last February 12th. I have read scores of books, magazine and newspaper articles, watched innumerable television programs, visited many exhibits all grappling with the many issues that swirl around the enigmatic man. So many speculations and theories about Lincoln have been set forth that sometimes I feel I know less about him than I did before I started my researches.
Though he was much criticized and even hated by many during his presidency, immediately after his assassination on Good Friday in 1865, he was apotheosized, transformed into a beloved mythic figure. That level of admiration has largely endured to this day, but, with the close scrutiny impelled by the Bicentennial, I have detected a bit more realistic view of him that has emerged without detracting from an accepted conception of his greatness.
Much of the criticism of Lincoln during his presidency, lingering to this day, and now coming out into the open, centered around what many considered the extreme measures he took in pursuing the Union cause. He suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, he severely restricted the freedom of the press, and he drafted thousands of young men only to be killed in the most brutal battles known to history. What caused a man dedicated to peace and democracy to take these measures?
More recently, he has been accused of being a racist, and not without some justification, as he stated in at least one speech “The blacks cannot be the social and political equals of whites.”
The African- American community that once revered Lincoln, now takes a more cautious view of him, and their sentiments indeed also came out into the open these last two years. Lincoln’s racial views can only strike one as being inconsistent with the mythic ideal of him. But though Lincoln’s racial views were in a process of change until the end of his life, there can be no question that he disliked that “peculiar institution,” slavery, and that he believed the blacks should be free, and equal in the sense of being able to enjoy the opportunities of our free enterprise system. His thinking in that regard was always motivated by the words of the Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
He realized though that that is an ideal which we may never completely attain, but toward which we must always strive. Lincoln awoke politically in his fight against slavery in the 1850s, speaking out against it repeatedly and seeking to prevent its spreading into the new territories. Nevertheless, during his presidency, the abolitionists, who backed his war efforts, criticized him for not moving faster in ending slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed the slaves in the Deep South where obviously they could not be freed, while maintaining slavery in the North where they could have been freed. Only the 13th Amendment of 1865 freed all of the slaves everywhere. The process by which he freed the slaves was a slow and incremental one, guided by the political considerations that prevailed.
In pondering Lincoln’s dedication to preserving the Union, remember that in 1861 at the time of the secession of the southern states, the United States, counting from the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, was only seventy four years old! In Lincoln’s mind, given the nation’s infancy, the failure of the radical experiment in democracy and of a federation of separate states was unthinkable. Now in the context of our own time, 223 years later, our thinking might be different, but still for us, the idea of secession, of even one state, would be a matter of grave concern.
At the beginning of the Gettysburg Address he says, “Four Score and Seven Years Ago …, that is eighty seven years ago, the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He refers back, not to the Constitution creating the United States of America, but rather to the Declaration of eleven years earlier. Thus he sees that moment of realization in 1776 with its unprecedented vision of a free society as the touchstone of his beliefs which must not be violated by the prospect of a new nation cast asunder with the likely result that the oppressive system of slavery would be maintained. Perhaps that is why he felt the need to take such extreme measures to save the Union.
These last two years Lincoln has been carefully examined from all vantage points. Every aspect of his being, his possible chronic diseases, his mental state, his sexual orientation, his racial views, his military prowess as Commander In Chief, his reputed honesty, his friends, his marriage, everything conceivable about him has been combed over. To a certain extent, he has emerged from his mythic cloak. Still as the eminent Lincoln biographer, David Herbert Donald said, “the central figure in the American experience, Abraham Lincoln, is also the most elusive.”
In a hundred years from now at the Tercentennial celebration of Lincoln’s birth, people will walk into Griffith Hall and stand before that diminutive statue.
By then, undoubtedly, a new understanding of Lincoln will have taken shape. Scholars will have gathered new information, letters hidden away in attics will be found, undiscovered photographs of him will appear and more bold speculations will be promoted. But there in that lobby, Lincoln’s statue will sit in the bronze chair, looking out at them with that undecipherable expression. `
It will be as if the statue were telling them: you will never have a complete understanding of the mind of that mysterious and marvelous man.
The Lincoln statue can be seen in the lobby of Griffith Hall, at the University of the Sciences,
on 43rd Street across from Clark Park in West Philadelphia.