Today in History: The Lincoln Memorial

The dedication of the Lincoln Memorial took place on 30 May 1922, presided over by former president William Taft, with Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, in attendance. But not everyone was thrilled about the new memorial and its glorification of the sixteen president.

Graphite sketch of the proposed Memorial by architect Henry Bacon (Library of Congress / Prints and Photographs Division)

In a July editorial following the statue’s dedication, historian and civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois wrote:

Abraham Lincoln was . . . poorly educated and unusually ugly, awkward, ill-dressed. . . . At the crisis [Civil War] he was big enough to be inconsistent — cruel, merciful; peaceloving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man — a big, inconsistent, brave man.

Frustrating as DuBois found Lincoln’s inadequate devotion to the abolitionist cause, other writers of the time disliked him for just the opposite reason. Lexington writer Mary Scrugham published a substantial article attacking Lincoln in response to the dedication of the Lincoln memorial. Describing Reconstruction as a “hideous crime against white womanhood,” she decried Lincoln’s reelection as illegitimate:

The glory bestowed upon Abraham Lincoln for saving the American Union is a strange paradox, for he did not save the union. The fact is, he came very near to destroying it. . . . A union based on force and a union based on consent are as different as day and night, whether in government or matrimony. Force is force; and the mailed fist is the mailed fist, whether it is raised on the field of Flanders, by the streams of Ireland, or on a “march through Georgia.”

Similarly, Richmond writer Langbourne Williams wrote that the mercilessness and brutality of the Union troops meant that

in the interest of truth, and the honor of the U.S., the Lincoln memorial at Washington should be taken down and converted into some charitable institution.

While most Americans count Abraham Lincoln among the most beloved and admired former presidents, a dedicated minority has long viewed him as not only the worst president in the country’s history, but also as a criminal who defied the Constitution and advanced federal power and the idea of racial equality. Intrigued? Learn more in John McKee Barr’s book Loathing Lincoln, the first ever panoramic study of Lincoln’s critics.

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