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  • Saving the Emancipator
  • Brian J. Snee (bio)

Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial, Great Emancipator, Public Memory, Civil Rights, Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Tony Kushner’s Lincoln script was based in part on Team of Rivals, the Doris Kearns Goodwin biography that demonstrates that Lincoln, the man, may be best understood in relation to those who surrounded him.1 One might say the same about Lincoln, the movie. Accordingly, this essay situates Spielberg’s epic film within two contexts, one historical and one generic. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the Lincoln genre in Hollywood serve as spatial and temporal frames through which Lincoln is viewed.2 Read against the design of the Memorial and the tradition of the genre, Spielberg’s Lincoln is revealed as an important moment in the centuries-long evolution of Lincoln’s image as both savior and emancipator.

When the United States decided to create a memorial for Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Senate knew just what to do: pave a 72-mile road from Gettysburg to Washington, D.C. and name it after the 16th president.3 Fortunately, the House of Representatives put the brakes on the Lincoln Highway, and after several failed proposals, including one that called for the construction of a log-cabin-inspired shrine, the Lincoln Memorial as we know it was erected on a remote and swampy plot at the west end of the National Mall.

John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, put into words what architect Henry Bacon and sculptor Daniel Chester French were about to say with stone. “Lincoln was of the immortals. You must not approach too close to the immortals. His monument should stand alone, remote from the common [End Page 141] habitations of man, apart from the business and turmoil of the city; isolated, distinguished, and serene.”4 Locating the memorial in relative isolation, and building upon that remote spot a massive Greek Doric temple, the Lincoln Memorial Commission made clear exactly which Lincoln it was memorializing—and which Lincoln it was not.

Lincoln’s image had long ago divided, which posed a challenge for the Commission, best described as “the tension between democracy’s conflicting need for leaders with whom the masses can identify and leaders whom they can revere.”5 It was the same challenge faced by every artist who would attempt to memorialize Lincoln in any medium. Those who tried to have it both ways often found themselves with something like “a Gilbert Stuart painting with a halo dubbed in by later, less skillful hands.”6

The Commission had to make a choice, and it did. The “U.S. Congress, with the full support of its Southern members, had built the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate regional, not racial, unity.”7 The inscription above the statue makes this clear: “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” In other words, the Commission had enshrined the Savior of the Union—and not the Great Emancipator. Famed New York art critic and historian Royal Cortissoz defended the decision: “The memorial must make a common ground for the meeting of the north and the south. By emphasizing his saving the union you appeal to both sections. By saying nothing of slavery you avoid the rubbing of old sores.”8

If the Memorial itself did not rub old sores, there were plenty of visitors willing to make them bleed. “Conceived and dedicated as holy ground, the Lincoln Memorial became, as early as 1922, racially contested ground,” Scott Sandage writes. “By chance or design, the shrine straddled boundaries: between North and South, between black and white, and between official and vernacular memory. As both temple and tourist attraction, it sat on the cusp between sacred and secular.”9

Sandage argues that as early as the 1930s, civil rights activists began to use the Lincoln Memorial as ground zero for rallies and protests. When in 1939 Marian Anderson was prohibited by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing for an integrated audience at Constitution Hall, the African American singer was invited to perform instead on a live radio broadcast on Easter Sunday. Anderson sang...


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pp. 141-145
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