Lincoln Memorial Myths
Almost since its completion in 1922, the memorial to Abraham Lincoln has conjured up several myths associated with its architectural details. Whereas there are a few symbolic representations in the details, such as the thirty-six exterior columns representing the number of states at the time of his death, many more suggested symbols are pure myth.
Let us start with one of the more understandable myths about the memorial. Is Abraham Lincoln buried underneath, or entombed within, the stone structure? Given the purpose and design of the memorial, that is not an unreasonable assumption. However, after his death in 1865, Lincoln’s body was buried in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. His memorial construction was begun in 1914 with no plans to move his body.
When one visits the Memorial, one climbs several sets of granite and marble steps to reach the chamber containing the statue. Many visitors assume the 57 steps they climbed equal his age at his death; however, Lincoln was just 56 years old when he was killed in April 1865.
Now inside the chamber, the marble statue of President Lincoln, comfortably seated in a copy of a Roman Senate chair, appears in a grand fashion. Draped over the back of the chair is the U.S. Flag, a patriotic gesture in his time. Finally, standing between the entry columns to the chamber, Lincoln’s head is canted down a touch, so his eyes meet yours. Many people look at the back of Lincoln’s head, believing they will see an image of Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, or Jefferson Davis. There are several wayward tufts of Lincoln’s wavy hair, but nothing more.
Another myth concerns Lincoln’s hands. Are they forming the American Sign Language symbols for his initials, A and L? The answer is no. The sculptor, Daniel Chester French, used molds cast in 1860 of Lincoln’s hands to guide his work. Given that they both were in a fist-like arrangement, he decided to relax one of them so the statue would not look as tense.
French became so bothered by the growing myths that in the 1940s he wrote a letter to the National Park Service explaining his specific design features of the statue. Collectively, he merely wanted Lincoln to show his strength, resolve, and confidence in seeing the Nation through the Civil War.
Two of Lincoln’s important speeches are engraved onto the walls of the chamber; on the south wall is the Gettysburg Address, and on the north wall is his Second Inaugural Address. Quite often people ask about the misspelled word in the Second Inaugural Address, but there is none. The carver inadvertently carved a letter “E” where he meant to carve an “F”. Almost immediately, this error was corrected by filling in a portion of the carving yielding an “F”, forever removing any misspelled word.