Secret Symbol of the Lincoln Memorial
June 23, 2013
Recognized around the world as a symbol of the United States and one of its great presidents, the awe-inspiring Lincoln Memorial attracts millions of visitors every year. In the main chamber of the memorial, some of these visitors lean against the back wall, crane their necks and contort their faces looking for a face in the rear of Lincoln's head. Some will attempt to decode Lincoln's hands. Looking for some deeper meaning, convinced that it must be here in this exalted chamber, most of these visitors will end up shaking their heads, shrugging, and walking away unconvinced of what they have seen. The irony is that the deeper meaning surrounds them, and has probably gone overlooked.
While distracted by myths about faces in hair and letter-signing hands, many visitors miss the true meaning of the memorial and the ubiquitous symbol that carries that meaning. Instead of being hidden somewhere inaccessible, the symbol is deceptively obvious, right there under Abraham Lincoln's hands. So overlooked is this symbol that even when pointed out, many observers will assume the lines represent books. In fact, the symbol is that of fasces (FAS-eez), a bundle of rods bound by a leather thong. Repeated elsewhere in the memorial, the fasces throughout the Lincoln Memorial reveal the higher meaning of the memorial and the man.
Daniel Chester French's "Abraham Lincoln" prominently depicts fasces. (NPS)
In ancient times, fasces were a Roman symbol of power and authority, a bundle of wooden rods and an axe bound together by leather thongs. Fasces represented that a man held imperium, or executive authority. Exercising imperium, a Roman leader could expect his orders to be obeyed, could dole out punishment, and could even execute those who disobeyed. The fasces he carried symbolized this power in two ways: the rods suggest punishment by beating, the axe suggests beheading. On its surface, the fasces imply power, strength, authority, and justice. Depicted throughout the Lincoln Memorial, the fasces mean all this and more.
As one approaches the Lincoln Memorial from the plaza below, he or she passes by the first of these fasces at the base of the main stairs. The carving is easily missed even though it is more than ten feet tall, but to miss it is to miss the introduction to the theme of the memorial. There on the end of the wall is a carving of rods with an axe bound by a leather thong, the classic Roman fasces. The fasces indicate the power and authority of the state over the citizens, commanding respect. But there is a twist. A bald eagle's head sits atop the axe, an American touch on an ancient Roman symbol. Adding to the American-ness, there are thirteen rods shown in the fasces, suggesting the thirteen original states that achieved independence from Britain and formed the United States. Seen as symbols of the states, and the American motto "E Pluribus Unum," or "Out of Many, One," the rods bound together suggest the union of the states and their bond by the Constitution. Each state is weaker individually, but together, they are stronger. This concept is so important that it is presented long before visitors reach the building itself and see the representation of the Savior of the Union.
Fasces at the base of the Lincoln Memorial steps depict the axe, an eagle, and thirteen bound rods. (NPS)
The structure itself echoes and amplifies the idea of a strong union. By architect Henry Bacon's design, the perimeter of the Lincoln Memorial boasts 36 Doric columns representing the 36 states in the union Lincoln fought to preserve. The names and admission year of these states are engraved above the marble columns, the years not coincidentally shown in Roman numerals. The Lincoln Memorial is physically held up by the columns, standing strong because all the columns are working together. Without each column, the building would fall, just as the nation would fall without all its states. This concept of the memorial was incorporated into an object you may have in your pocket right now. Pennies minted between 1959 and 2008 depict the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse with the words "E Pluribus Unum" above the memorial. The implication is that the entire structure is a representation of the fasces, a representation of strength through unity, a monument not only to Lincoln but to the Union itself.
The Lincoln Memorial's columns are the architectural representation of the fasces. (NPS / John Donoghue)
Taken together with the fasces at the base of the stairs, the exterior structure of the Lincoln Memorial projects an aura of power, strength, and authority and compels respect and humility. Inside the chamber, however, the character changes considerably. White marble gives way to grayish limestone. Ionic columns replace Doric. Lincoln's majestic presence in the center of the chamber is larger than life. Engravings of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address are topped with gigantic murals that heighten the meaning of these influential speeches. Inside this chamber, visitors are treated to a glimpse of the internal wisdom behind all that external strength and power seen on the outside of the memorial.
Inside the chamber, the fasces appear again and again, binding the memorial's features and artists together into one cohesive message. But inside the chamber, the fasces no longer show the axe. Without the axe, the fasces are a bundle of rods bound together. This image symbolizes the very idea of our nation: that many states bound together form one nation, and out of many people come one nation. Each wooden rod is breakable individually, but bound together they are strong. Each state is weaker individually, but bound together by the Constitution, they are stronger. As a symbol of the Union, the fasces have particular importance to Abraham Lincoln and his fight to preserve the Union.
On the south wall, the Gettysburg Address reveals Lincoln's changing position on slavery as he euphemistically calls for "a new birth of freedom" as an outcome of the war. To illustrate that concept, Jules Guerin's mural above the engraving depicts the "Angel of Truth" emancipating the slaves adjacent to her. On the left of the mural, a figure holds a sword and a scroll to represent justice and the law; she sits in a throne with fasces on the front, implying the Roman connection between fasces and the dispensation of justice. However, these fasces appear without the axe, suggesting an emphasis on the concept of union symbolized by the bound rods, and less on the concept of punishment represented by the axe.
Seated in a chair with fasces depicted on the front, the figure symbolizes the fasces' dual concepts of justice and union. (NPS)
On the opposite wall, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address reviews the devastating conflict and Lincoln's desire to see an end to slavery, yet it famously closes with the idea of reunifying the nation "with malice toward none, with charity for all." Jules Guerin's mural depicts themes of reunion, charity, and fertility. Tucked in the margins of the address, axe-less fasces rise alongside the words, reinforcing Lincoln's theme of reunion, for the nation is stronger when all the states are bound together.
Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is flanked by fasces, the symbol of union. (NPS)
The centerpiece of the memorial is Daniel Chester French's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. Our eyes gravitate toward his, contemplating his mood and expression. We sense the tension and strain he is under, but also the command and presence he has. Because we are naturally drawn to the human component of the statue, we can easily overlook the flag draped behind him and the fasces beneath his hands symbolizing the Union he strained to preserve. To drive the point home, the inscription above the statue reads: "In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."
"Abraham Lincoln" by Daniel Chester French (NPS)
In the context of the time in which the memorial was built, Lincoln's status as the leader who "saved the Union" was paramount. The Lincoln Memorial's symbolic use of fasces, the unifying feature of the memorial, emphasizes the importance of the union of the states and Lincoln's role in preserving that union. It is not a symbol we commonly see today, or at least we do not commonly notice it, but the symbol is to be found throughout the capital city. Fasces appear in the Oval Office, the House of Representatives, at the base of the Lady Freedom statue on the Capitol, on the U.S. Senate Seal, and in the copy of Jean-Antoine Houdon's sculpture of George Washington inside the Washington Monument. Fasces also appeared on the Mercury dime from 1916 to 1945, subtly transformed into the torch we see on today's dime in 1946, shortly after the close of World War II.
Houdon's sculpture of George Washington leans on fasces inside the Washington Monument. (NPS)
"Fasces" is the root word for "fascism," a political ideology marked by nationalism, totalitarianism, and imperialism that exerted a dramatic force over global politics particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, most infamously in Germany's Nazi Party, which was modeled on the Italian fascist movement. Benito Mussolini's fascist government in Italy, the first modern fascist state, adopted the fasces as its symbol, harking back to the Romans. Unlike the American interpretation of the fasces as a symbol of strength through unity, the Italian fascists identified with the power and brutality also inherent in the fasces' meaning. Coincidentally, Mussolini's ascent came in 1922, just five months after the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated with the fasces as its overarching design element.
Over time, tastes, styles, words, and symbols' meanings change as new generations project their own values onto old ideas. At the time it was conceived and built, fasces made perfect sense for the Lincoln Memorial. Fasces were a symbol of a long-lasting civilization on which our government was based, and a symbol of the very structure of our national identity, "E Pluribus Unum." In the aftermath of World War II, fasces might have been more taboo, a reminder of doctrines incongruous with American notions of equality and democracy. Today, probably for many reasons, many of us fail to recognize the symbol and its significance, both of which surround us in the Lincoln Memorial. If we lose sight of the symbol and its meaning, we lose the values the Lincoln Memorial was built to convey to us: the strength of our union, and the inestimable value of the man who fought to save it.
Take the virtual tour of the Lincoln Memorial! Explore the building's details and watch video clips.
Did You Know?
First Lady Helen Herron Taft, noted for accepting the gift of the cherry trees to Washington D.C., was also noted for beautifing the city by encouraging flower "clubs" to add plants to the landscape. More...