Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial Design and Symbolism

"In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."
- Lincoln Memorial Inscription
Photo of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.
National Park Service

When visitors first approach the memorial dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, many are taken aback by its majestic temple-like appearance. Architect Henry Bacon modeled the memorial after the Greek temple known as the Parthenon. He believed that a memorial to a man who defended democracy should be based on a structure found at the very birthplace of democracy. The final design of the exterior of Memorial features 36 exterior columns symbolizing the 36 reunited states at the time of Lincoln's death. The names of those states appear in the frieze above the columns.

The interior of the Lincoln Memorial is composed of three chambers. The central chamber contains the statue of the president, while the two flanking chambers commemorate two of Lincoln speeches that strongly reflect his character and celebrate his accomplishments. The two speeches selected were the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address.

On the south interior wall is the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln delivered on November 19, 1863 as part of the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This address was selected because of its familiarity to many, but also because it displayed the president's strength and determination to see the war to a successful conclusion.

On the north interior wall is Lincoln's March 4, 1865 Second Inaugural Address. That speech, delivered just one month before the conclusion of the Civil War, is widely considered Lincoln's blueprint for the reunification of the nation. The reelected president firmly believed that the Northern states should welcome their Southern sisters and brothers back into the Union with open arms, but Northerners still harbored considerable anger toward the South for having left the Union. Lincoln's willingness to show compassion to the southern people, "with malice toward none; with charity for all," helped assuage this anger.

Artist Jules Guerin painted two large murals which were installed above the carved speeches. The mural placed above the Gettysburg Address depicts "Emancipation" with an Angel of Truth freeing a slave flanked by other allegorical figures of Justice and Immortality. The mural above the Second Inaugural Address carries the theme of Unifications, where Guerin once again utilizes an Angel of Truth but here they are flanked on either side by allegorical figures of Fraternity and Charity.

Both Guerin's and Bacon's work succeed in honoring Lincoln's character and accomplishments, but nowhere is Lincoln better depicted than in the statue created by sculptor Daniel Chester French. French devoted several years researching Lincoln's life and studying his photographs. He decided that the special qualities found in the sixteenth president were his strength combined with his compassionate nature. How did French express this in stone? Some viewers look to Lincoln's hands. One is clenched, suggesting his strength and personal determination to see the war through to a successful conclusion. The other is more open and relaxed, which, many believe, serves to remind viewers of Lincoln's warmth and compassionate nature.