is Allan Greenberg's scholarly and moving "With Meaning for All : The Lincoln Memorial in American consciousness ", lightly excerpted below.
It is an especially appropriate time to contemplate the significance of the memorial and the different political and cultural crosscurrents surrounding its design and construction. After all, we have not only just celebrated another Glorious Fourth, but also marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg's formal end.
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It is telling that the only reference to American slavery in the Lincoln Memorial was supplied by Lincoln himself. The Gettysburg Address, carved onto one of the side walls, mentions slavery only by implication. But in the Second Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4, 1865, and carved onto the opposite side wall, Lincoln stated:
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war.He went further: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”
... Though Congress and the Lincoln Memorial Commission planned the memorial as a symbol of the enduring Union, black Americans and the civil rights movement reminded the nation of the unfinished business of the Civil War and, in fact, of the Constitutional Convention of 1787—to end slavery, attain racial justice, and provide full civil rights for African-Americans.
The memorial is thus a rare example of one that has grown in stature over time in terms of its symbolic significance. The architectural forms of a memorial do not change, but the meanings that they articulate may be intensified, expanded, and even altered by subsequent events. For that to occur, the memorial must not only be a conceptually powerful and fully realized work of art but also one that incorporates the complexity of the person and events commemorated. Without that encompassing quality, the forms will not take on fresh meaning over time but will instead remain static and limited in their frames of reference.
In the architecture of the Lincoln Memorial, there is not the slightest hint of military triumph or victory. The hand of peace extends to defeated brothers, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” The memorial is a moving and inspiring place to visit; it is also a disquieting one, for there remains a challenge, an ambient reminder of the nation’s still-unfinished business. Through the haze of memory that Lincoln’s words evoke, the smoke of battle lingers here, and the spirits of the soldiers buried across the river hover over all.