It's been awhile since we've delved into the morass of DC's urban legends. Now that's we've scratched the surface of the Capitol, why don't we head to the other end of the Mall this week and discuss a few of Old Abe's.
Perhaps the most common question I get about the Lincoln Memorial is "do his hands form a “A” and an “L” in American Sign Language?" The killjoys at the National Park Service categorically deny this, giving the explanation:
No, this is yet another myth. The artist studied casts of the former President's hands to get the proper appearance. They were both in a closed shape for the casting, the artist decided to open one up a bit to give a more life-like aspect.
Well, that was simple. Now that I’m done with this post, I'm hitting a bar.
Wait, what’s that I see? There’s more to the story? Well, crap, ok, I’ll dig a little deeper.
First off, is it really an “A” and an “L”? Not being fluent in ASL, let me defer to the experts. Handspeak.com, a site that discusses all things ASL, analyses it thus:
The left handshape of the statue can be ambiguously read as a rudimentary letter a, but the other handshape is more vague. Even though it is not close to the form of the letter "L", it is closer to the letter "L" than any of the other manual alphabetical letters. The index finger appears to be vaguely lifted while the other fingers remain on the seat arm.
Ok, so right off the bat, we're not talking about a clear "L". Let's take a look at the history of the Memorial itself.
The sculptor of the Lincoln statue, Daniel Chester French, was not unaware of sign language. Decades prior to the Lincoln Memorial, in 1889, he had designed a sculpture for Gallaudet University, then the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (actually, he sculpted two; he had completed a bust of President Garfield in 1881). But the one of interest to us today depicts early deaf educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet teaching his first student, Alice Cogswell to sign. The letter being signed by both Gallaudet and Cogswell? That’s right, “A”.
So, undoubtedly, Daniel Chester French had a familiarity with signing, or at the very least the letter “A” and it’s not unreasonable to assume that he knew enough to find out what “L” was if interested.
Digging a little deeper, we come across National Geographic’s On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C., which doesn’t mince words when it notes:
French had a son who was deaf and the sculptor was familiar with sign language, so Lincoln’s left hand, resting on the arm of the chair, is shaped in the sign for “A” while his right hand makes an “L”.
This is great! A deaf son would certainly provide further motive to French to want to quietly include ASL in his statue. Unfortunately, French had but one child, Margaret French Cresson, who went on to be both female and not deaf.
But perhaps Margaret can help illuminate some items. In her book about her father The Life of Daniel Chester French - Journey Into Fame she specifically references the Galludet statue, saying father reviewed it before beginning work on Lincoln. She also notes her father’s interest in Lincoln’s hands:
He put a great deal of thought into the hands. Dan always felt that hands were richly expressive of personality and he wanted these hands of Lincoln to show the strength and power and tension as well as the relaxed character that he was trying to put into the whole figure.
She also describes the casting process for the right hand, noting that French was not pleased with the first castings. He had been using the casts of Lincoln’s hands now on display at the Smithsonian as his model, but did not feel the right hand was working. He made a plaster model of his own hand, and draped it into the position he desired.
This dovetails with the Park Service’s point that the artist wished to open the hand up to create a more lifelike appearance. However, Galludet Reference Librarian Tom Harrington had this to say about that topic:
I have independently found that in photographs of early working models of the Lincoln statue, the right hand is a simple claw shape gripping the end of the chair arm, without the subtle finger placements that on the final statue say "L" to us. If French intended that hand to be a manual "L", it must have been a late decision. However, in support of the theory, the left hand remains in the supposed "A" handshape throughout all the preliminary sketches and models, never changing shape or position.
That French was dissatisfied with the original hand and changed it is undisputed. That the resulting right hand bears some resemblance to an ASL “L” is less clear, but not without merit. French himself had nothing to say on the topic, but his daughter did say after his death it was a coincidence.
So where does that leave us? In the absence of documentary evidence, it would be incorrect to say Daniel Chester French deliberately carved an A and an L into the Lincoln Memorial. However, I think it’s not that cut and dried. French was intimately familiar with American Sign Language, left one hand clearly making an “A”, and reworked, at great length, the other hand so that a “L” is visible, if admittedly not exact. French was a deliberate man; it’s a bit of a stretch that the thought would not have passed through his mind. I think an intellectually honest “I don’t know” is called for here.