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Urban Legends of the Lincoln Memorial - A and an L?

photo uploaded to flickr by bjackrianIt'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., 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.

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Reader Comments (5)

I appreciate the amount of research that went into this explanation.

August 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob Brennan

Your treatment of the issue is thoughtful and informative. It strains credulity to believe that French would have been unaware of the ASL significance of the positions that he had considered for Lincoln's hands. At the same time, French, apparently, left no record documenting his thinking. Thanks for the post.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdavid dante montefiore
I accidently stumbled upon your bog and find you story interesting and personal to me. But before I say anything, if French intended ASL wouldn't you think he would have made Lincoln's right hand be the 'A' anf the left the 'L' since we read from left to right and when facing him we would see 'A' - 'L' insted of 'Lincoln', 'Abe'? Just a thought.
Anyway, my grandfather, Aristide Piccini (can be googled), was a marble carver from Carrara, Italy. He was temporarily brought over here to work for Vermont Marble and ended up settling in Rutlanld for the rest of his life. He was the sculptor of Jefferson signing the D.O.I. on the portico of the Jefforson Memorial, the thirteen eagles on the Supreme Court, the Tomb of the Uknown Soldier, as well as the Lincoln Memorial. The family story I grew up with is that my grandfather needed to travel to the Bronx to help keep the Piccirilli Brothers on schedule with the memorial. My grandfather was assigned the hands. Even though French made modifided of the castings of Lincoln's hands for his model, my grandfather used his own hands as a guide. Of his sixteen grand kids I was always told I had his hands. You can see the similarity in photos as well as a remarkable resemblance with the hands of Lincoln on the memorial. Never found any records of this except for what was mention in his obituary, but they never kept good records on stuff like this in those days. Another coincidence is my wife has been recently working with a guy who claims his grandfather did the lettering on the base. Is that fate?
Any insight or contacts to further investigate this would be appreciated. Thank you.
July 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Crowlwy
@Chris Unless he wanted it from the perspective of Lincoln himself. Honestly, I don't think we'll ever "know" an answer, one way or another.

And fascinating family history! Great stuff, thanks for sharing.
July 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterTim Krepp
I love the thought and wish you could have hit the bar as well..However, I see this as a no brainier from a creative's pov. If I were directing and creating something that would stand as a symblol for the legacy of someone like Lincoln, I would not dare to think of my creative wit to be 'me' scribbling my own story on something that lives on after I die..I would think of the compassion and firmness that someone like Lincoln lived. And, having been inside that monument more than 50 times it is only fair to give the creative person, French, the respect that he was trying to project on to his audience and that CLEARLY is..firm-closed fist and love-open hand and that is the end of the story:) Just my humble opinion..people who don't understand creatives usually try place our egos (which are big) ahead of our life's work and that is a major misunderstanding of our passion to create.
August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShawn Cochran

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