As we sign off for the week, let’s take a look at a couple of tidbits about the Lincoln Memorial that happen to be “true”, and use them to explore how the line between “true story” and “urban legend” is neither as wide nor as defined as academic historians (or National Park Service Rangers) would have you believe.
We’ll start with the the thirty-six columns. In their phone in guide program and on their website, the Park Service holds this up as an example of “true” symbolism in the Memorial:
Whereas there are a few symbolic representations in the details, such as the thirty-six exterior columns representing the number of states at the time of his death, many more suggested symbols are pure myth.
But how accurate is this? To begin with, there are thirty-eight Doric columns supporting the Memorial, although two are clearly set back from the others near the entrance. And there are clearly thirty-six states listed above the colonade. But how do we know that it’s not coincidence, as presumably the four score and seven steps are? One site even goes so far as to state; “as an afterthought, the 36 columns required for the design were seen to represent the 36 U.S. states at the time of Lincoln's death, and their names were inscribed in the entablature above each column.” What makes this symbolism “true”?