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”?
The simple answer, is that this was Henry Bacon’s intent; “on its outer edge a Greek Doric colonade, symbolizing the Union of 1865, each column representing a State at the time of Lincon’s death.” This is from the Lincoln Memorial Commission Report of 1912, which clearly predates the Memorial itself. So I’m not saying the Park Service is incorrect, I’m simply submitting that how we know is as important as what we know. It’s information like this that encourages curiosity about our history. Presenting it as the single voice of authority dissuades people, especially students, from doing their own research. Which, perversely enough, is a lot more fun than reading it out of a textbook.
Moving on, we come to a favorite of schoolkids (and tour guides) everywhere: the misspelled word in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. The Park Service hates this one. Don’t believe me? Go ask a Park Service Ranger that you heard about a misspelled word in the Lincoln Memorial. I’ve had a bevy of responses, from a curt “There is no misspelled word” to a resigned “over here” accompanied with an eye roll that would make a teenager blush.
Even their website can barely contain their contempt:
Quite often people ask about the misspelled word in the Second Inaugural Address, but there is none. The carver inadvertently carved a letter “E” where he meant to carve an “F”. Almost immediately, this error was corrected by filling in a portion of the carving yielding an “F”, forever removing any misspelled word.
What the heck? This bit of linguistic gymnastics sounds like the excuses my kids give me. It’s not misspelled, it was inadvertently carved. Then it was fixed, and therefore never happened. Ironically, the last sentence indicates that there was, however briefly, a misspelled word.
So what? Why do I care?
Well, besides my fondness for meaningless rants, I think this is part of the Memorial’s history. It shows that we are imperfect, even on these great and wonderful things. The Park Service, whether on the phone, on their site, or most especially in person, would like you not to notice this, and instead focus on the grandeur of the site. As they put it:
I hope this debunking of myths surrounding the Lincoln Memorial will permit you to focus on its strengths: the grandeur of his presence emanating from the statue and the power in his words to the nation.
But what is so wrong with discussing these myths? Trust me, I still feel the grandeur of his presence. These ennobling traits of the President don’t crowd out the way that the Lincoln Memorial has worked its way into our popular consciousness.
Certainly, a fidelity to historical truth is important. I’m not advocating repeating these stories without context, but a full exploration of these legends is more edifying that a simple voice from on high debunking them. Writing this series for me has been a great exercise, bringing me back to my history major roots, tracing things back to their original sources. This is hardly been exhaustive, and I would like nothing more than for someone to find primary sources refuting one of my assertions.
Because this is what the study of history is. It’s the search for evidence; the weighing of conflicting, and often contradictory, data; and the probing of the unknown. The questions are more fascinating than the answers and the historical record is the common heritage of all of us, to be explored and shared, not to be read from like a high school textbook. Or a Park Service website.