The Original Lincoln Memorial Is Forgotten in DC’s Judiciary Square

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People from all over the country flocked to the Mall last weekend for an early celebration of the Lincoln Memorial’s 100th anniversary, which turns 100 on Monday. Just over two miles away, the original Lincoln Memorial stood lonely and ignored in Judiciary Square.

That monument, erected in 1868, is the oldest preserved public statue of Abraham Lincoln in the United States. Many consider it the best likeness of the Great Emancipator ever made in marble. The history of the statue is a story of survival: removed twice, renovated twice, damaged several times, abandoned and replaced two years after a president’s intervention – and yet it still stands, the tribute of the inhabitants of the capital to the fallen president.

“The statue is a personal testimony to those who knew and loved Lincoln and contains more sentiment than any other statue in the city of Washington,” said U.S. Representative Edward J. King of Illinois in 1920, as he and others fought over the statue. in place in front of the DC courthouse after being removed the year before.

“It’s a better likeness of Lincoln than anything in plaster, stone, marble, or bronze I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen just about everything that’s ever been made,” said artist Freeman Thorp in 1921. “Some were made that are undoubtedly great works of art, but the best are not accurate likenesses of his.This one is pleasing to those, like me, who knew Lincoln, because it is accurately modeled and conforms in its simple truth to the humble man whose we loved.

As reporter George Kennedy said in 1953, “The stone statue in front of the courthouse is a bit of the real Lincoln.”

Just nine days after Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, the Washington City Council passed a resolution to establish a committee to “take steps for the erection of a monument in the city of Washington in memory of the late President Lincoln .” The resolution was passed and the Lincoln National Monument Association (NLMA) was formed to carry out the task.

As implied by the association’s name, the monument is said to have a national and grandiose character, paid for by donations from American citizens. However, similar associations popped up in cities and states across the country, and the NLMA’s fundraising efforts fell far short of its goals, with nearly all donations coming from DC residents. One of the few donations from outside Washington was an $1,800 contribution from John T. Ford, the former owner of Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot.

In the end, the NLMA raised only $7,000. So the plan changed from a national monument to a local DC residents monument. The size and scope were reduced and artists were encouraged to submit proposals.

The committee selected a proposal by DC sculptor and marble worker Lot Flannery. Flannery was in the audience of Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot. (He was also called to serve as a juror in the June 1867 trial of conspirator John H. Surratt in Lincoln, but he told the court that he had already formed an opinion on the case, so he was fired.)

Flannery’s design for the Lincoln Monument was for a 36-meter-tall memorial made of white Italian marble, with a two-meter-tall statue of the president on a 1.2-meter high pedestal atop an 18-meter column on a six-meter high octagonal base , all surrounded by an iron balustrade. The image depicted Lincoln standing, as if giving a speech, with his right arm stretched slightly and pointing his index finger, while the left hand rests on a fasces (a bundle of sticks tied with a ribbon of stars, a Roman symbol of leadership).

“We have spoken to those who knew Mr. Lincoln best, both of this city and of Springfield, and they are unanimously of the opinion that Mr. Flannery’s image is the most faithful image of our tortured President ever to have been cut through the chisel of an artist is made,” stated the National Republican newspaper.

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The location chosen for the monument was in front of Washington City Hall (today the District of Columbia Court of Appeals), at the intersection of 4½ Street NW and Indiana and Louisiana Avenues. It placed the Great Emancipator in front of a building that was once a slave market and, for 90 days in 1862, the place where city slaves could claim compensation for freeing their enslaved people, as mandated in the city’s Abolition Act signed by Lincoln in April. .

“To be seen by generations to come”

Exactly three years after Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1868, an estimated 20,000 people gathered in front of City Hall to witness the dedication of the monument. All federal and municipal offices were closed, as was the city schools and flags at half-mast, while guns blared every half hour. According to newspaper reports, people filled the streets, roofs, windows and even treetops. Thousands of black residents of the city, mostly formerly enslaved, also showed up to honor Lincoln (although they had to stand behind the monument and speaker’s platform).

400 dignitaries sat on the platform. President Andrew Johnson presided, but no House or Senate members attended, as they were required to attend Johnson’s impeachment trial.

After a parade to City Hall, the event began with a prayer and music from the 12th Infantry Band. The keynote speaker was Benjamin Brown French, Commissioner of Public Buildings under Lincoln.

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“Here it stands, as it were, on the square of the city; and here it will be, we hope, to be seen by generations to come,” French said.

Johnson pulled a rope to expose the statue. Each head tilted upward to see the life-size statue of Lincoln over 30 feet in the sky, and “loud cheers” came from the crowd.

When later asked why he put Lincoln’s statue on an 18-foot pedestal, Flannery told the Baltimore Sun, “I decided and placed it so high that no killer’s hand could ever knock him down again.”

Removal, return and rededication

This statue stood in front of the old town hall for 51 years. It was the second public statue of Lincoln in the United States; the first, made of bronze, was established in San Francisco in 1867 and destroyed by the Great Fire in 1906.

But in late 1919, the city’s courthouse and grounds would be renovated, and the United States Commission of Fine Arts recommended that the Lincoln Monument be demolished.

Colonel Clarence S. Ridley, director of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, told The Washington Post that the statue “disrupts the architectural beauty of the courthouse because of its position and overall design,” and that it “doesn’t align” with plans for improvement of the courthouse, namely because it was too high and not aligned with the center of the courthouse.

The plan was to dismantle the monument and move the pieces to the government-distributed gardens south of the Washington Monument, where they would remain until “otherwise thrown away.” Some ideas of where to move the statue included the ruins of Fort Stevens, where Lincoln came under fire during the Civil War, the Howard University campus, and Nancy Hanks Lincoln Park in Indiana.

Reports of the statue’s imminent removal hardly caused a stir in Washington. But when the monument was actually demolished over the course of a month, a firestorm of public vitriol quickly sparked congressional hearings.

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During the April 1920 hearings, it was revealed that once the monument had been removed, it had not been placed in the state gardens, but had been unceremoniously discarded in the basement of the courthouse.

The following year, newly inaugurated President Warren G. Harding said he preferred to restore the statue in front of the courthouse. Artist Freeman Thorp gave the sentiment an extra boost when he found the relocated monument – not in the basement of the courthouse, but outside, rough in crates, on the banks of the tidal basin behind the old engraving office.

Finally, in October 1923, Flannery’s statue, cleaned from three years of weathering, was re-erected in the concrete plaza at the base of the south entrance to the courthouse—just a few feet north of its original location. (Unfortunately, it was damaged along the way: one of Lincoln’s coat lapels broke off.)

Shortly after his return, Associate Justice Wendell Phillips Stafford of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, whose courtroom overlooked the monument, wrote a poem entitled “The Courthouse Lincoln Speaks”:

Well, here I am again in my old place,

I’m quite happy; I like old things –

Old clothes to wear, old neighbors and old books,

And truth and justice, the oldest things of all.

A rededication ceremony for the Lincoln Monument, with an inaugural address by Harding, was scheduled for April 15, 1923. This date is engraved on the memorial itself, although inaccurate. The event was moved to June 21, 1923, as a new marble plinth was not yet completed, but for unknown reasons, no ceremony ever took place. The monument was simply put back in place.

For the next 86 years, Lincoln stood guard outside the courthouse. In 1929 he lost a few fingers on his right hand due to the vibrations of the busy traffic around him. Years later, he lost more fingers through multiple acts of vandalism. Eventually the entire right hand fell off and had to be reconstructed. (Nowadays, if you look closely, you can see that the hand is a little too big compared to the rest of the statue.)

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In 2006, the Lincoln Monument was relocated due to renovations to the courthouse behind it. It was replaced and rededicated on February 15, 2009 – exactly 141 years after it was originally installed.

While the Lincoln Memorial is today the largest and best-known monument to Lincoln, Flannery’s Lincoln statue in Judiciary Square is perhaps more remarkable as a likeness and for the sentiment with which it was created.

As the National Republican wrote after the dedication ceremony of 1868: “Anyone who visits Washington from our own and foreign lands may now have an opportunity to look at the precisely defined lineages of that great man who served his country in that hour of the greatest danger. …Let all who love their country, who revere a pure life, noble purposes and heroic deeds, go to the front of our Town Hall and gaze upon the magnificent monument on top of which stands the marble statue of Abraham Lincoln.”

Jason Emerson is a Lincoln historian and freelance writer. Visit his website at

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