The monument was first proposed in 1867, but construction didn’t begin until 1914; the cornerstone was set in 1915. Architect Henry Bacon designed it to resemble the Parthenon, believing that a defender of democracy should be memorialized in a building that pays homage to the birthplace of democracy. The monument has 36 marble columns, one for each state in the union at the time of Lincoln’s assassination. On the south wall is inscribed the Gettysburg Address, and on the north, his second inaugural address. There’s a persistent myth that one of the words in the inaugural address is misspelled, but it’s not true. Stonemasons did accidentally carve an “E” where they meant to carve an “F,” but it was filled in immediately and no evidence remains.
The marble and granite chosen for the monument came from Massachusetts, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Alabama. Bacon intended to show the divided nation coming together to build something of lasting significance.
Sculptor Daniel Chester French studied photographs of Lincoln for years; his Lincoln appears somber, even care-worn, one hand closed in a fist and the other in a more relaxed position. Though it’s commonly thought that the sculpture’s hands are forming the American Sign Language letters “A” and “L,” the National Park Service reports that this was French’s way to show Lincoln’s strength and compassion. There’s also a rumor that the profile of Robert E. Lee – or Ulysses S. Grant, or Jefferson Davis – can be seen in the locks of the sculpture’s hair, but the National Parks Service insists that these are merely wayward strands.
The monument was dedicated in front of an audience of more than 50,000 people. Even though Lincoln was known as the Great Emancipator, the audience was segregated; keynote speaker Robert Moton, president of the Tuskegee Institute and an African-American, was not permitted to sit on the speakers’ platform. Just over 40 years later, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr. would give his “I have a dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in front of an audience of 200,000.