Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


Lincoln Memorial

Today a majestic marble likeness of Abraham Lincoln stares across the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument on the capital’s grassy mall. This memorial to Lincoln has been the backdrop for many important public protests and events since its completion in 1922. It was on the memorial’s steps that singer Marian Anderson gave her Easter Sunday concert in 1939 after being turned away from Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution and where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in August 1963. Antiwar protesters came to the memorial steps in the late 1960s and early 1970s to raise their voices against the U.S. role in Vietnam.

Construction began on the memorial to Lincoln in 1915, fifty years after his assassination. American sculptor Daniel Chester French designed the statue to honor the 16th President. French had gained a national reputation with his earlier portrayal of "The Minute Man," a statue to honor those colonials who died at Lexington and Concord in 1775. In describing his tribute to Lincoln, French said: "The memorial tells you just what manner of man you are come to pay homage to; his simplicity, his grandeur, and his power." President Warren G. Harding dedicated the building and the sculpture on May 30, 1922.

The photograph shown here captures workers assembling French’s statue of Lincoln in 1920. It is a haunting reminder of the unfulfilled promises implicit in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, for the 1920s commenced an era of strained race relations in this country. The causes for the increased tensions included fierce competition for jobs among demobilized soldiers, both black and white; the migration of rural blacks to urban centers in the North and the South; and the infusion into the melting pot of immigrants who differed in cultural background from those who had come earlier. One consequence of these tensions was the rise of nativism, or giving first place to "native" Americans; another was the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in all its virulence. The headless image of Lincoln is prophetic of the somber aspects of the decade that is most remembered for its flappers, flivvers, and frivolity.

This photograph is from Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, Record Group 42, item No. 42-M-J-1. The photographer is unknown, as is the identity of the central figure in the photograph.

Teaching Suggestions

1. Photographs, like all evidence, should be examined with care. Students should be aware that, like written documents, photographs reflect a point of view, may even be staged, and should be used with other sources of evidence. Before discussing this photograph with students, post it on the bulletin board for several days and direct students to look at it closely. It is useful to divide a photograph into quadrants and to look at each in turn, noting striking details.

2. Photographs freeze events in time and evoke in the viewer a memory of the event. In this way many photographs become symbols of an event or series of events—the student kneeling by her slain classmate at Kent State, Lyndon Johnson’s swearing-in as President aboard Air ForceOne, and the Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. Discuss the photograph of Lincoln’s statue as a symbol of the 1920s. Develop a list of photographic images that are symbolic for students. Consider with students how to judge the validity of a photograph as a symbol.

Click the image to view a larger version

3. Develop a list of students’ images of President Abraham Lincoln: for example, self-taught youth, great debater, advocate of abolition of slavery, assassinated hero. Direct students to investigate these images of Lincoln to see if they stand up under scrutiny.

4. Abraham Lincoln has been honored in many ways (Lincoln Tunnel in New York City, the Lincoln penny, Lincoln University, etc.). Assign students to survey all the ways that Lincoln has been honored. Has your town honored Lincoln with a park, school, or street named for him? Create a bulletin board that illustrates the many ways that we honor past Presidents.

5. Washington, DC, is the site of memorials to most former Presidents and other prominent Americans. There are also memorials to those who served and died in American wars. The memorial to those who served and died in Vietnam was dedicated on Veterans Day in November 1982. The final design for the memorial created some controversy among veterans’ groups. Assign students to investigate the areas of controversy and the compromise solution.

6. Citizens’ groups successfully lobbied Congress to honor slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by declaring his birthdate a national holiday. Direct students to discover how national holidays are created.

7. If you come to Washington, DC, be sure to visit the Lincoln Memorial. It is especially moving to see it at night. Or, if you find yourself in Stockbridge, MA, visit Chesterwood, the home and studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French.


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Chicago: "Lincoln Memorial," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 115–117. Original Sources, accessed July 17, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZ1VJZ2J34GKPM9.

MLA: . "Lincoln Memorial." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 115–117. Original Sources. 17 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZ1VJZ2J34GKPM9.

Harvard: , 'Lincoln Memorial' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.115–117. Original Sources, retrieved 17 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZ1VJZ2J34GKPM9.