There are good reasons to preserve this sculptural tribute to Abraham Lincoln, reasons that derive from the story of its presence here, such as the fact that the funds were raised entirely by the newly freed people, the fact that the monument was the first in the nation to honor the martyred president, the fact that Frederick Douglass delivered one of his most significant speeches at the dedication ceremony, and the fact that Douglass called the event his people’s first “national act”—the act by which they translated their gratitude into an enduring work of art.
All of those good reasons, however, come up against one great objection, namely that the monument is, as one critic put it, “visually irredeemable.” This is about the worst thing one could say, since sculpture is a visual medium. To the opponents, the whole thing looks too much like the “great white Moses” with blacks as lesser and passive recipients. The optics of benefaction and gratitude violate our deepest notions of what equality and freedom should look like.
Please bear with me as I suggest that we study the statue more closely. There may be more here than we realize, and much that is redemptive.
The grouping is entitled “Emancipation.” This is crucial. The monument is a depiction not of freedom, but of the transition to freedom, a change of status made possible by Lincoln’s executive order. It captures something true about that liminal or in-between state: the freed-man is not yet a free man, or at least not yet a free man in full. Thus, he is neither kneeling nor standing. He is in a half-risen posture, poised on the brink of possibility. The statue acknowledges that emancipation by law or under law is only the beginning of an arduous journey. Significantly, the freedman is not looking up at Lincoln beseechingly; he is not looking at Lincoln at all; he is not a supplicant. Instead, his gaze is fixed forward, eyes on the prize. He sees the vast future ahead for himself and his people. Although his widened prospects come as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation, the freedman is intent on his own self-realization, his own agency.
Since most of the dissatisfaction centers on the emblematic depiction of the freedman, I have begun there, but there are other elements that should be noted. Lincoln holds the Emancipation Proclamation in one hand, a hand that rests on a plinth containing symbols of the nation (a cameo of George Washington, a shield, and stars). These represent law, government, and the nation’s founding. Behind Lincoln is a whipping post, covered over in drapery. The artist presents both this reminder of the old way and the promise of a new way. An enslaved people lives under the lash; a free people lives under law. In moving from one order to the other, we don’t forget the horrors of the past or its lingering legacy. The statue is honest about that. In celebrating the new birth of freedom, it does not deny the nation’s injustice. Thus, even as the chain has been broken, the cuffs remain on the wrists. The new order of the law allows for the freedman’s rising, but the effort to wrench himself away from that former constrained condition is still his and will be ongoing, as his clenched fist and straining muscles indicate.
Finally, there is Lincoln. The sculpture, after all, is meant to commemorate his act of statesmanship. Rule of law is good and right (as the contrast between the plinth and the whipping post indicates), but the life of Abraham Lincoln shows that good men and wise leadership are the ultimate source of good laws. Frederick Douglass emphasized this point in his oration when he listed nine achievements of Lincoln’s administration, of which the Proclamation was the peak, but all of which struck down prejudice and racial exclusion.
Perhaps our current tumultuous moment should prompt deeper reflection on the themes of the monument. How should we understand both the wrongs and the rights (the rectifications) of American history? How fares the relationship today between law and African Americans? Perhaps most important, how stand the 21st century descendants of those rising 19th century freedmen? As we undertake these difficult re-examinations, as we deliberate democratically on reforms, we should scorn mob action. We should also have the courage to celebrate what is worthy in our past. Instead of toppling this monument or consigning it to a museum, we should follow the gaze of Archer Alexander, the model for the freedman, and surround him with a sculptural garden, paying tribute to the achievements of African Americans in all fields of endeavor: art and science, music and politics, athletics and literature. The highest possibilities of freedom have been realized by many, often against great odds. This memorial, which began as a display of gratitude for the act of emancipation, could become a showplace of the value of black liberation for all Americans.
Diana Schaub is Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland and a Visiting Scholar in the Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies department at the American Enterprise Institute.