Washington vs. Lincoln in DC

Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial

(Photo credit: The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial from across the Potomac, courtesy David Baron, Flickr Creative Commons)

For some reason, in my head I’ve always imagined the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial in a kind of faceoff, vying for top dog position on the National Mall. Both commemorate presidents held in the highest esteem among the American people. Both are, in their own ways, big imposing monuments. But they are also very different from each other.

Fifteen presidencies and 64 years separate George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s terms in office, yet their legacies are much more intimately connected in terms of their positions in various popularity polls and rankings of the most important presidents in American history. Both men are nearly always in the top three of such polls—and there have been quite a lot of these in recent years.

Not surprisingly, the Washington Monument was the first to be built, though it didn’t happen in a hurry. The lag time between Washington’s presidency and completion of his monument was 88 years. Following his death in 1799, Congress had initially authorized a monument for Washington in the new Federal capital then being built on the Potomac. The idea, as mapped out in Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan of the city, was to place a large equestrian statue of Washington more or less at the spot where the present monument stands. But the project was subsequently suspended and wasn’t resurrected till the 1840s.

By the mid-19th century much had changed. The design no longer had an equestrian theme. In fact it didn’t depict Washington in any way at all. Instead, the new concept—the result of a design competition held by the Washington National Monument Society and won by architect Robert Mills—was to be a tall obelisk surrounded by a circular colonnade that would be topped by a statue of Washington riding a chariot.

Initial construction, which was privately funded, ran from 1848 till 1854, when funds ran out. The obelisk stood unfinished for a quarter of a century. Construction resumed in 1879 under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the obelisk was completed in 1884. The stone used to complete the monument doesn’t quite match the earlier stone, so a visible line remains between the first section and the final two-thirds of the monument. As for the rest of Mills’ original concept, including the colonnade and the chariot statue, that was never completed due to lack of funds.

When the Washington Monument was dedicated in 1885, with President Chester Arthur in attendance, it did look impressive. It was the world’s tallest stone structure and the tallest building in the world. It stayed that way till the completion of the Eiffel tower in 1889. Incredibly, it remains the tallest building in Washington, D.C., where skyscrapers and tall office buildings are effectively banned by federal law.

Lincoln’s Memorial is more recent, having been completed in 1922—a mere 57 years after he was assassinated. Still, I think people are often surprised to learn that the monument to the man took so long to be finished. There’s a tendency to assume that the Lincoln Memorial was built by a grieving nation five minutes after his death. But it wasn’t so. Congress pursued plans for a national monument to Lincoln in the years immediately after his death, but these plans went nowhere until the 1910s. When it comes to national memorials for American presidents, only a handful are ever been accorded such an honor, and only then after a long gestation period.

The chosen design—placing a seated Abraham Lincoln inside a chamber whose exterior resembled a Greek temple—was controversial at first, as chosen designs for such things often are. It seemed to some to be too ostentatious for a man of such humble origins. But this time the design was seen through to completion. The new monument was dedicated by President Warren G. Harding on May 30, 1922.

Today, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial are considered among the most important memorials on the National Mall. Yet the two monuments are a study in contrasts. Each has a very different feel from the other, and as a result one is arguably more beloved and revered by the American people.

Washington’s memorial is supposed to be first among equals. It came first, and it is the most centrally located of the two, occupying prime symbolic real estate, close to the intersection of lines running directly south from the White House and west from Congress. Lincoln’s memorial is, relatively speaking, stuck off to one side, sited on reclaimed land in what today is known as West Potomac Park. If location was the determining factor, Washington should have clear primacy over Lincoln in the monument stakes and in the hearts and minds of Americans. But that’s not the case.

If we’re trying to figure out how and why Lincoln has the edge over Washington in the hearts-and-minds stakes, we might start with aesthetics. The basic form of the Washington monument is a factor here. It’s certainly imposing, but it also looks quite stark and bare, especially in the absence of the circular colonnade and chariot called for in the original design. How exactly does a tall, unadorned obelisk meaningfully symbolize George Washington? How does it facilitate a special connection between the viewer and the Father of the Nation?

The Lincoln Memorial, on the other hand, actually includes a physical representation of the man, seated on a chair with his arms opened, resting on the arms. The statue is huge, rising 29 feet with its pedestal. But Lincoln’s pose looks almost welcoming, the expression on his face kindly. Most importantly, it really looks like Lincoln, and that sort of thing always helps visitors to identify with a memorial.

There’s at least a couple more big advantages for the 16th president in the hearts-and-minds stakes: its accessibility and use of interior space. At Lincoln’s memorial, large marble flights of steps leading up to the main chamber give visitors the experience of ascending to a special space that reveals itself as they reach the top. There are no metal detectors or security lines at the site. People can come and go as they please, perhaps lingering to read the wall-mounted inscriptions of two of Lincoln’s best-known speeches, The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. Visitors feel as if they could stay as long as they want.

Lincoln’s large marble-lined interior chamber provides a sort of reverent hush in that interior space, in contrast to the Washington Monument’s more claustrophobic experience. We tend to think of small spaces as being intimate and large spaces as impersonal, but in this case the opposite is true. The scale of the Lincoln chamber actually gives the visitor space to separate herself from others around her, while still feeling part of a larger community of commemoration with others in the chamber.

The Washington Monument’s design makes it suffer by comparison. As a big, narrow tower with a relatively small base, it’s harder for large numbers of visitors to move through quickly and efficiently. Logjams inevitably develop. The park service now requires visitors to obtain timed tickets in advance to go up the tower. At busy times visitors are told to return later or are turned away altogether. And those who are lucky enough to get a ticket have to go through an airport-style security check before being shepherded toward an elevator shaft.

There are 897 steps to the top of the monument. Unfortunately, these can no longer be used by ordinary members of the public. Instead, visitors have to use elevators run by the park service if they want to go to the top. Windows in the elevator do allow a view of the commemorative stones that that adorn the interior sections of many blocks and decorate the interior walls, sent by many states and citizens’ groups, but that experience seems restrictive and fleeting. There’s no time to stop and contemplate these stones and what they meant to the people who donated them as the elevator whizzes up and down. And when visitors do get to the viewing platform—which feels a bit like being inside a bunker—they typically spend a few minutes taking a look at the view (through small windows) before heading back down. What I don’t think they do much of is spend time really thinking about what Washington the man means to them, and how this monument can help them make that connection.

National and popular culture also seems to give Lincoln’s memorial an edge. It’s been used as a backdrop for some famous moments in history. Think of Marion Anderson, the African-American opera singer, performing in front of the memorial in 1939. Or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during 1963’s rally at the end of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In popular culture, the Lincoln Memorial has figured prominently in some classic movies, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the early ’50s sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. Forrest Gump follows in King’s footsteps by appearing at the memorial to speak in the 1994 film of the same name. Another movie with a political bent, Nixon, shows President Richard Nixon making an unannounced visit to the memorial to talk to Vietnam War protestors who were occupying it at the time. (Nixon actually did this in May of 1970.) In an episode of the TV series “The West Wing” another president—this time the fictional Josiah Bartlet—visits the Lincoln Memorial, hoping to intuit some wisdom from the great man’s monument. There are many more examples.

In contrast to the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument in TV and movie dramas most often seems to be depicted as symbolizing the distant power and influence of the national capital. Its imposing edifice is typically shown as an aerial shot, often with an accompanying soundtrack of unsettling music, leaving the impression in the minds of viewers that there is something to be feared from this monument and what it represents.

So even though my head says that the Washington Monument should be the most moving and most significant, my heart goes to the Lincoln Memorial. And I think the same is true of most Americans. There’s something about the power and majesty of that memorial, combined with the humble honesty we believe defined the man, that allows the monument to make a direct connection with the visitor. Washington’s monument seems to have ended up becoming more symbolic of the U.S. government and U.S. power (for good or ill), whereas Lincoln’s represents the American people. People go to the Lincoln Memorial to be inspired. People go to the Washington Monument because … well, I’m not sure why. Because it’s there?


Lincoln Memorial’s Role in U.S. History, Pop Culture. Washington Post. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/lincoln-memorials-role-in-us-history-pop-culture/2013/07/26/318eb9b8-f5f3-11e2-9434-60440856fadf_gallery.html#photo=1

George J. Olszewski (1971). A History of the Washington Monument, 1844–1968, Washington, D.C. Washington, DC: National Park Service. Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20070614145331/http://www.nps.gov/archive/wamo/history/index.htm

Kirk Savage (2009). Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape.

Christopher A. Thomas (2002). The Lincoln Memorial and American Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

The Washington Monument: Tribute in Stone. National Park Service. Available at http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/62wash/62wash.htm


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