Lincoln, More Flexible than Marble: The Role of Ford’s Theatre in the Memorialization of Abraham Lincoln

While Lincoln seems to transcend partisan politics today, portrayals of Lincoln have served a wide range of political purposes over the years. Some uses of Lincoln’s memory ignore emancipation as a theme in his presidency, and some extend Lincoln’s vision across political lines, such as when Democrat Franklin Roosevelt likened himself to the first Republican president. Reflecting on Lincoln’s representation over time, I now better understand the place of Ford’s Theatre in the complex ways we remember our 16th President. In this post, I’ll consider some of the places this remembering has taken us over the last 150 years.

President Abraham Lincoln. Photo courtesy Ford's Theatre National Historic Site.

One of the first efforts to memorialize Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., began shortly after his death, when a group of formerly enslaved men and women pooled their money to commission a stone representation of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. Their original design plans showed members of the U.S. Colored Troops and the face of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, an adviser to Lincoln who escaped slavery before the Civil War. Unfortunately, the Sanitary Commission of St. Louis—an organization dominated by well-meaning but misguided white philanthropists—became involved in the development of the memorial and appropriated the freedmen’s funds for a different design. The memorial ultimately portrayed emancipation as understood by 19th-century white America—a grateful slave kneeling before Lincoln, whose hand indicated that the slave should rise. That statue, cast in bronze and dedicated in 1876—the year that President Rutherford B. Hayes ended Reconstruction policies in the south—reinforced that region’s racial hierarchies. It showed Lincoln bestowing freedom, rather than recognizing enslaved peoples’ inherent right to be free. This statue stands today in Lincoln Park, a few blocks southeast of Union Station in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Almost 30 years later, in 1910, Congress allocated funds for a national memorial to Lincoln. Members of an appointed commission struggled over the symbolic implications of the memorial’s design. With racial tensions rising and images of the antebellum South romanticized in films such as 1915’s Birth of a Nation, the Commission felt compelled to show Lincoln primarily as a national unifier, rather than as the more divisive Emancipator. From its Potomac Park location, (which made the memorial visible from Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House in formerly Confederate Virginia), to the architectural elements and speeches presented at the its dedication, the Commission worked hard to keep the Union central to the Memorial’s message.

American actress Helen Hayes was the first to perform on the stage of the reopened Ford's Theatre in 1968.

At the Memorial’s 1922 dedication, President Warren G. Harding announced to the largely racially segregated audience that, “Lincoln would have been the last man in the republic to resort to arms to effect abolition.” The sole African-American speaker, Tuskegee Institute president Robert Russa Moton, was heavily censored, and instead of calling on the nation to continue Lincoln’s “unfinished work” and to strive for universal civil rights, the Memorial Commission convinced Moton to deliver a speech praising the South and the nation for apparently attaining racial equality.

Despite the dedication’s pacifying tone, we now recognize the Lincoln Memorial as a gathering place for those concerned with the struggle for social justice and civil rights.* Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of a seated Lincoln has looked down on some of the country’s most visible and dramatic demonstrations, such as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, whose 50th anniversary we celebrate this August.

1968, the National Park Service intended it to serve as a relic whose stage would be used primarily for interpretive talks about the Lincoln assassination. Fate intervened, though, in the form of a politically connected woman named Frankie Hewitt, who suggested that performing live theatre would honor Lincoln’s memory. Perhaps she realized how performance could be more flexible than marble and granite, and that a variety of performances could not only speak to Lincoln’s appreciation for the performing arts, but also act as an alternative kind of memorial, inviting conversation about issues relevant to Lincoln’s leadership and legacy.

Students visit the Book Tower at the Center for Education and Leadership. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Thinking about Ford’s Theatre as a living memorial, I reflected back on an experience I had while assisting with our student oratory program titled Speak like the President. I worked with a middle school student who was writing about censorship and saw only its negative consequences. By sharing with him how Lincoln’s censorship measures in Maryland helped save the nation, I invited him to make the comparison to the themes he was writing about. As I left the school that day, I remember thinking that I had introduced this student to the very worst of Lincoln, that he would never understand Lincoln’s legacy. But when I saw how he had learned to consider multiple points of view in his finished speech, I realized I hadn’t failed Lincoln. I discovered that honoring Lincoln’s memory is about making connections between his life and the present and how that can expand your worldview.

The Center's third floor focuses on Lincoln's legacy of leadership and prevalence in modern culture. Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.

Whether visitors to Ford’s participate in an education program, see a play or write their thoughts about Lincoln on a Post-it note in the Center’s Leadership Gallery exhibition, we hope they make personal connections to Lincoln to take back to their communities as their own memorial. Our programs truly honor Lincoln’s legacy when visitors feel inspired by what they’ve seen and are motivated to stand up for what they believe in.

*Read more about Moton and his speech at the Lincoln Memorial dedication via The Library of America’s website.

Allison Hartley is former intern in the Ford’s Education department. She previously spent a year and a half volunteering with the National Park Service on site at Ford’s.

Emancipation Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. Thomas Ball, sculptor. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-53278.