Carving The American Colossus


About one thing there was never any doubt: the sculpture was going to be tremendous. Although Borglum later was annoyed by tourists whose only reaction to the monument was open-mouthed wonder at its size, he fully intended from the beginning that its proportions should be stunning. They should be determined, he said, “by the importance to civilization of the events commemorated"; and he told Senator Norbeck that his mission was “to get the American people to look at art in a big way and to get away from this petty stuff.” The great stone faces would measure sixty feet from hairline to chin; the noses would average twenty feet long; the mouths eighteen feet wide; the eye sockets eleven feet across. On that scale, if the figures of Washington and Lincoln were to be completed full length they would be about 465 feet tall, more than three times the height of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

The cutting of the granite got off to a prestigious start as a result of Calvin Coolidge having been persuaded, by Norbeck and others, that he ought to spend the summer of 192 7 in the Black Hills where mountain trout twenty inches long were easy to catch. (They were easy to catch because a great many of them, carefully bred, were dumped at the right times into the streams where the unsuspecting President fished.) It was not many miles from the summer White House at Custer State Park’s Game Lodge to Mount Rushmore, and early in August, having stuffed his trouser legs into cowboy boots and placed a big sombrero unjauntily on his head, Coolidge was conveyed by automobile and gentle horse to the site of the monument.

Borglum was ready. Never a man to forgo pomp for mere practicality, he managed to combine the two by having twenty-one tree stumps blown up in well-timed succession as Coolidge progressed along the road that was being built to the mountain. The President delivered a brief but, for him, eloquent speech, calling Mount Rushmore a national shrine whose “cornerstone … was laid by the hand of the Almighty"; then Borglum went up the mountain and with great panache swung down over its face in a specially designed sling seat attached to a cable and drilled a few initial holes for points on Washington’s face. The crowd of nearly two thousand applauded mightily.

One curious result of Coolidge’s visit to Mount Rushmore was that he undertook to compose a suitable historical inscription, to be carved into a hugh entablature on the mountain in letters so large and deep that they could be read for three miles. (The arrangement with Coolidge was made part of Public Law 805, passed in 1929, setting up the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission to supervise construction of the monument.) Borglum was not willing to settle for an inspirational quotation of some sort: he wanted about five hundred words that would epitomize if not summarize all of American history. The best way to do this, he thought, was to pick out eight or ten pivotal events and write a pithy explanatory statement about each one.

Coolidge, his famous laconicism at stake, labored long and hard on this grave assignment. In the spring of 1932 it was announced that the former President had completed statements for the first two events, namely the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution. As given out to eager newpapers by a public relations firm Borglum had hired, the proposed inscriptions read: “In the year of our Lord 1776 the people declared the eternal right to seek happiness, self-government and the divine duty to defend that right at any sacrifice.” “In 1787 assembled in convention they made a charter of perpetual union for free people of sovereign states establishing a government of limited powers under an independent President, Congress, and Court charged to provide security for all citizens in their enjoyment of liberty, equality, and justice.”

Press commentary across the nation soon indicated a widespread feeling that this left something to be desired in eloquence, grandeur, and even grammar—especially for words that were to be carved in granite and might well endure for 500,000 years. Debate along this line, however, quickly gave way to dismay and some snickers when Borglum admitted, under prodding, that he had edited Coolidge’s prose considerably without consulting the distinguished author. Coolidge’s original text had read: “The Declaration of Independence—The eternal right to seek happiness through self-government and the divine duty to defend that right at any sacrifice.” “The constitution—charter of perpetual union of free people of sovereign states establishing a government of limited powers—under an independent President, Congress, and Court, charged to provide security for all citizens in their enjoyment of liberty, equality and justice under the law. ”