- Historic Sites
An Epitaph For Mr. Lincoln
The curiously troubled origin of a brief and fitting inscription
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
What should such an inscription say? Sometime in the winter of 1919, Bacon turned to his friend Royal Cortissoz for advice. Cortissoz was probably the most widely known art critic in the United States. Born in 1869, he had been in the 1880s an office boy in the firm of McKim, Mead & White, where he may have met Bacon. He had then become a journalist and had been art critic for the prestigious New York Tribune since 1891. Cortissoz was a traditionalist in the broadest sense, who on the whole spoke for educated taste that preferred its change, or progress, in small, familiar doses. Above all, he was noted for an elegant and unpretentious style of writing. Both friends and foes appreciated his gift for the pithy phrase. He had already composed inscriptions for public monuments and thus was a logical person for Bacon to approach. The logic went even further, for Cortissoz was a passionate admirer of Lincoln.
Cortissoz had been familiar with Bacon’s designs since their inception and had enthusiastically urged the architect to focus on Lincoln in the simplest and most symbolic manner. The memorial, he had said, must admit no clutter of displays, flags, or memorabilia “Nobody in it but Lincoln. All his, all the grandeur and beauty, all the calm and space,” he insisted. “The main point is to concentrate the mind and heart of everyone who enters upon Lincoln.”
Bacon asked Cortissoz to compose an appropriate inscription, a task the critic undertook with trepidation. Cortissoz understood that such lapidary inscriptions posed special challenges. They must be exactly right for any monument and its site and must somehow speak to generations that knew nothing of the exploits they commemorated. The inscription must condense many symbols and ideas yet be complex enough to provoke thought. In this case it could not compete with Lincoln’s own words carved on the adjacent walls, with the statue, with Guerin’s murals, or with the building itself.
Cortissoz puzzled over the problem. In the first week of April 1919, a heavy cold “swept over me...with the force of an earthquake.” One evening while tossing and turning with fever and insomnia, he rose from his bed and, with a broad-nibbed pen, blocked out in heavy letters the words of a single sentence that fell naturally into five lines:
He immediately sent Bacon the text and explained its appropriateness. The inscription was brief and easily remembered. It involved one great idea, saving the Union, and would appeal to both Northerners and Southerners at this late date. Above all, it had “dignity, simplicity and feeling.” Immodest or not, Cortissoz thought the words were exactly right. His excitement almost cured his cold. Bacon answered the next day with equal enthusiasm. “I think your inscription for the Lincoln Memorial is a masterpiece!” He promised to have it drawn out and submitted to the commission. “Your inscription must go on the wall over the statue.”
Bacon immediately discussed the matter with Daniel Chester French and Jules Guerin, since he did not wish to add anything to the building that might conflict with their own works. They were both enthusiastic. Bacon then wrote to William Howard Taft, now out of office, who was teaching law at Yale University. Taft said he liked the inscription, and noted that it should go before the commission as soon as convenient. Bacon next asked the commission’s secretary, H. A. Vale, to ask the members for their opinions. All approved except Sen. Thomas S. Martin of Virginia, who was sick, but his secretary assured Vale that he would follow the other members’ lead. Bacon reported these developments to Cortissoz and sent him a copy of the blueprint showing the inscription’s proposed form and placement. As of mid-June 1919 the matter seemed closed. Cortissoz took great pride in having solved this difficult problem to his and Bacon’s satisfaction.
In the spring of 1922, fate suddenly seemed to dictate otherwise. On the evening of April 17, Bacon awoke Cortissoz with a telephone call saying that the plan for the inscription was in danger. Charles Moore, an important member of the Commission of Fine Arts, had objected. He had nothing against Cortissoz’s choice of words but believed, with some logic, that only Lincoln’s words should appear in the memorial. Moore was a student of art history who had long been associated with plans to beautify Washington, and he had powerful political connections. His views mattered and would have to be answered.