- Historic Sites
An Epitaph For Mr. Lincoln
The curiously troubled origin of a brief and fitting inscription
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
Cortissoz was not sure what to do, but he did have one link to Taft, who had become Chief Justice of the United States. They shared a mutual friend in Mabel T. Boardman, a prominent philanthropist. She had once taken Cortissoz to the White House to meet Taft when he was President, though Taft doubtless would not recall the occasion. Cortissoz turned to her the next day with great anxiety and wrote from the heart a remarkable account of the inscription’s genesis. He explained why he thought the inscription was important, and what it meant to him. It would be one of those last small touches that bring any work of art together. He reminded her of the Panthéon and its supremely appropriate inscription: Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante. What could be more appropriate or necessary? He also noted the inscription’s role in completing the design around the statue. Everyone else involved in making the memorial—Bacon, French, Guerin—wanted it. As the expression of an idea, the words seemed exactly right, since they focused on Lincoln’s greatest historic act, saving the Union, and his attachment to the people.
Cortissoz did not shrink from explicating his purely personal hopes. He wanted Taft to understand that there was no “petty author’s vanity in seeking the adoption of the inscription....My name will not be engraved with it on the wall. In a little while it will have become utterly anonymous. But long after I am dust it would still be there, and in my grave I would know that I had laid a leaf of laurel at the feet of Lincoln. It is a spiritual ambition that I have, purely.” Would Boardman take this up with Taft? “You’ve no idea how keen I am about it. Nothing else in the world has ever meant or could mean, quite what this means to me. To have a tiny share in Lincoln, think of it! It is like an accolade!”
Boardman forwarded the letter to Taft, and the small storm over the inscription gained force. Moore telegraphed Bacon that Taft did not recall approving or desiring any such inscription and “was opposed to anything modern.” Bacon immediately sent Taft copies of the correspondence of 1919 in which he had approved the inscription, and so advised Moore. He reiterated that the space behind the statue needed the inscription, and he said he had consulted again with French and Guerin, who remained enthusiastic.
Taft received all this information with good-natured humor. Yes, Bacon was right; he had agreed to the inscription in 1919, but he had simply forgotten it. This proved “how carefully men of my age ought to be in positive statements as to what they have done and have not done.” Moore’s suggestion of using only Lincoln’s words in the memorial made sense, “but I have been thinking it over and I return to my former concurrence in the inscription....” Still, just to be safe, he would discuss it with President Warren G. Harding when the two went over the dedication program, set for May 30, 1922.
Bacon was greatly relieved, and thanked Taft. The next day, April 22, Moore wrote to Bacon that he would agree with the Lincoln Memorial Commission’s wishes. “I certainly shall not set my judgment against that of the Chief Justice, no matter how strongly I may dissent personally.” Once again the matter seemed closed.
It was not. Taft went over the proposed dedication program with Harding, then raised the question of the inscription. Harding read Cortissoz’s words, took out a lead pencil, and rewrote the copy. He suggested that it read:
Taft sent this corrected copy to Bacon on April 25, commenting, “I think myself it is an improvement.”
Cortissoz did not. He was pleased that an inscription would go on the wall but distressed at the revision. He looked on Harding’s proposed change as “a suggestion, not an order. If it is an order it will break my heart.” On April 28 he wrote a long letter to Bacon, as he had earlier to Miss Boardman, carefully explaining the merits of his text, and suggested that the architect pass it along to Taft.
He emphasized tone as well as content. He wanted the inscription to evoke the bonds between Lincoln and the people. “He saved the Union for the people. The people were forever in his mind. It is his phrase that refers to government of the people, by the people, for the people. A sense of his devotion to the people is inseparable from our love of his memory. We love him because he was one of us, lived for us, fought for us, died for us. It is that idea which I have done my best to express in the inscription, evoking it suggestively but surely. I want the every-day American who stands before that statue to look up and murmur to himself: