Skip to main content

An Epitaph For Mr. Lincoln

May 2024
12min read

The curiously troubled origin of a brief and fitting inscription

On February 9, 1911, Congress approved a bill authorizing construction of a monument to Abraham Lincoln in the nation’s capital. The notion of building such a memorial had long moved many people for varied reasons. The Republican party naturally wanted to honor its greatest hero. Millions of Americans saw a memorial as a way of finally announcing the end of sectional animosities as the Civil War receded into history. And Lincoln had long before become the national hero he remains today, symbolizing many American traits and ambitions that rose above section or party.

Congress would have to approve and fund the project, but choosing the memorial’s design and location would begin with the newly established Lincoln Memorial Commission and its sister body, the Commission of Fine Arts, which passed on the siting and form of all public buildings and parks in the District of Columbia. The Lincoln Memorial Commission, under the chairmanship of President William Howard Taft, began at once to address questions of place, form, and function, seeking the opinions of architects, city planners, and other interested parties. After some deliberation, the commission asked the country’s two leading classicist architects, John Russell Pope and Henry Bacon, to submit plans for a formal monument. The commission would choose one. Pope’s major effort was a large circular colonnade on a platform that enclosed a statue of Lincoln in the open air. Bacon proposed a Grecian temple whose every aspect was freighted with careful symbolism and understated decoration.

In April 1912 the commission chose Bacon’s plan, and Congress approved the choice in January 1913. The site was to be Potomac Park, reclaimed land beyond the Washington Monument, not far from the river’s banks. There the basically horizontal lines of Bacon’s memorial would complement the bulk of the Capitol at the Mall’s other end but not clash with the Washington Monument’s verticality. The Lincoln Memorial would sit in a planted green park, clad in the whitest marble, with an elegant reflecting pool at its entrance. Its form and symbolism would complete the Mall’s aspiration to grandeur and harmony. On February 12,1914, Lincoln’s birthday, a small group gathered at the site for groundbreaking. In the following eight years the complex and carefully planned structure rose slowly but steadily, its makers apparently oblivious to a world war and the problems that followed it.

Cortissoz knew his words must speak to generations, must condense many symbols and ideas.

Though he was a busy practicing architect of national stature, Bacon devoted much of his time in these years to overseeing the building’s construction. He realized, as did almost everyone else involved in the work, that here was a chance for immortality. A native of Illinois, Bacon was born in 1866 and served a youthful apprenticeship in the great firm of McKim, Mead & White before establishing his own office. He attained fame as an exponent of classicism in a series of public and business buildings. He especially enjoyed designing monuments, which he imbued with a powerful sense of harmony, repose, and reflection.

The memorial for Lincoln, basically a rectangular Greek temple, called forth all his talents. Thirty-six fluted Doric columns, one for each of the states at Lincoln’s death, surrounded the exterior walls. The names of the forty-eight states in the Union at the time of construction ran around the attic wall. All external decoration was done with care not to detract from the building’s harmonious proportions and unified design. Inside, Bacon divided the space into three separate but complementary parts. The central portion accommodated a great seated statue of Lincoln by Daniel Chester French. To the south the visitor could pass through a small screen of columns to view the Gettysburg Address incised on the wall. Above that the painter Jules Guerin had placed a mural twelve feet high and sixty feet long in which a series of allegorical figures presided over the emancipation. A similar arrangement for the Second Inaugural Address occupied the north wall, under Guerin’s mural Reunion.

It was planned that the visitor’s attention would focus on the statue of Lincoln, seated in an attitude of contemplation in a large open area, against a wall of white marble. The statue was nineteen feet high, on an eleven-foot pedestal. Behind it the designer provided an elegant entablature, with carefully molded edges and cornices at the top. This rose several feet above the figure’s head and helped the eye define the statue against the smooth wall. Bacon wanted the visitor to reflect without distraction on Lincoln’s life. “This portion of the Memorial where the statue is placed would be unoccupied by any other object that would detract from its effectiveness, and the visitor will be alone with it,” he noted.

As the building took shape, Bacon began to think the wall needed embellishment. No added ornament seemed suitable, but an inscription increasingly seemed appropriate. Placed above the statue’s head, it would direct the viewer’s eyes downward across the figure, or would comfortably arrest upward movement from the bottom. An incised inscription’s angles and shadows would also be a welcome break in the expanse of marble wall, and a logical part of the entablature.

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.

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:


‘For whom,’ he murmurs, ‘For us.’ ‘For me.’ ”

Cortissoz added that he had worked over his words much as French had labored over his statue, Guerin his murals, or Bacon the building. “The proposed change hurts me as the rehandling of your work would hurt you or French. It hurts me not in any egotistical way. It hurts me as an artist. For it threatens my central purpose in a work of art.”

Bacon now argued on behalf of Cortissoz’s inscription for what he no doubt hoped would be the final time. He forwarded Cortissoz’s letter to Taft, together with two tracings of the sculpted words, one in their original form, a second in Harding’s revision, and attached a letter of his own. He emphasized that every phrase in a terse lapidary inscription should read easily and flow logically toward the next. Harding’s version repeated the words of the in adjacent lines, which was awkward. Cortissoz ended each line with a fine and evocative noun or adverb—temple, people, Union, Lincoln, and forever. Harding’s placement of the verb saved was good enough, but it broke the progression. All in all, Cortissoz’s words simply flowed more smoothly and logically and were more appropriate.

Taft forwarded the letters to Harding, writing, “I enclose herewith some correspondence that will amuse you, and perhaps instruct you, as it did me, in the artistic sense and the mysterious art and nerves of a lapidary. You will consider it a ‘tempest in a teapot’ so far as the artist is concerned, as I am inclined to do, but I submit it for your judgment.”

As originally written and finally adopted, the five lines flow smoothly and logically.

Meanwhile, Cortissoz’s nerves got the better of him. After a brief telephone conversation with Bacon on May 1, he wrote him a formal letter withdrawing the inscription unless it was adopted in the original form. Any alteration, after all, made it someone else’s work. In a personal covering letter to Bacon, he was more candid. “It would be agony to me to see that on the wall in the form proposed by Mr. Harding and approved by Mr. Taft. I would feel forever as you would feel if they stuck a dormer window into the roof of your temple.” He added, “I do not care what Harding and Taft think of me in the matter. If they are capable of insensitively mangling my work I am indifferent to their opinion of me.” He closed with hope. Maybe it would work out after all.

It did, thanks to Harding, or perhaps to his weariness over the question. On May 2 he returned the correspondence and blueprints to Taft. “I have no desire to argue the matter with the architect and artist. Probably they know much more about the matter than either you or I or both of us knows,” he noted, and added somewhat peevishly: “I am not able to agree with them, but I do not hold the matter to be sufficiently important to undertake to overrule their judgment in the matter. The inscriotion will be auite agreeable to me either way.”

Bacon immediately telegraphed New York on hearing this result, and Cortissoz was ecstatic. This was the “finest thing that has happened in all my life and I’ll never be able to tell you how grateful I am to you....I suppose you are setting the stone carvers right to work. All the time now I shall go about with the sound of chisels ringing in my ears.”

The stone carvers finished their work by dedication time, on Memorial Day, 1922. The sky was clear and the weather warm and sunny for a crowd of thirty-five thousand. President Harding, who took his ceremonial duties seriously and performed them well, praised Lincoln’s deeds and what he symbolized to most Americans. The poet Edwin Markham read a special verse on Lincoln. Dr. Robert Moton, head of the Tuskegee Institute, spoke on behalf of the nation’s blacks. The artists and architect sat among the dignitaries, the magnificent white temple behind them a testament to their success. Cortissoz did not appear, but his inscription was set off in a box under a photograph of the memorial on the front page of the program.

Almost all critics quickly agreed that the finished Lincoln Memorial was appropriate in every sense. In the decades that followed, the memorial became one of the most visited sites in the United States. Millions of tourists, both Americans and foreigners, rose up its grand steps and entered the great hall where Daniel Chester French’s statue looks out over Washington, the world, and time itself. They silently read the inscription above Lincoln’s head. Cortissoz was correct. The inscription is exactly right. He was also correct in perceiving his own anonymity. The words are moving, but the author is unknown. He would not have minded. As he said, he was part of Lincoln, and that was enough for anyone.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.