Take Down Chicago’s Lincoln Statues? It’s Iconoclasm Gone MadRoundup
tags: Abraham Lincoln, Chicago, memorials, monuments, public history
Chicago-born Sidney Blumenthal is the author of the multivolume Lincoln biography, including most recently All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln 1856-1860. Harold Holzer is the Lincoln Prize-winning author of more than 50 books on Lincoln and the Civil War, including The Lincoln Image.
Abraham Lincoln posed for his very first sculpture in Chicago. The year was 1860, and local sculptor Leonard Wells Volk invited Lincoln to his Lake Street studio to sit, first for a life mask, and then for a bust.
Lincoln did not enjoy the process. Having his face smothered in wet plaster (which hardened and stuck fast) was, as he put it mildly, “anything but agreeable.” Later, posing shirtless so the sculptor could capture his “brawny arms and shoulders” embarrassed him so much that after one sitting, he fled Volk’s studio without remembering to pull his undershirt back on, leaving its long sleeves dangling along the sidewalk. But when Lincoln saw the final result, he was impressed. “There,” he remarked to Volk, was “the animal himself.”
As it happened, Volk never adapted his model into a statue for the city of Chicago; instead he mass-produced copies of his Lincoln life mask, which became wildly popular. (The original bust is now in the Chicago History Museum.) And, he created a public monument to Lincoln’s archrival in politics, Stephen A. Douglas, who, it might be mentioned, was Volk’s cousin by marriage. (After the war, Volk founded the Chicago Academy of Design, which became the Art Institute.)
In an irony to end all ironies, five Lincoln statues that rose in Chicago were just placed on a watchlist of public monuments that may face removal in this new age of iconoclasm. Douglas, who inherited slaves from his first wife and profited from slavery, supported the right of slavery to extend into the West, used racist demagoguery in his 1858 debates with Lincoln, whom he accused of favoring “Negro rights,” and was a white supremacist to his core, escaped the list.
Instead, Chicago’s Monuments Project is targeting, among others, one of the greatest public sculptures in the country: Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bronze standing Lincoln, in Lincoln Park. Painful and absurd as it is to learn that such a brilliant work of art might face removal is the fact that also targeted are four other Lincoln statues, including another Saint-Gaudens in Grant Park near which Barack Obama gave his victory speech after winning the presidency, and one showing Lincoln as a young rail-splitter — until now the exemplar of American opportunity from log cabin to White House. A committee has deemed all of these monuments to Lincoln in the same problematic category for “review” as the bizarre statue of Italo Balbo, the fascist chief of Mussolini’s air force who bombed Ethiopia.
The Orwellian idea of removing Lincoln from Chicago would be as vain as an attempt to erase the history of Chicago itself. One might just as well allow the Magnificent Mile to wash back into Lake Michigan. After all, the lawyer who successfully argued the famous “Sandbar” case that settled ownership of that piece of lakefront property was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was deeply involved in Chicago at every level, from the law to politics, and many of his closest friends helped him win the Republican Party nomination in 1860, not least the editors of the Chicago Tribune.