Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial made a strong impression on me, but it wasn’t the kind of impression I was expecting. Of all the presidential memorials, it was the one I was most anticipating ― and the one I found the most unsettling.

I visited the memorial on the Sunday morning of Labour Day weekend. Whereas I had had DC to myself a few days earlier, on this long-weekend Sunday, the place was crawling with people. As I walked towards the Mall from the Foggy Bottom metro station, and witnessed the first of many tantrums I would see that day from a child too young to appreciate the sights of DC, I should have realized it might be a frustrating day.

The thing is, I have a hard time with crowds. Especially when I come across them unexpectedly. I didn’t approach the memorial from the Reflecting Pool side (see above photos). I approached it from the Potomac River side. There was no one there, as you see in this photo.

So to come around the memorial and suddenly be surrounded by so many people ― well, it took me by surprise.

I felt uncomfortable mounting the steps with the hoards of other tourists ― it certainly felt like we were pilgrims entering a place of worship. It’s even called that― a temple. Says so right there on the wall, above the statue of Lincoln.

And the statue! At 19 feet tall, it’s more than overwhelming ― it’s overpowering. If he were standing, Lincoln would tower 28 feet above us mortals standing below. The original design called for a slightly larger-than-life-size statue, but then the sculptor, Daniel Chester French, and the architect, Henry Bacon, realized that a statue only 10 feet tall would be dwarfed by the surrounding structure. They made the decision to go larger, but the result is this imposing likeness of the man Americans consider a martyr and whom they call the saviour of the Union.

I have no issues with honouring the memory of a great man. Sixteenth President of the United States, Lincoln was in office from 1861 to 1865. The Civil War began a month after he took office; it ended a month after his assassination. I doubt there is a politician in office today who has any inkling of how tough his job was.

It’s the religious symbolism I’m not comfortable with. He was, after all, just a man. But as I was editing the photos for this blog post, I studied Lincoln’s face long and hard. I didn’t get a good look while I was there ― the statue is just too high and the place was just too crowded. And I thought about that crowd and wondered if my experience hadn’t been affected by how many people were there with me, sharing what I thought would be a special moment for me alone.

I know. I’m being selfish.

There were many people posing for the obligatory photo in front of Lincoln’s statue. But there were many more people talking to their children, who were listening carefully― no tantrums here. I hope those children remember what their parents taught them that day.

The Lincoln Memorial took eight years to build and was completed in 1922. It’s modelled after a Greek temple, with 36 Doric columns (more columns!) ― one for each state in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. Inside, in addition to the mega-statue of Lincoln, are inscriptions of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech.

I’d like to go back and visit the memorial again someday. I’ll just time it a little better and avoid the place on the Sunday of a long weekend.

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  1. Ulysses S. Grant Memorial | There and Back Again - July 25, 2013

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