The Convoluted and Controversial Journey of a Lincoln Statue

The Convoluted and Controversial Journey of a Lincoln Statue

By: Charles Hubbard

Statue of Abraham Lincoln, Manchester 71.2009.085.02734

The journey began with the idea of presenting a Lincoln statue as a gesture of friendship and peace between the United States and Great Britain in 1910. The International Commission to Celebrate the Hundred Years of Peace between two nations was established to consider the possibilities. The Americans for their part proposed presenting to the British a replica of the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln that was in Chicago’s Grant Park. The British accepted and offered a splendid permanent site in Parliament Square. Robert Lincoln, the only surviving son of Mary and Abraham Lincoln, enthusiastically supported the idea. He lavished praise on the Saint-Gaudens statue and attended the dedication in Chicago. Unfortunately, the outbreak of hostilities in Europe leading to World War I intervened, and the commemorative effort collapsed. [i]

This story is about the journey of a different Lincoln statue to England. In 1913 Charles P. Taft, a prominent Cincinnati lawyer and brother of the former president, commissioned the artist George Gray Bernard to create a statue of Abraham Lincoln. He planned to donate the statue to the people of Cincinnati. Taft’s idea was to use the statute to celebrate 100 years of peace and friendship between the United States and Great Britain as originally planned in 1910. He also planned to send a replica of Bernard’s creation to England as the original International Commission had proposed. Actually, the conflict between the two nations had concluded in December 1814 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Therefore, the timing for the celebration was appropriate. Unfortunately for Taft’s plan, the outbreak of World War I combined with Bernard’s years of copious research postponed the event. Eventually, a replica of Bernard’s Lincoln would complete its delayed and controversial journey not to London, but from Cincinnati to Manchester, England.

Taft bought and paid for the statue and donated it to the people of Cincinnati in 1917. The statue still stands over 100 years later at its original location in Cincinnati’s Lytle Park. It took Bernard, a well-established artist, almost four years of research and careful work to complete the bronze image of Lincoln. The finished work was unveiled on March 31, 1917. Over 20,000 Cincinnatians turned out to join in the celebration; 10,000 schoolchildren, Boy Scouts and city officials paraded to the park. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer the crowd was so large that “some people hung out of second-story windows to catch a glimpse of Lincoln.” Lincoln’s admirers came from all corners of American society. A rabbi, a bishop, and even a former Confederate soldier participated in the official dedication of the statue. After the dedication ceremony and Lincoln’s statue was unveiled, the first leg of the journey was finished. [ii]

Charles Taft hoped that the presence of Lincoln in Lytle Park would remind Cincinnatians and all Americans of the principles of Abraham Lincoln. Taft wanted to confirm the unity and devotion of the American people to Lincoln’s vision of a united nation. Undoubtedly, Taft was pleased when the poet Milton Bronner hailed the statue as “a symbol of democracy.”[iii] Certainly, one of Lincoln’s principles was that all men are created equal under the law and should have an equal opportunity to rise and pursue their dreams and ambitions. Bernard wanted his creation to reflect the struggles and hardships often associated with the American experience.

From the very beginning of this undertaking, Taft and Bernard wanted this statue to represent the “real Lincoln.” They wanted a likeness that reflected the rugged individualism of a frontiersman. Lincoln was a man of the people and both men wanted to reflect that image. They believed that Lincoln should appear as a hard-working man who rose from humble beginnings as a farmer and rail splitter to the highest office in the land. Particularly for Bernard, the image needed to reflect, “the mighty man who grew from our soul and the hardships of the earth.” [iv] Bernard believed that the retouched images, particularly the campaign photographs, frequently used by other artists did not accurately reflect Lincoln’s appearance.

Bernard’s approach was very different from other artists who took on the subject. A major difference was that Bernard did not study the fifty-year-old photographs of Lincoln. Instead he worked from life masks that were cast of Lincoln’s face. To create the mask the artist the artist Leonard Volk used wet plaster molded onto the face of Lincoln while he literally breathed through a straw until the plaster hardened and could be removed. The life masks of Lincoln done by Volk in 1860 and again in 1864 were available to Bernard. Volk also did molds of Lincoln’s hands. In fact, Volk had suggested in 1860 that Lincoln hold a piece of broomstick to simulate holding a rolled-up document. Bronze castings were made from the original plaster molds in 1886, and Bernard relied on both for his research. Another life mask available to Bernard was done by Clark Mills in February 1865. The Mills mask shows Lincoln with the beard he had grown during his presidency. When comparing his casting of Lincoln to that of Volk, Mills commented that the Volk mask revealed an enthusiastic and energetic younger man while his 1865 mask reflected exhaustion and sadness. It appears that Bernard relied more on the Volk mask than he did on the later one done by Mills. The Bernard statue has no beard and reflects the higher cheekbones that Volk mentioned when commenting on his image. Bernard said he memorized the facial veins in the casts. He also paid attention to the castings of Lincoln’s hands.[v]

Bernard’s approach was questioned and frequently criticized. However, his next step in preparing for the project proved even more controversial. He decided to advertise and try to locate a real – life model to pose for the statue. For over a year he interviewed various stand-in candidates. Eventually he found a man who lived just 15 minutes from Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky. The man was a farmer like Lincoln and stood 6’4” tall just like Lincoln. He had big hands and wore a size 14 shoe. For Bernard, the similarities were remarkable. However, there were some notable differences. The model was 40 years old and unlike Lincoln was considered mentally slow with the mind of a child. One of Bernard’s critics argued, “how could an uncouth Kentuckian with abnormally large hands and feet do anything but defile the sacred memory of Lincoln’s great sacrifice.” Nevertheless, Bernard proceeded to create his vision of the “Savior of the nation.” By this time, Bernard had chosen a rather remarkable title for his creation, Lincoln in Thought. The title provoked more criticism and even the National Commission of Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design joined in the criticism.[vi]

Why were so many people and the country’s most prominent fine art and historical organizations so critical of Bernard’s vision of the sixteenth president? People from every corner of the country felt compelled to share their opinion of the statue now residing in Cincinnati’s Lytle Park. One reason was because this statue of Lincoln was not supposed to remain just in Cincinnati. Charles P. Taft proposed to send a replica of Bernard’s vision of Lincoln to London. Taft proposed a tribute to the man who had led the country through war as a celebration of peace between the two countries. The great war in Europe was coming to an end and a celebration of peace was certainly in order. At least it was in Taft’s view. Taft would cover all the cost and make copies and send them to England at a cost of $100,000 ($2 million in today’s money); the British only needed to provide a prominent and suitable place to put Bernard’s statue. And so began the second leg of the controversial journey.

This is where the journey of the statute gets complicated and controversial. Despite the barrage of criticism, Bernard’s statue was appreciated and even beloved by many working-class Americans. Many viewed the image of Lincoln as representing the rugged individualism and frontier spirit that was so much a part of the American experience. Bernard wrote that he believed that, “He must have stood as the republic should stand, strong, simple, carrying its weight unconsciously without pride in rank and culture.” [vii] Taft was determined to proceed with this gift and opened negotiations with interested parties in England. As opinions on both sides of the controversy mounted, a New York newspaper summarized the dilemma as “the status of this gift statue, indeed, is complicated by so many considerations that it should be left to the Hague to determine its resolution.”[viii]

Robert Lincoln was critical of the Bernard statue from the very beginning. However, when he heard of Taft’s plan to send a replica to England he was so disturbed that he wrote a personal letter to former President William Howard Taft pleading with him to convince his brother to abandon this “awful ambition.” In Robert Lincoln’s view the statue was a “monstrous figure, grotesque as a likeness of President Lincoln and the inflammatory as an effigy.”[ix] Robert Lincoln was not without substantial influence in Congress and he persuaded one congressman to write to President Woodrow Wilson asking the White House to intercede to prevent the “atrocious gift that might jeopardize our good relations with the British.” The insults continued to pour in and inflamed passions on both sides of the debate.

Robert Todd Lincoln served as Secretary of War for James Garfield and Chester Arthur and later as U.S. Minister to the United Kingdom from 1889 to 1893 and maintained a close relationship with Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. Throughout his time in government service, Robert Lincoln developed close friendships and a network of political support on both sides of the Atlantic. Therefore, he was a formidable opponent to Charles Taft’s ambitious gift program. At the time of the controversy, Robert Lincoln was serving as President and Chairman of the Board of the Pullman railroad company in Chicago.

Manchester Lincoln 71200908410964

It was not until the dedication of the Bernard statue in Cincinnati, and after Charles Taft offered a replica of the Bernard Lincoln go to London, that tempers began to flare up. When the Centenary Committee was without funds or any good prospects for moving forward, they gratefully accepted Taft’s offer, as did the British. The replica was scheduled for delivery before the end of 1918.

Robert Todd Lincoln wasted no time in organizing the opposition. He enlisted the support of Joseph Choate, a former ambassador like himself, along with Nicholas Murray and other influential friends. Bernard attempted to reason with Robert Lincoln. Bernard wrote to Robert Lincoln, “your father belongs to future ages, and all sculptors of this generation and those to come, must have as their birthright, as children of democracy and art, full liberty to express their interpretations of the life of Lincoln.” Bernard went on to suggest that the 74-year-old son of Abraham Lincoln “simply did not remember the young, rough, beardless man who was his father.” Despite the support of some prominent artists, popular opinion remained overwhelmingly negative. Bernard’s portrait of a homespun, democrat from the working-class deteriorated into a “colossal clodhopper,” wrote one critic.[x]

Much of the criticism was reasonable and somewhat deserved. Kenyon Cox wrote “that Lincoln face is overly wrinkled and ugly much like his clothes. The elongated neck and prominent Adam’s apple contribute to the ungainly impression.” The sculptor’s effort at authenticity does miss the mark with the oversized footwear. The hands are elongated and the effort to illustrate Lincoln’s long arms results in a proportionately incorrect placement of the hands.[xi] In fact, a Massachusetts congressman, John Rogers, regaled his colleagues in October referring to the “stomachache statue”. Rogers claimed the statue appeared more as a “tramp with the colic.” After Rogers’ speech, Congress voted on a resolution requesting the president to halt the shipment of the Bernard replica to England. [xii]

The resolution was unnecessary because the British, after the barrage of criticism, had withdrawn their offer to accept Taft’s gift. The British wrote diplomatically that “despite the generosity of the American people the cost of ship tonnage cannot be spared to any statue during the war.” The Philadelphia Inquirer conducted a referendum and concluded that the American people overwhelmingly preferred almost any statue to Bernard’s Lincoln. Eleven months later the Centenary Committee voted to return to the original proposal to send a replica of the Saint-Gaudens’ Lincoln to London. Robert Lincoln offered to pay for the replica, but instead the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace funded the gift on behalf of the American people. The Saint-Gaudens Lincoln was delivered and unveiled in Parliament Square where it stands today to commemorate lasting peace and friendship between the two nations.

The Taft family promptly offered their gift to Manchester, claiming that no statue of Lincoln could be more appropriate for a working-class city. The Guardian observed that, “here is a man who needs no sentimental treatment.” [xiii]The people of Manchester gratefully accepted and Bernard’s Lincoln was delivered and still resides in Manchester. Why was Manchester an appropriate place for Bernard’s Lincoln?

The people of Manchester had a unique historical connection to Abraham Lincoln. During the American Civil War, the textile workers in Manchester’s cotton mills suffered from severe unemployment when raw cotton from the southern United States was withheld. However, they remained passionately opposed to the institution of slavery and wrote to Lincoln expressing their support for the abolition of slavery. Despite the hardships caused by the “cotton famine,” workers of Manchester supported Lincoln. President Lincoln responded on January 19, 1863 acknowledging and sympathizing with the economic difficulties confronting the working people of Manchester. Lincoln wrote, “under the circumstances, I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.”[xiv]

Bernard’s Lincoln was unveiled in a ceremony in 1919 and placed in a garden area in Manchester known as Platt Fields. The commemorative purpose for the statue had changed from the original idea posed by Charles Taft. Manchester’s Lincoln statue commemorated the liberal values and emphasized the noble sacrifices made by the workers of Manchester during the “cotton famine.” Further, it confirms their support of Lincoln’s dual objectives of abolishing slavery and preserving republican government.

Manchester’s statue of Lincoln remained in Platt Fields Park until 1986 when it was transferred to its present location in Lincoln Square. A new base was provided with excerpts from the correspondence of December 1862 and January 1863. The dedication reads in part, “the support that the working people of Manchester gave to their fight for the abolition of slavery… By supporting the Union under President Lincoln… During a time of considerable unemployment throughout the cotton industry.” Although the purpose and vision of Charles Taft for Lincoln’s statue had changed, it nevertheless symbolizes the liberal values of freedom and popular government that Lincoln represents for both nations. The convoluted and controversial journey of Bernard’s Lincoln was at last complete.

Charles Hubbard is Professor of History and Lincoln Historian at Lincoln Memorial University.  He is the author of Lincoln, the Constitution, and Presidential Leadership.

[i] Emerson, Jason, Giant in the Shadows: Life of Robert T. Lincoln (2012). Southern Illinois press Carbondale. P.381

[ii] Cincinnati Enquirer, February 19, 2017. “How Our Abraham Lincoln Statute Triggered an International Kerfuffle”. By Carol Motsinger

[iii] Bonner, Milton. The Independent v.89 (1917).355

[iv] Peterson, Merrill D., Lincoln in American Memory. (1994) Oxford University Press, New York. p209

[v] Ibid.p.210

[vi] Pennsylvania State Museum, “Introduction George Gray Bernard”

[vii] Peterson, American Memory.p.209

[viii] New York Times, August 26, 1917

[ix] Robert Todd Lincoln Papers, Illinois State Historical Library. Letter to William Howard Taft, March 22, 1917

[x] The Robert Todd Lincoln papers, Illinois State historical Library. Letter to William Howard Taft March 22, 1917, Bernard to Lincoln April 17, 1917, Conkling to Lincoln April 27, 1917.

[xi] Peterson, American Memory. P.210

[xii] Congressional Record 65 ses., 7919. January 2, 1918. Resolution

[xiii] The Manchester Guardian, January 3, 1919

[xiv] Basler, Roy P.  The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. (1953) Rutgers University Press, Brunswick, New Jersey. Vol. VI. P.63&64.