By Edward Epstein
Sunday, August, 21, 2022
A committee appointed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in early 2021 to study 41 politically "problematic" historical monuments has recommended that five statues of Abraham Lincoln should stay, but may require efforts "to enrich and expand interpretation of Lincoln’s reputation."
Other historic figures didn't fare so well at the committee's hands. It recommended that a statue of Christopher Columbus in Chicago's lakefront Grant Park come down, along with an ancient Roman column given to the city in 1934 to honor the trans-Atlantic flight of Italian aviator Italo Balbo, a fascist who was a general in dictator Benito Mussolini's air force. Another statue recommended for removal honors Civil War Gen. Philip Sheridan.
Among those joining Lincoln in possibly requiring new signage or other interpretation are President Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Franklin and Civil War Gen. John Logan -- an Illinoisan who is credited with helping to create Memorial Day and who was a leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of U.S. Civil War veterans.
Objections to Lincoln centered on his treatment of Native Americans, specifically, his 1862 decision to allow the execution of 38 Lakota Sioux from Minnesota who had been found guilty of participating in the killing of white settlers in that state. Lincoln commuted the sentences of more than 200 other Sioux, even though politicians from the upper Midwest warned him of political repercussions for siding with Indians in such a way.
The five statues of Lincoln include two created by the noted 19th century sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. One of the statues, the standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park along Chicago’s lakefront, has been duplicated in Parliament Square outside the Houses of Parliament in London, England.
The other Lincoln statues involved include the young Lincoln as a rail splitter, another of a young Lincoln, and one of a standing, beardless Lincoln in Lincoln Square on the city's North Side.
In a February 2021 op-ed column in the Chicago Tribune Lincoln scholars Sidney Blumenthal, a Chicago native, and Harold Holzer slammed the idea of removing Lincoln statues. "The Orwellian idea of removing Lincoln from Chicago would be as vain as an attempt to erase the history of Chicago itself."
The Lincoln Square statue (pictured below) shows just how entwined the 16th president is with Chicago. It stands in a square named for him, just off Lincoln Avenue, a major diagonal commercial street on the North Side that on its southern end winds-up at Lincoln Park, where one of the Saint-Gaudens statues stands. Near that park is Lincoln Park High School
When Lightfoot was pressed about the idea of uprooting Lincoln statues in February 2021, she said, "Let's be clear: we're in the Land of Lincoln, and that's not going to change."
The mayor's committee held numerous public meetings, including about the Lincoln statuary, to hear from experts and ordinary people. The experts on the Lincoln art included two of American Indian history, one art historian and a specialist on the American Civil War and Reconstruction.
The committee's report said the experts' discussion "focused on the urgent need to enrich and expand interpretation of Lincoln’s reputation, as well as to question the motivations of monument makers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries."
It added: "Speakers and participants discussed their openness to change and reevaluation of what have been essentially permanent monuments. They expressed interest in keeping some existing monuments in order to learn about their subjects, but also the values and agendas of past eras that drove their creation and form.
"Keeping in mind the fact that values and motivations change over time, the panelists also counseled humility and the creation of opportunities to foster discussion and reconciliation when erecting new monuments," the report added.
The report noted that among the 41 statues studied, the Lincoln memorials were those that drew the most public comments.
In some cases, removal or additions to monuments will require action by the Chicago Park District. Other monuments are directly controlled by the city, possibly requiring action by the city council and the mayor.
No timetable for action has been laid out. The Columbus memorial was vigorously defended by the Chicago's Italian-American community, and the issue could come up in the city's mayoral and city council election next year.