The Long and Bumpy – and Sometimes Swampy - Road to the Lincoln Memorial

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022


This photo shows a view, taken about 1912, of the site that would become the future home of the Lincoln Memorial.


In anticipation of our upcoming Lincoln Memorial Centennial program, this site will be featuring a series of blogs outlining the history of the monument. We also will be furnishing updated information on the May 22 program and associated events as well as profiles of the speakers So, keep your eyes on us here at Lincolnian.org! Simply stated, the Lincoln Group of DC will be presenting a Lincoln extravaganza in the DC area this May.


As the first of the “history-related” blogs, we’ll start – where else? – at the very beginning. Admittedly, efforts to honor the Sixteenth President with a memorial started out rather slowly and proceeded for years at a snail’s pace. As with most initiatives of this nature, politics played an important role in the pace at which the plans for the memorial took shape. Just proof that the more things change, the more they remain the same.


Actually, the first major effort to raise a monument in Lincoln’s memory appeared only about two years after his death. In March 1867 Congress approved an act incorporating the Lincoln Monument Association with the goal of “erecting a monument in the city of Washington, commemorative of the great charter of emancipation and universal liberty.” Postmasters acted as agents for receiving subscriptions designated as fundraising tools. Clarke Mills submitted monument designs and plans and was “probably paid” for his effort. However, this legislation produced no real results. The measure’s emphasis on emancipation and universal liberty undoubtedly did not help matters – divisions remaining from the Civil War era were still in existence and negatively impacted progress.


More than thirty years passed before on December 4, 1901, Shelby M. Cullom, a Senator from Illinois and a member of the original Lincoln Monument Association, stepped up to the plate. He introduced a bill in the Senate “to provide a commission to secure plans and designs for a monument or memorial to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, late President of the United States.” The bill was referred to committee, which made an adverse report on April 19, 1902. The initiative was postponed indefinitely.


Meanwhile, Senator James McMillian, chairman of the Senate District of Columbia Committee, devised an alternate approach to establish a memorial. The Senate Park Commission was established to plan a park system for the city and to redesign its center core. New park land was available following the dredging of an area that formerly was shallow, swampy areas of the Potomac. Commission members included landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, and architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim. The 1902 plan provided for an expanded National Mall with the proposed Lincoln Memorial at its end, where the Mall met the Potomac. The location was called Potomac Park.

Despite these efforts, the Lincoln Memorial was far from a done deal. The plans outlined above ran into a powerful buzz saw in the persona of one Joe Cannon, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and, commencing in 1903, Speaker of the House. He was in a position to block congressional action on the Lincoln Memorial and block he did. A ten year battle commenced during which numerous bills were introduced but no congressional action taken.


Now Joe Cannon (shown to the left) actually had much in common with Lincoln – he was a Republican from Illinois, self-educated and a country lawyer. In his Joe Cannon: No Swamp Site to Honor Abe! younger days in Illinois, he’d met

Lincoln twice and admired him. A self-proclaimed “hayseed,” Joe was fiscally conservative and a pragmatist. The price tag for the proposed memorial, the highest to that time for this type of project, was not a good fit for his conservative fiscal policy. Moreover, he could not envision anyone visiting the undeveloped recovered swampland that had been proposed for the future memorial site. Ever practical, he wanted the land to include a vegetable garden for the poor. Cannon certainly did not consider the proposed site as an appropriate place to honor Lincoln. In fact, he declared “So long as I live, I’ll never let a memorial to Abraham Lincoln be erected in that *****swamp.”


Eventually, this human roadblock was removed. Members of Joe’s own political party led the way. Progressives within the party were frustrated because Cannon used his power to keep their proposed legislation off the House agenda and they rebelled. They worked with the members of the opposition who had Cannon grievances of their own and together this coalition introduced and passed a resolution reducing the Speaker’s powers. Joe Cannon’s reign as speaker was over. Now the “party of Lincoln” had to act quickly to honor its hero - the Democrats would be coming into power in 1912. The year was 1910 and the Republicans had plenty of work to do if Lincoln was to have a fitting memorial.


Their efforts finally resulted in success in the form of the Lincoln Memorial Commission, approved by presidential signature on February 9, 1911. Senator McCullom, persistent as ever, had initiated the action by introducing a Senate bill in December 1910. The measure created the Commission, charged with “procuring and determining upon a location, plan, and design for a monument or memorial in the City of Washington to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, subject to approval of Congress.”


The Commission first met on March 4, 1911, in the Executive Office of the White House. Order of business included the choosing of President William Howard Taft as Commission chair. The Commission of Fine Arts, created in 1910, was to make suggestions as to the location, plans and design of the memorial. Taft appointed the members to the Lincln Memorial Commission including former members of the Senate Park Commission.


Progress continued. By August, Henry Bacon was chosen to prepare memorial designs for the site (Potomac Park) recommended by the Fine Arts Commission and on the next day, John Russell Pope was authorized to prepare designs suitable for a memorial at two other possible locations, on the Soldiers Home Grounds and as well as for one on the high grounds on Sixteenth Street. The Memorial Commission, after reviewing the plans, agreed in February 1912, on a location: Potomac Park, as recommended by the Commission of Fine Arts. These plans and design were finalized in early 1913 with congressional and presidential approval.


The long-proposed Lincoln Memorial was about to become a reality.


(Sources for this article: The Lincoln Memorial Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.; Mandel, Susan, “The Lincoln Conspirator,” The Washington Post, February 3, 2008; Edwards, Phil, "Why the Lincoln Memorial almost was never built," https://www.vox.com/2016/10/3/13124866/lincoln-memorial-joe-cannon )