By David J. Kent
Sunday, January 29, 2023
It seems Abraham Lincoln is everywhere. Our continuing “unexpected Lincoln” series takes us to Concord, Massachusetts, home of Henry David Thoreau and just steps away from “the shot heard round the world.” I stopped in Concord on a recent road trip to see a special Lincoln Memorial Centennial exhibit at Concord Museum. Not only was Lincoln there, but it turns out Concord was a hotbed of abolitionist fever – and famous thinkers so thick you couldn’t help running into one in the 1840s-50s.
The museum was sponsoring an exhibit called “The Lincoln Memorial Illustrated.” A collaboration by Daniel Chester French’s studio at Chesterwood and the Norman Rockwell Museum in western Massachusetts (which hosted the original installation throughout the summer of 2022); the exhibit is only in Concord until February 26, 2023. As the title suggests, it focused on illustrations, sculpture, archival materials, and ephemera as it traced the Lincoln Memorial’s role as a symbolic site for some of the nation’s most important events and movements. Many of the pieces are political cartoons, often showing how the famed Lincoln statue reacted to key historical events. Included are Bill Mauldin’s depiction of Lincoln crying upon hearing of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, John Darkow’s Lincoln giving a thumbs up to the newly elected President Barack Obama, and Matt Davies’s Lincoln and his chair flipped over backwards in disbelief after the 2016 election results.
Other artwork includes both pen and ink and watercolor depictions of watershed events at the Lincoln Memorial featuring Marian Anderson, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, and the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial itself in 1922. There is also the original oil on canvas painting by Norman Rockwell called “Lincoln for the Defense,” a rare full length painting of him (and rarer still – in a white suit). Rockwell’s print of Mathew Brady photograph is included, as is a watercolor painting by Anthony Benedetto, better known to most of us as singer Tony Bennett.
I was fascinated by one additional item on display – the account book kept by Daniel Chester French, a detailed record keeper, who recorded his contract payments for the Lincoln Memorial statue ($45,000 increased to $88,400), along with records of payments to the Piccirilli Brothers for marble carving and other work.
Beyond the Lincoln Memorial Illustrated exhibit, the Concord Museum also gave insights into the intellectual community of Concord, which included not only Emerson and Thoreau, but Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. More recently, Doris Kearns Goodwin joined the party. Concord has another claim to fame. While the writers were writing, the women of the town were organizing the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. Founded in 1837, the Society was hugely influential in New England, hosting abolitionist speakers such as John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass. Many Concord residents provided housing for fugitive slaves, and helped them to continue their travels on the underground railroad. Despite growing up only an hour north of Concord, this is something I hadn’t known before my visit.
A bonus - Daniel Chester French not only designed the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, he created the Minuteman statue that sits just of North Bridge. Emerson’s childhood home overlooks the statue and the park. You can almost hear that mighty shot ring out as you soak in American history bridging the beginning of the nation and Lincoln’s saving of the nation.
All photos by David J. Kent