The Lincoln Conspirator

The Lincoln Memorial nearly sank in the swamp of politics. Here, a look at the history of its construction.
By Susan Mandel
Sunday, February 3, 2008

ON A CLOUDY MARCH WEEKEND IN 1902, three men trudged through the tall grass on the banks of the Potomac River. Two members of the Senate Park Commission -- Charles McKim, the nation's preeminent architect, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the nation's foremost sculptor -- and an aide searched for the right spot. They calculated its location, which was exactly in line with the Washington Monument and the dome of the U.S. Capitol. The men marked the area by planting a stake in the soft ground. They had determined precisely where the commission's proposed memorial to President Abraham Lincoln should be built -- on the newly filled-in marshes on the outskirts of the city, an area deserted but for bird hunters and boys looking for baby turtles in the spring. Not only would the monument create a central axis on the Mall, but it would also give Lincoln the prominent place they believed his legacy deserved.

The area was previously a bay large enough for oceangoing vessels. Erosion from farming upstream had caused a sizable buildup of soil in the river over time. By the 1880s, the river was barely a quarter-mile wide and only four or five feet deep in Georgetown. The marshes along the banks had developed the same way. Military engineers were still dumping millions of cubic yards of mud dredged from the bottom of the Potomac onto the marshes so that ships would no longer run aground. Filling in the foul-smelling Potomac Flats had its own benefits. The malaria-carrying mosquitoes that prompted wealthy residents to leave town each fall disappeared, and flooding became rare. It also extended the area between the Washington Monument and the river by nearly a mile.

Later that same day, McKim and Saint-Gaudens went to discuss their proposal with officials, including Secretary of State John Hay and Secretary of War Elihu Root. President Theodore Roosevelt had already given his support. Both Cabinet members were enthusiastic about the memorial. McKim must have felt confident as he traveled home to New York to draw up the initial plans. Little did he or anyone else at the meeting realize how controversial the proposal to build a Greek temple for the late president on the remote Potomac Flats would prove to be. This month, the nation begins celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, including a rededication of the Lincoln Memorial on May 30, 2009. The monument has become a deeply cherished site on the Mall. McKim and the others would not have guessed that the fierce battle over their plan would carry on well after most of them were dead.

THE STORY BEHIND THE CONTENTIOUS STRUGGLE TO GET THE LINCOLN MEMORIAL BUILT can be told by piecing together information from hundreds of sources: books, memoirs, historical newspapers, academic and architectural journals, the Congressional Record, a doctoral thesis, letters and other documents.

An attempt to create a national monument honoring Lincoln in Washington two years after his assassination in 1865 had foundered. Lingering divisions over the Civil War precluded further talk of the idea until Republicans won control of the White House and both houses of Congress in 1896. The Senate Park Commission came up with its proposal in 1901 as part of a larger plan to remake the Mall.

The key obstacle was Republican Congressman Joe Cannon of Illinois, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Like his hero Lincoln, he was self-taught, having left school to support his family at age 14 when his father, a poor country doctor, drowned. He worked as a clerk at a county store for five years before saving $500 to study law. He became a successful country lawyer and then state's attorney. Cannon was able to quit work and enter politics thanks to the business acumen of his brother, with whom he'd entered a financial partnership. By 1902, he'd been in Congress 27 years and was considered one of its best debaters, despite being a self-proclaimed hayseed.

Cigar-chewing "Uncle Joe," as he was known, was an arch-conservative who believed in limited government spending. At $2 million, the Lincoln structure would be the most expensive U.S. monument ever built. (The Washington Monument, built between 1848 and 1888, cost $1.2 million.) He also had little use for anything that wasn't practical. When Congress first designated the reclaimed flats as a future park in 1897, he wanted the park to include a vegetable garden for the poor. He was guided by that same principle in matters of architecture. When Congress wanted to build new office space, he suggested putting skyscrapers atop both ends of the U.S. Capitol.

But, most of all, Cannon couldn't envision Potomac Flats as anything other than what it was. The undeveloped area was hardly a fitting place for a memorial to Lincoln, whom he'd met twice as a young man in Illinois. Its isolation, high grasses and dense brush made it a favorite haunt for vagrants. The police caught men gambling there on Sundays. Dead bodies were found in the vicinity from time to time. "So long as I live, I'll never let a memorial to Abraham Lincoln be erected in that goddamned swamp," Cannon told Elihu Root.

As Appropriations Committee chairman, Cannon was in a position to block the memorial. Prospects for it grew even more bleak when he was elected House speaker in 1903. The monument proposal had no chance of being heard with Cannon as speaker.

Still, he wasn't leaving anything to chance. At the time, the Mall was full of trees, with railroad tracks across the middle and Victorian-era buildings encroaching the borders. Turning it into a vast open green space was essential to create the sweeping view that was a key feature of the proposed monument. To make that impossible, Cannon moved to place the new Agriculture Building on the Mall. It was rumored that he threatened Agriculture Secretary James Wilson with withholding his department's funding if he didn't go along.

The American Institute of Architects, the main proponent of the Lincoln Memorial proposal, led the fight against the location for the new Agriculture Building. The group had already overcome a major hurdle when the head of the Pennsylvania Railroad agreed to move the train station that dominated the Mall to Capitol Hill. Its lobbying effort in Congress to prevent new construction on the Mall was successful in the Senate but failed in the House. But then Roosevelt intervened and ordered the Agriculture Building site to be moved just off the Mall. Roosevelt had assumed the presidency when President William McKinley was assassinated three years earlier, and he was on his way to a landslide victory in the 1904 election.

McKim thought he had finally won the chance to put the memorial on the Mall. But Secretary Wilson considered the change of site for the Agriculture Building trivial and disregarded Roosevelt's orders. Excavation for the building's foundation began on the Mall unbeknown to McKim. Wilson refused to move the building once McKim found out because $10,000 worth of work had already been done. Roosevelt agreed to a meeting with both men to settle the matter. The president listened impassively to McKim's plea, then criticized him for seeking changes after construction started. McKim thought all was lost. But the president surprised him and convinced Wilson to agree to move the Agriculture Building.Then-Secretary of War William Howard Taft congratulated McKim on his victory afterward. "He turned and looked at me a moment and said: 'Was it a victory? Another such, and I am dead.'"

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