The Corner

Politics & Policy

In (Further) Defense of the Emancipation Memorial

Earlier this year, a misguided effort emerged to tear down the Emancipation Memorial, a statue that has stood since 1876 in Lincoln Park, a part of Washington, D.C., about a mile away from the Capitol. The memorial depicts President Lincoln in the act of welcoming a former slave to freedom, and that freed slave in the act of rising up to assume rightful agency. Critics took issue with the figure’s pose, kneeling before Lincoln. I argued in June that those seeking the memorial’s destruction did so in ignorance of its significance and meaning, and with an improper attitude toward history:

The Emancipation Memorial should symbolize all that [Frederick] Douglass hoped it would. It should be a place where the weight of history bears down upon us. It can be a place for righteous anger, for honest examination of American injustice. But it must not be a place for satisfying the formless rage of the mob, the spirit that seeks destruction and shouts down dissent. The ignorance and nihilism of those who would tear the statue down dishonor the freed slaves who created it and are remembered by it, the man [Douglass] who dedicated it, and the president [Lincoln] who freed them. It deserves to stand forever, a silent monument whose history and character speak louder than anyone who would destroy it.

Yet one of the subtler arguments against the statue is that it was actually unpopular among freed slaves in its earliest days. In an excellent treatment of the history of the memorial for The New Criterion, Allen C. Guelzo and James Hankins offer evidence to the contrary. First, they note that the statue’s eventual design represents an improvement upon an original schematic that was deemed improper:

[Thomas] Ball’s “Emancipation Group,” as he called it, was a fine piece of sculpture for college-educated American gentlemen who appreciated its classical references, but it was less suited to serve as a Freedman’s Memorial. Sensitive to the possibility of offending the freedmen who had paid for the statue by representing the freed slave in a servile posture (such as the one found in a widely circulated Currier and Ives print of 1863), the commissioners decided that Ball’s original figure was too boyish and passive. They insisted that Ball redesign the freedman as an older, more powerful and independent figure. To that end, William Greenleaf Eliot proposed substituting for the child-like figure a black man from St. Louis, Archer Alexander, whom Eliot had come to know in a singularly dramatic way.

They also note that its contemporary reception — including by the former slave on whom the emancipated figure in the memorial is based — belies its later reputation as offensive or demeaning:

If so, then, it is puzzling why no one in that crowd of thousands on April 14, 1876, saw such demonic messages in the Ball statue. James E. Yeatman thought that, once the figure of Archer Alexander had been substituted in the Emancipation Memorial, it was clear that Ball had made “the emancipated slave an agent in his own deliverance . . . exerting his own strength with strained muscles in breaking the chain that had bound him.” John Mercer Langston, standing with Yeatman, thought that “all rejoiced together in the wildest, most unmeasured enthusiasm.” William Greenleaf Eliot thought the statue showed Archer Alexander grasping “the chain as if in the act of breaking it,” thereby showing that “the slaves took active part in their own deliverance.” Even Archer Alexander applauded the statue: he “thank[ed] the good Lord” for delivering him “from all [his] troubles, and [that he] lived to see this.”

As is to be expected from something involving Guelzo, the essay is a worthwhile addition to our understanding of American history, and is eminently worth reading in full. It provides more evidence that the Emancipation Memorial deserves to remain standing.

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