Endangered Lincoln statue isn’t what it seems

I guess statue destruction is the topic du jour, but do read about this one, as it raises some conflicts for protestors.

About ten days ago, I reported about a statue of Abraham Lincoln that might be pulled down or replaced. The original is The Emancipation Memorial (sculptor: Thomas Ball, erected in 1876) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D. C., and there’s a replica in Boston that was the subject of controversy.  Here it is:


In my post, I quoted a Boston site about the statue being endangered.

As WBUR News in Boston reports:

The statue in the city’s Park Square is a replica of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington and depicts Lincoln with one hand raised above a kneeling man with broken shackles on his wrists.

The statue is meant to show Lincoln freeing the man from slavery, but a petition against the statue says it “instead represents us still beneath someone else.”

The petition was started by Tory Bullock, a Boston man who says the statue has long led him to ask, “If he’s free why is he still on his knees?” His call to remove the memorial had attracted nearly 6,000 signatures as of Saturday.

The Boston Globe reports that Mayor Marty Walsh is in favor of removing the statue and is interested in replacing it with something that recognizes equality. Walsh’s office said the administration is looking into the process required to make the change.

Indeed, at first glance I found the statue, well, “cringeworthy”, but I added a caveat in my own take, a caveat that turned out to be crucial (my emphasis below):

I have to say that, in a modern context, it’s a tad cringeworthy. However, the question “If he’s free why is he still on his knees?” might not be relevant if Lincoln is seen in the process of raising up those who were downtrodden. A statue made today wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—show a crouching black man, but are we to tear this down because it was made in 1876, not long after Lincoln died? If you think it should stay up but be contextualized, how would you contextualize it? At least we don’t have to tear down statues of Lincoln by himself, like the great marble sculpture in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

But you know, I was too lazy to actually look up the statue, but was finally prompted to do so by this tweet from Sarah Haider, which has an African-American lady explaining the statue’s symbolism. Listen to what the woman on the video has to say:.

And Wikipedia verifies the woman’s words:

Designed and sculpted by Thomas Ball and erected in 1876, the monument depicts Abraham Lincoln holding a copy of his Emancipation Proclamation freeing a male African American slave modeled on Archer Alexander. The ex-slave is depicted on one knee, with one fist clenched, shirtless and broken shackles at the president’s feet.

The Emancipation Memorial statue was funded by the wages of freed slaves.

This gives the statue an entirely different meaning, and had I, or the purity sniffer Tory Bullock, looked it up, you’d find it not only inoffensive, but inspiring. And seriously, the original was erected by former slaves? No matter that the replica is in Boston: both statues convey the same message. Who would be so churlish to haul this statue down in light of its history?

Nevertheless, Tory Bullock, who seems to be black (if the picture below is him), persists. His question, “why is he still on his knees?”, is answered with “he won’t be for long”, though of course we still have the residuum of slavery. But the history of this statue, and what it’s supposed to show, convinces me that it should stay. If some get offended, well, too bad.

Bullock’s iPetititon (click on screenshot below), originally aimed to garner 1,000 signatures, now has over 12,500, and he reports this:

The Arts Commission in Boston has decided to hold a public hearing to shape and eventually VOTE on what happens to this statue. THANK YOU for signing the petition to get their attention but now it’s time to make YOUR VOICE HEARD! They’ll be taking live and written testimonials about the piece. I’m going to need the full squad on this one. This memorial has been up for more than 100 years and now is the time we all stand up…this is our chance to finally respectfully put this image away while NEVER forgetting its history.

Given the way things are going, only a few offended people are needed to sufficiently shame others, afraid to be called racists, to vote for tearing down a statue. As Greg reported this morning, two statues in Madison, Wisconsin have been pulled down even though they have no negative connotations and one of them was of an anti-slavery activist killed while fighting with the Union Army against Confederates.

This makes no sense. What we have here is hair-trigger Offense Detectors, which are so sensitive that they detect things that aren’t offensive. At some time we have to start pushing back against the mishigas, and that time is now.


35 thoughts on “Endangered Lincoln statue isn’t what it seems

  1. At the 1876 dedication of the statue, Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest of the abolitionists, gave a speech. Not descending into fantasy, Douglass presented a mixed review of Lincoln. He noted that Lincoln’s attitude towards African-Americans was not one particularly favorable to their becoming full members of American society. He was, according to Douglass, primarily concerned with benefitting white people. Still, he did issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and for that he must be honored.

    One would think that at a dedication such this, Douglass’s speech would have been fluff. His candor is quite refreshing.


    1. Lincoln linked emancipation with deportation. He held a meeting with Gen. Benjamin Butler, according to the latter, just 4 days before the assassination to discuss the number of ships needed to carry all the South’s freed slaves to Belize or Guiana, destinations that were under discussion after deportation projects in Haiti and Panama had fallen through in 1862 and 1863.

      1. I don’t know how credible Butler’s personal reminisces are on this. I will defer to Historian. I have read there are many inconsistencies. I have also read that Lincoln changed his views on this, particularly in light of black soldiers serving the Union cause.

        1. Lincoln’s official papers record Butler’s visit to the White House on April 11, 1865. Butler apparently reported to content of the visit on three occasions, two of which I have read. They were written perhaps 10 years apart and vary in details, which might be the case of an events recalled 20 years or so after taking place. Apparently Butler did not make detailed notes and this could explain the discrepancies between the different accounts. After the war, Butler returned to congress and was instrumental in the impeachment of president Andrew Johnson.
          There is no indication that Butler was at odds with Lincoln or that the account of his visit was intended to be demeaning. Were Butler venting a grudge, it would seem that he would have made the accounts in the form of critiques and more uniform.
          I am aware of Lincoln favoring black citizen’s rights beyond freedom from slavery is a supposed confidential letter (which I have not read) in which he proposed that blacks who had served in the military or who were ‘exceptionally intelligent’ might be given voting rights.
          Regarding the Haiti colonization scheme, I say “fall through” in the sense that the project soon failed before effective resettlement had been achieved. It is interesting to note that when the Ile-a-Vache survivors were returned to the US, they were given no government aid and Army recruiters were given access to the ship to sign up the desperate abandoned ‘refugees’.
          The Haiti experience had, in my reading, no “sobering effect on Lincoln”. Lincoln’s “colonization” (= deportation) office remained open. In 1863 negotiations were underway with Britain for accepting liberated slaves in their Caribbean colonies of Belize and Guiana, Costa Rica and Suriname having rejected the plan. 1863 and early 1864 were also tough war years, and I suspect Lincoln was too burdened with military matters to spend much time on planning for liberated slaves. By 1865, with victory assured, the topic was returning front and center.
          This line is from Benjamin Butler’s 1892 Autobiography where is remembers Lincoln’s words on that day in April, 1865:
          “But what shall we do with the negroes after they are free? I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes.” Lincoln’s complete conversation can be found at

          1. In the words of perhaps the greatest Lincoln scholar of our day (to me via private email):

            ‘Butler’s account is preposterous. When Britain and Holland proposed some schemes to recruit American blacks to meet labor shortages in their Caribbean colonies, the administration paid some attention but not much.’

      2. The colonization attempt on the Haitian island of A-Vache did not ‘fall through.’ It took place between between mid-April, 1863, and early March, 1864. As many as 450 recently-freed slaves, including families and children, were transported to Ile-a-Vache, where they were told they would become naturalized Haitian citizens and contract-workers, with wages, for two years, after which they would be eligible to become proprietors–farmers on their own land.

        It was all a fraud and a disaster. More than 10% of the colonists died of exposure, disease and maltreatment by their ‘supervisors’ (all of them white). Lincoln’s administration kept hearing rumors of this, and ultimately led the Sec. of the Interior to send a ‘special agent’ to the island to get an eyewitness account of what was going on. He found conditions among the colonists to be altogether deplorable. His reports to Washington resulted in Lincoln’s ordering a Union naval vessel to sail to the island and return to the U.S. such among the colonists as wished to. Every single still-living colonist chose to return.

        This utter failure of a pet idea had a sobering effect on Lincoln. Probably it put an end to further fantasies about colonization as a solution to the burgeoning problem of freedmen living in a ‘white man’s country’–pace Benjamin Butler.

  2. Although the original was paid for by formerly enslaved people, the sculptor was white, the committee that oversaw its design was all white, and it received contemporaneous criticism for being paternalistic. Alternative suggestions for statues that showed Blacks playing an active role in their own emancipation were rejected, purportedly for cost reasons. As such, I disagree that knowing the history renders the statue “inoffensive”, or that calling out its flaws makes one a “purity sniffer”. I think that knowing the history highlights that these are complicated issues. Here’s an article from 2012 with more details.

  3. How would you contextualize this? Reasonably educated people are already aware of the context of this and many other “offensive” statues and memorials. For the invincibly ignorant protesters no amount of contextualization would be enough. I see that now they want to tear down a statue of Louis 9th, the saintly king after whom the city was named. And Thadeus Kosciusko also has to go. I doubt the protesters have the faintest idea who either of these persons were.

  4. These discussions seem to be mixing things up and together too much. One is talking about confederate flags, another confederate statues and then other statues of people in the early period and on and on. Every one of these should be handled on it’s own and one answer does not fit all. I thought I was responding to the issue of a statue and the next comment to me was Cambodia. I will just leave it as follows: Confederate flags and Confederate statues of southern leaders can easily be eliminated. It is offensive to the African American community and they should go. However, all this stuff about removing statues of founders or statues of presidents long ago is another issue. People such as Washington and Jefferson are products of slavery. The society and times they were born were of slavery. To condemn the individual for this system is not practical and does not improve anything. It is certain that Washington and Jefferson knew slavery was bad and wrong. But to condemn them for not burning the house down to eliminate slavery is ridiculous. You can know that Trump is the worst president we have ever seen but what is a person suppose to do about it but vote. Will I be condemned for living during a Trump presidency 20 years from now?

    1. “Trump is the worst president we have ever seen”

      George Takai wrote a similar declaration about Trump, but someone pointed out that Franklin Roosevelt literally put him into a concentration camp.

      Coincidentally, I just finished a book by T. Roosevelt, where he opines that Madison fit that description, as he lacked “the prudence to avoid war or the forethought to prepare for it.”

      1. ” . . . T. Roosevelt . . . opines that Madison . . . lacked “the prudence to avoid war or the forethought to prepare for it.”

        I contemplate T. Roosevelt’s own such prudence, as I gather he chomped at the bit to get involved in the Spanish-American War. He apparently had little prudential influence on McKinley when it came time to decide how to deal with the Filipinos, during both McKinley’s and Roosevelt’s terms in office. The conflict with the Filipinos was labeled by the Americans as “The Philippine Insurrection,” as compared to, say, “The U.S. Invasion and Subjugation.” (Re: Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialist League.)

        Plus, I contemplate TR’s calling Thomas Paine “a filthy little atheist.” What elevated language, what magnanimity. “Bully!”

  5. The BLM movement is not interested in nuance, or, indeed, having a discussion. This now completely about controlling the discourse, and putting their opponents on the defensive.

  6. Why isn’t society more rational? This statue is a great example of how subjective this pulling-down of statues is, just in case anyone was stupid enough to think that it could ever be objective. People on both sides should be able to make their cases and let the population vote on it. There is an issue on how big a jurisdiction should be responsible for making the decision. Should it be a city, county, statewide, or national decision? Does the statue’s location on public or private property matter? Who pays for a statue to be pulled down? Surely there is precedent to help make these decisions. It definitely shouldn’t be a decision made by an angry mob, regardless of how justified their case is. It all seems pretty obvious to me.

  7. At one level, all of these statues are art. All art reflects the attitudes and culture at a certain point in time. Perhaps, rather than focussing on removal, we should talk about replacing these art works with new statues that resonate with our times.

  8. The other thing to say about this is that the media is doing a horrible job of contextualizing what is happening. They are all afraid of introducing facts, and being labeled racist.

  9. Lots of interesting history coming out about this statue. That’s a great thing, even if it only came about because of attempts to pull it down.

    This makes no sense. What we have here is hair-trigger Offense Detectors

    Well, maybe. I think the statue definitely looks, to our time’s eyes, a bit offensive. The history of it – essentially built by freed slaves, for freed slaves, dedicated by Frederick Douglas – shows there is more to it than meets the eye. But I think even a ‘moderate trigger’ offense detector would see offense here. Someone just coming along the statue wouldn’t get all the historical context we’re learning about now. Which IMO is a very good argument for adding a plaque or something in order to give it.

  10. There is a famous story of Lincoln visiting Richmond on April 4 1865. The newly freed slaves gathered around him, kneeling. Lincoln told them to stand up, that they were free now, and that they did not need to kneel to anyone except God.

  11. Compare the Emancipation Statue with a bas-relief depiction in the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Cleveland (dedicated in 1896 when many confederate memorials were being erected in the South). The Cleveland depiction of emancipation shows a kneeling former slave being handed a rifle by Lincoln who also holds aloft a set of shackles formerly worn by the former slave. The official statement about this depiction is that it both symbolizes emancipation and the use of former slaves as soldiers in the Civil War. It also symbolizes the beginning of civil rights for former slaves, best depicted by the former slave’s taking up a rifle as a right under the Bill of Rights. You can see the memorial here – http://www.soldiersandsailors.com – which is worth seeing in person if you are ever in Cleveland. The mere fact of arming a former slave was anathema to may white people at the time, in the North and the South, so the depiction reinforces the broad sweep and significance of emancipation.

    Art and literature have consistently portrayed slaves on their knees before their enslavers. The statues we are talking about reflect this tradition in a time when public art aspired to the gravitas of classical forms. (Much contemporary public art lacks this attribute altogether.)

    An artistic impression of historical events couched in terms of contemporary aesthetics and political views will only capture the essence at best of how we think history should be (re)written, not what the history is. The better question, and solution to the cultural debate, is how should we depict the historical event today, not whether we should remove the now offending statue. It would be a wonderful moment if the mob raised the money and commissioned a responding work of art to place beside one like the Emancipation Statue to reflect the contemporary view of things.

    I do think Confederate memorials should be removed. They stand for nothing other than a defeated slave culture that needs to die.

  12. Most public statues, in the UK anyway, are of people who are scarcely remembered today, and are of negligible artistic merit. Why not impose a statute of limitations on all statues: that they should remain in place for a maximum of 50 years, unless a clear majority of local people (or others as well?) vote for them to stay?

    The (London) Times today asked some public figures who they would like to be honoured by statues. The author Hilary Mantel said none, on the grounds that ‘the practice was redundant in the modern era’. I tend to agree.

    1. “…statute of limitations on all statues…”

      Yeah, we don’t need all those old Greek and Roman statues. Way too old.

      1. Not to mention Greeks and Romans were slavers! Away with the statues! The ancient Egyptians were slavers too and made Ethiopians their slaves. Away with the Sphinx and the pyramids! Before that, captured peoples were either enslaved or eaten.

        1. Eaten? Maybe best to bone up on that prehistory. Ancient Egyptians are not known for being into that.

  13. Partly an old man rant, but:

    Has no one suggested that in future (or ‘going forward’, for shitsake, for those perhaps not knowing what the word ‘future’ means), all elementary and secondary pupils in USian land be taught something closer to ALL the facts in their history courses? This would do far more for racial problems (or ‘issues’, again as above; I know the cutesy lingo too), than would worrying too much about statues. The statues should have new large lengthy signs delineating both the good (if any) and the bad, with respect to the statues’ subjects.

    E.g. what proportion of children know that the beloved George Washington was the owner of a slaves? From Mr. Wiki if he is to be believed:
    “Washington’s peak net worth was $587.0 million, including his 300 slaves.”

    Are even 1 in 100 aware of this, or at least were taught this?

  14. I agree that Confederate monuments are deeply inappropriate, if the history books are correct that the Confederacy lost the Civil War, and that the Confederacy’s aim was to defend the institution of slavery. The monuments should be housed in museums like the House of Terror in Budapest, which displays artifacts of the fascist and communist Hungarian regimes.

    Nonetheless, the attention lavished on such purely symbolic issues makes me wonder whose interests are served by this particular line of fuss. Every unit of time, energy, and attention spent on the burning issue of statuary, or on the obviously futile demand that all law enforcement be abolished, is a unit not addressed to such arcane matters as the top marginal tax rate, the cap on the Social Security tax, the regulations governing union organizing, or the way to establish a national health system. Indeed, matters like these are not what elicit fiery rhetoric, let alone huge marches and demonstrations. For many years, one could only scratch one’s head, and wonder whether the National Association of Manufacturers might have created and funded the pop-Left as a decoy and distraction.

  15. I always like what (I think) Vaclav Havel? said: When you tear down the statues, keep the plinths as you’ll soon need them.

    Some of those in the South really have just got to (Lee, etc) go but we really need to understand the context, like this one in Boston.
    D.A., J.D., NYC

  16. I never pay much attention to it before. But yea thank you for writing such an amazing blog. I love reading your work, keep posting more.

  17. I support removing this statue. I live in the Washington DC area, and I have seen the statue “in person.” It’s in a neighborhood park outside the main tourist traffic areas. When I first saw it, I was appalled. I knew nothing about its history or provenance, and my reaction was to ask “Why is this here?”

    I would guess that most other people who casually stroll by wouldn’t know that history either, because there is no explanatory sign. Even if a sign is put up, I doubt that casual park visitors would stop to read it. It might be best to move the statue to a museum (maybe the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture) where people are looking for historical context.

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