Abraham Lincoln, William Howard Taft: Artful Lawyers

Today is the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a masterpiece by a master craftsman of the language of democracy. In Cincinnati’s Lytle Park stands a statue of Lincoln, dedicated on March 31, 1917 at an outdoor ceremony attended by 20,000 to hear an address by William Howard Taft who, like Lincoln, was a former President and lawyer—in fact the only person to hold both the offices of Chief Justice and President. Taft and the crowd that day in 1917 knew that the United States would soon declare war on Germany (which happened 6 days later), a watershed moment for a nation, a world and a city with a large German population. When the large white sheet covering the sculpture fell away, the audience saw a Lincoln like they’d never seen before—beardless, humble, rumpled clothing, no top hat, oversized hands and feet, hair windblown. The sculptor, George Grey Barnard, son of a Presbyterian minister with a reverence for Lincoln, had deliberately crafted a common man Lincoln, using for his live model a six foot four rail splitter from Kentucky who had grown up near Lincoln’s birthplace. The sculpture was controversial at the time. Many thought the sculpture was undignified, ungainly and insulting. Others thought it was a right on depiction of Lincoln and what he stands for. William Howard Taft was in the latter group and used his address on March 31, 1917 to say that Lincoln was the personification of American democracy and a fitting inspiration for the nation and his home town  on the eve of entering the First World War.

Today, the controversy around Barnard’s Lincoln is largely forgotten, while the quality and meaning of Barnard’s masterpiece continues to silently preside over a beautiful Park.  Thankfully, Lincoln continues to stand there, hands folded, looking out.

Painting of Barnard’s Lincoln by Bruce Petrie for the Volunteer Lawyers for the Poor Foundation