The statue of Abraham Lincoln in Westminster arrived in 1920. The former US Secretary of State Elihu Root presented it in July, noting its place of honor on Parliament Square among “memorials of British statesmen” and in a place “where the living tides of London will ebb and flow about it.”1 The somber and elegant piece is a product of the great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens – son of a French father, Root noted, born in Ireland – artist of the memorial to the 54th Massachusetts and the Double Eagle as well as the Adams memorial. Saint-Gauden’s Lincoln is a fine sculpture.
It is also a bit of a cuckoo: it took the place meant for George Barnard’s Lincoln, which now stands in Manchester, because Barnard’s Lincoln was alleged to look like a “tramp with the colic.”
The Lincoln who stands in Manchester is a copy of the Lincoln who stands in Cincinnati. An American Peace Commission originally meant to send this Lincoln to London. But Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son, hated it – “grotesquely absurd,” he said; he thought it a “general deformity.” Others who remembered Lincoln described the Barnard as “uncouth and slouchy,” and “ungainly,” as well as “too lugubrious.”
Speaking for himself, Barnard had said he wanted a Lincoln who looked like a laborer, and took for his model a man who had cut wood for a living until the age of 40.2
Ultimately the Barnard-haters won, and secured the Saint-Gaudens statue for London. The Barnard would go to another suitable British city. Manchester stepped forward. The Guardian welcomed it, saying it
is anything but conventional, and to those accustomed to the sentimentalism which marks most of the statues in our squares and buildings it comes as something of a shock.… the sculptor almost fiercely thrusts forward the clumsiness and disproportion of Lincoln’s figure, as though to say, ‘Here is a man who needs no sentimental treatment.’…
[N]othing could better recall that great, self-sacrificing complement to the civil war which Americans will never forget, when the Lancashire [mill] operatives were content to go hungry that America might be united and free.3
The dearth of southern cotton during the US Civil War deprived Lancashire’s mills of their raw material. Workers did indeed suffer. But at the end of 1862, the mill workers met at Free Trade Hall in Manchester and passed a motion in support of Lincoln, the blockade, and the end of slavery.
Lincoln replied, saying he had “reckoned on the forbearance of nations” on the supposition that “[a] fair examination of history has served to authorize a belief that the past actions and influences of the United States were generally regarded as having been beneficial toward mankind.” But the gesture of the Manchester workers, in the depth of their own suffering, he thought “an instance of sublime Christian heroism” and “an energetic and inspiring assurance of the inherent power of truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity, and freedom.4
Manchester’s Lincoln arrived earlier than London’s, in September 1919.5 But it was not until 1986 that Manchester’s local council (with a Labour majority) moved the statue to a new location, near Bright and Cobden.6
At the moment, if you wander by the Lincoln statue, you can touch your mobile phone to it and get a telephone call from the man, voiced by Tom Conti, as part of the Talking Statues project. Or you can hear it here.
1“Elihu Root’s London Address on Abraham Lincoln,” NYT 8/22/1920, p. X6.
2James T. Hickey, “Some Robert Todd Lincoln Letters on the ‘Dreadful Statue’ by George Grey Barnard,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 73:2 (Summer, 1980): 132-139.
3“Wants Barnard’s Lincoln,” NYT 1/3/19, p. 4.
4“To the Working-Men of Manchester, England,” January 1863, Papers and Writings of Abraham Lincoln vol 6, accessed via Project Gutenberg.
5“Barnard’s Lincoln Set Up,” NYT 9/4/19, p. 10.
6Anthony Hutchison, “’All The Men of Great Affairs’: The Barnard Statue, Manchester Liberalism, and Lincoln Intellectual History,” American Literary History 21:4 (Winter 2009): 793-809.