William Howard Taft was a man who held many titles in his life: president of the United States, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and most significantly for this post, chairman of the Lincoln Memorial Commission. He held this post during his tenure as president, and oversaw the planning and selection of the site for the memorial. Eleven years later, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he led the dedication of the Memorial on May 30, 1922.
Attempts had been made in the 19th century to erect a monument to Lincoln. In 1867, Congress passed a law (ch. XVIII, 15 Stat. 11) incorporating the Lincoln Monument Association. The purpose of this association was the erection of a “monument in the city of Washington, commemorative of the great charter of emancipation and universal liberty in America.” Later that year, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the secretary of war to place at the disposal of the Lincoln Monument Association damaged and captured brass and bronze guns and ordinance to be used in the casting of statutes of the principal figures in the proposed monument (no. 42, 15 Stat. 255). However, as this resolution notes, the association was charged with the raising of at least $100,000 for the memorial. Unfortunately, they did not meet this goal and neither memorial nor brass statutes were forthcoming.
Although there were subsequent attempts to legislate and fund a memorial for President Lincoln, it was not until February 9, 1911, that a law was signed to “provide a commission to secure plans and designs for a monument or memorial to the memory of Abraham Lincoln” (ch. 42. 36 Stat. 898). By December 1912, the commission had submitted a report to Congress with its recommendations.
The commission had worked quickly. In 20 months, they had held 16 meetings; appointed President Taft chairman and designated officers; and selected a location and design for the proposed memorial and appointed an architect.
The Lincoln Memorial Commission had asked the Commission of Fine Arts for recommendations on the memorial location. Four possible locations had been suggested and others had been considered, including Arlington National Cemetery, the Old Soldiers Home, and the grounds of the old Naval Observatory. The Commission of Fine Arts had unanimously recommended the Potomac Park site that had previously been recommended for the memorial (S. Rept. 57-166, also known as the McMillan Report). However, the Lincoln Memorial Commission was determined to be thorough in their review and three sets of plans with models were drawn up for their consideration: one set for the memorial at Potomac Park; one set for the memorial at the Old Soldiers Home on North Capitol Street; and finally a set of plans for a memorial on the high ground on Sixteenth Street, north of Florida Avenue.
After the Lincoln Memorial Commission decided on the Potomac Park location for the memorial, they considered six sets of plans for the memorial itself. These are attached to the commission’s report to Congress in the appendices. By April 1912, the commission had selected an architect, Henry Bacon, to complete the final design for the memorial and by July 3rd, he had submitted his final plans to the commission. One of the features of Bacon’s plans was the incorporation of various materials from different states, meant to signal the importance of the Union to Lincoln. In 1914, the commission appointed Daniel Chester French to carve and assemble the statue of Lincoln, which would be the centerpiece in the memorial’s interior.
After the commission finished its work, Congress appropriated $300,00 to begin work on the memorial on June 23, 1913 (ch. 3, 38 Stat. 4, 36). Congress continued to appropriate money for the memorial each year through 1921 and the main body of work on the memorial with $5,000 being appropriated in 1921 (ch. 24, 41 Stat. 163, 180) to cover the costs of dedicating the memorial. Construction began in February 1914 and continued steadily, though work slowed with the entry of the United States in World War I in April 1917.
The work was finally completed in 1922, and on what was reported to be a blazing hot day, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. Chief Justice Taft, as the head of the Lincoln Memorial Commission, presented the monument to President Harding. Taft and Harding gave speeches, as did Robert Rossa Moton of the Tuskegee Institute, the only African American speaker at the dedication. Various other notables attended the dedication including, Vice President Calvin Coolidge and Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving child of President Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln.
There had been some controversy over the selection of Potomac Park for the Lincoln Memorial. However, the Lincoln Memorial Commission quoted extensively from the recommendation of the Commission of Fine Arts in justifying the selection of this site, and for those of us who have stood on the National Mall and seen the memorial we can only applaud their foresight:
The comparative isolation of the Potomac Park site in the midst of a large area of undeveloped vacant land constitutes a peculiar advantage. For a long distance in every direction the surroundings are absolutely free for such treatment as would best enhance the effect of the Memorial… it is a simple matter to raise in this area an eminence suited to the site of a great memorial … In judging the site of a memorial to endure throughout the ages we must regard not what the location was nor what it is today but what it can be made for all time to come… A memorial upon this location need not be so high … as to bring it into competition with the Washington Monument … From the hills of the District and of Virginia the constantly recurring views of a great Lincoln Memorial … would be impressive in the highest degree.