Lincoln Memorial Statue and Daniel Chester French
Background note: Thomas R. Harrington (G-'73, MLS University of Maryland '74) was a Gallaudet University librarian from 1973 until his retirement in 2007. In the second half of his career he assumed responsibility for the Library's extensive Deaf Collection and became a recognized authority on Deaf research. The following discussion is a good example of the depth of Mr. Harrington's knowledge and considered opinion. He thinks although the meaning of the handshapes of the Lincoln statue cannot be proven, they are more than a coincidence.
On May 4, 1998, a researcher asked via email:
"[An acquaintance] read that Daniel Chester French purposely sculpted A. Lincoln's statue so that his hands formed an "A" and "L". Also he heard ... the same thing was done with the "Gallaudet/Cogswell" statue.... What is the truth of the matter?"
Mr. Harrington answered:
The issue of whether or not Daniel Chester French's monumental seated statue of Abraham Lincoln is forming the manual letters "A" and "L" is an old and contentious one. Let me begin by addressing the easier of the two questions, about the Gallaudet/Cogswell statue.
No one doubts that there is fingerspelling in this 1889 statue of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and his first pupil, Alice Cogswell. Indeed, the manual letter "A" is the whole point and focus of the statue. You'll recall that this statue portrays Gallaudet teaching Alice the first letter of the manual alphabet: Gallaudet makes the "A" handshape, and Alice imitates her. She clutches to her chest a book with the printed alphabet in it: evidently she has just made the connection between the handshape and the printed letter "A" in the book, as she looks up in wonder at Gallaudet. The statue portrays the moment at which Gallaudet began little Alice's education, starting the chain of events that eventually led to Gallaudet University.
It's worth making the side note that this was not the first sculpture French had done with a deaf connection. In 1881, President James A. Garfield had been assassinated. Since Garfield had been a good friend and supporter of the "National Deaf-Mute College", first as a Congressman and then continuing his personal interest into his presidency, the College commissioned a marble memorial bust of Garfield. A young, not-yet-famous sculptor, Daniel Chester French, was selected to execute it. Later, when a search was made for someone to do the Gallaudet memorial statue, French was already a known quantity, and won the job. The Garfield bust has been on almost continuous display in Chapel Hall for well over a century.
Now we come to the Lincoln statue. This was begun in 1915, some 26 years after the Gallaudet/Cogswell statue and 32 years after the Garfield bust. To people familiar with the American manual alphabet, the placement of the seated Lincoln's hands do indeed resemble the manual letters "A" and "L" (the latter lightly disguised). They appear in the correct order from Lincoln's perspective, A on the left and L on the right. And there's the Gallaudet/Cogswell statue to prove that French knew of the manual alphabet long before the Lincoln statue, not least the "A" handshape.
In a 1977 issue of Smithsonian magazine, Michael Richman, identified by the editors as an "authority" on Daniel Chester French, published an article on French, including some discussion on the "powerful imagery" of the Lincoln statue's hands. He never mentioned the hands being in manual-alphabet shapes, though. A later issue of Smithsonian published a letter to the editor from a Rhode Island woman that pointed out that Lincoln's left hand seemed to be making the manual-alphabet "A", and asking whether that was true. In his published response, Richman dismissed the idea brusquely as "a wishful myth with no documentation to support the finger-spelling theory about Lincoln's hands." I have in my files a copy of a letter from my predecessor Carolyn Jones, who wrote to Smithsonian challenging Richman's statement. Her letter was not published, but she received a letter back from an editor saying that Richman stood by his theory of the "wishful myth".
Against the "A.L." theory, I have independently found that in photographs of early working models of the Lincoln statue, the right hand is a simple claw shape gripping the end of the chair arm, without the subtle finger placements that on the final statue say "L" to us. If French intended that hand to be a manual "L", it must have been a late decision. However, in support of the theory, the left hand remains in the supposed "A" handshape throughout all the preliminary sketches and models, never changing shape or position.
Also against the "A.L." theory is that, in reviewing photographs of many other Daniel Chester French sculptures, I have not found any that also use hands in recognizable manual-alphabet poses (including French's earlier sculpture of a standing Lincoln). Apparently the Gallaudet/Cogswell statue and the seated Lincoln are unique in that respect.
Personally, I think there's too much "coincidence" with Daniel Chester French, his exposure to Gallaudet College and fingerspelling, his proven inclusion of fingerspelling in at least the Gallaudet/Cogswell statue, and the shapes of the hands on the Lincoln statue, to be genuine coincidence. But an "authority" on D.C. French has spoken, and unless and until someone can turn up a document in which D.C. French says Lincoln's hands are modeled on the manual alphabet, this issue must be regarded as unproven either way.
-- Tom Harrington
* * * * * * * * * *Prepared by Tom Harrington
Reference and Instruction Librarian