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Why the Lincoln Memorial was almost never built

It was a huge controversy. But the opposition wasn’t what you might expect.

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

The Lincoln Memorial makes such a strong statement that its construction seems like a foregone conclusion: Of course we’d build a memorial to Lincoln, and of course it would be a keymonument in the National Mall.

But the story behind the Lincoln Memorial’s construction is a surprisingly complicated one, and it says something about the contortions that, even today, politicians have to undergo to become monument-making visionaries.

The video above tells that story — and shows how the Lincoln Memorial nearly failed to reach completion.

The Lincoln Memorial was controversial due to its location

Pope and Bacon's early Lincoln Memorial Designs
The Lincoln Memorial before completion.

"I can’t imagine anything less controversial," Susan Mandel says of the famous monument. But when she began researching the Lincoln Memorial’s history for a 2008 Washington Post feature, she discovered that debate was long and fierce.

Read Mandel’s feature to learn about all the obstacles the Memorial faced, but in summary, the Lincoln Memorial was so monumental that it was difficult for politicians to imagine. At the time, the National Mall wasn’t the clear park land it is today — it was a recently dredged swamp that played host to gamblers, occasional cattle drives, and even a few dead bodies.

The proposed extension of the National Mall to this area, and the inclusion of the Lincoln Memorial in that location, was hard for many politicians to imagine. Though the 1896 election gave Republicans enough political power to memorialize Lincoln (over the opposition of Democrats), the McMillan Plan to extend the mall faced fierce opposition because it was so unfathomable.

At the center of that opposition sat one of the most powerful speakers of the House to ever hold the title.

Joe Cannon almost stopped the Lincoln Memorial from being built

Joe Cannon, speaker.
Collection of the US House of Representatives

Ruth Bloch Rubin, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, perfectly captured how Joe Cannon was able to singlehandedly stall the Lincoln Memorial’s construction. She wrote her thesis about the intraparty insurgency that ultimately toppled Cannon.

"He’s the kind of politician we don’t see a lot today. He rose through the ranks and accumulated quite a lot of seniority over his time," she told me. Cannon became speaker of the House in 1903, and he had a firm grip on all the legislation that went through Congress. By taking advantage of rules and committee appointments, Cannon became so powerful that, when one voter asked their Congress person for a copy of the House rules, the voter received a picture of Joe Cannon in the mail.

For the most part, Cannon exercised his power on major issues, pushing for fiscal conservatism (or, depending how you look at it, deferring to the financial interests on the East Coast). Cannon was known for keeping a firm hand on the tiller, and at first, I thought that was the primary reason behind his opposition to the Lincoln Memorial, which he either refused to approve or held up in the House. (This was a leader who, after all, told Teddy Roosevelt he wouldn’t waste a cent on scenery.)

But as I learned more about Joe Cannon, it began to seem like vision, not money, was Cannon’s problem with the Lincoln Memorial. The new plan for the National Mall updated 18th-century planner Pierre L’Enfant's ideas about the Mall, and that was hard for some leaders to grasp.

"The 1901 McMillan plan takes that concept of L’Enfant and refines it, enhances it into much more of a public space," Lisa Benton-Short says. She’s a geography professor at the George Washington University, and author of The National Mall: No Ordinary Public Space.

Joe Cannon had difficulty embracing the scope of this ambitious new plan. He proposed more modest alternatives that wouldn’t require a massive overhaul of the Mall, and because of the power he wielded, he was able to keep other options off the table. Throughout the early 1900s, he was successful in stalling construction.

Only a rebellion could put the Lincoln Memorial back in play

Placing the Lincoln Memorial Cornerstone
The Lincoln Memorial cornerstone being placed.

So how did the Lincoln Memorial finally get built? Joe Cannon was effectively overthrown.

Progressive-friendly Republicans were frustrated by Cannon’s reluctance to embrace progressive initiatives, as well as his general control of the House. The procedural tale is a winding one with a lot of specific intra-party intrigue — like House of Cards, but with lots of complicated footnotes (you can read a fuller version here). In short, a group of insurgents coordinated to take Cannon out of the speakership and, despite some complicated procedural maneuvering, Cannon ended up losing the speakership in 1910.

Though he still retained influence in the plans for the National Mall, he lacked the power to stand firmly in the way of the McMillan Plan. The site for the Lincoln Memorial was approved in 1911. When the 1912 election ended Republican control of the government, the party suddenly had a deadline: They had to approve a Memorial before 1913 or risk one never being built. A few gorgeous designs were in the running, but Henry Bacon’s won out and construction soon began. The Memorial was dedicated in 1922 — and even Joe Cannon eventually admitted he liked it.

Vision remains an obstacle for the National Mall, even today

The view from the Lincoln Monument on the National Mall, Washington, DC. Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives
The view from the Lincoln Monument on the National Mall, Washington, DC. (Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives)

Benton-Short argues that Joe Cannon’s reluctance to build the Lincoln Memorial isn’t just a historical quirk, but a typical symptom of what happens when people ask politicians to have the visionary moxie of artists.

In her book, she details how bureaucracy, budgetary concerns, and the absence of a clear champion for the National Mall have stalled further progress, both for future monuments and general renovation and reimagination of the space.

"Today when I look at why does the Mall have less-than-adequate maintenance, some of it is because this has been true for more than 200 years," Benton-Short says. "There’s a lack of appreciation around what it could be and a lack of vision to make it happen."

While Joe Cannon may be a unique historical character, his opposition to the Mall is surprisingly easy to understand — even if historical hindsight makes it seem misguided. The difficult part is figuring out how to balance Cannon’s pragmatism with a vision that can result in beloved public spaces like the Lincoln Memorial.