“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
—Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
The first eight words of the quote above, taken from Lincoln’s second inaugural address delivered on Saturday, March 4, 1865, were carved on the low granite fence that surrounded a bronze likeness of the country’s 16th president. This bronze originally stood at street level on the southwest corner Union Square Park.
Today, that same bronze of Honest Abe stands at the northern end of Union Square Park. Sponsored by the Republican Union League Club three years after Lincoln’s assassination, it was relocated during the 1930 redesign of the park. While still at its first location, the sculpture helped to name One Union Square West, directly next to it. The limestone and brick building became known as the Lincoln Building; it has been a New York City landmark since 1988.
Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886) sculpted the larger-than-life bronze. It stands in an axial alignment with the Independence Flagstaff, at the center of the park, and with the equestrian bronze of George Washington, at the southern end of the park, which was also sculpted by Mr. Brown.
Cast at the R. Wood & Company Bronze Foundry in Philadelphia, this bronze sculpture was dedicated on September 16, 1870. It was not a critical success. However, the public, even New Yorkers, embraced the monument of the martyred president. Citizens of the nation’s largest city did not vote in the majority for Lincoln during the 1864 election. This was not a nice thank-you to Lincoln, who ordered the U.S. Army to put down the July 1863 Draft Riots, which took place in and around Union Square.
When it was unveiled, the New York Times’ scathing review read as follows. “A frightful object has been placed in Union Square. It is said to be a statue of a man who deserves to be held in lasting remembrance as a true patriot, a sincere, unselfish, noble-hearted chief in times of great trouble and perplexity—Abraham Lincoln. But it does not resemble Mr. Lincoln. The lines which give the face character are not there.”
Because of the strain that Lincoln was under during the course of the Civil War, he aged dramatically; and it showed. Photographs of the president taken during this time show his faced lined with worry, drawn with stress.
What Mr. Brown chose to clothe Lincoln in also came under fire. To associated Lincoln with the Ancients, he is wearing a toga! The New York Times went on to find further fault. “The sculptor has tried to atone for this defect by putting plenty of hard lines in the clothes, which are enough to distract anybody who thinks that dress need not of necessity increase the hideousness of man. It is like the hideous nightmare. How much it costs to make it and put it up, we do not know, but we will gladly receive subscriptions toward the expense of taking it down and sending it off to Chicago, where ‘works of art’ of this kind are highly appreciated.”
“We humbly bow before the Great Emancipator and consecrate ourselves to carry on the principles he established. We cannot be satisfied with conditions of freedom in some parts of the country.”
Fiorello H. La Guardia (1882–1947) spoke the words above during his successful 1933 campaign for mayor of New York. The Republican candidate placed a wreath on the 8-foot tall bronze of Lincoln in Union Square Park at the ceremony marking Emancipation Day, the 16th of April; the celebration was organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The sculptor placed a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln’s left hand. When asked his opinion of the action take by the Rev. William E. Blackshear to bar worshipers-of-color from the Protestant Episcopal Church of St. Matthew in Brooklyn, Mr. La Guardia replied, “Christ would bow his head in shame.”
This bronze likeness of Lincoln is a small sampling of what can be seen when you take our Five Squares and a Circle Tour, which will return with spring in March.