What America Looked Like: The Lincoln Memorial Under Construction

How the monument was built, and how one obstructionist legislator tried to stop it

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National Archives

In the years following his death, Lincoln became more than an ex-president. He grew into a myth -- a national deity who had saved the country from implosion. In a very short time, he joined the ranks of Washington, Jefferson, and the other heroes who built the United States from the ground up. It was only fitting that this new member of the national pantheon be memorialized in a marble temple all his own.

Where was the perfect location for such temple? Turns out, it was a swamp. Since the early days of Washington, the Potomac had narrowed greatly due to agricultural sediment. (A map of early D.C. will make you do a double take -- the site of the Washington Monument is now a mile further from the banks than it originally was.) To some, this new land seemed the perfect platform for expanding the capital's grandeur and honoring Lincoln. But others scoffed at the idea.

Congressman Joe Cannon, a notorious pocket-pinching conservative, didn't want it. He held no ill-will toward the late president -- after all, he, too, was a Republican from Illinois. Rather, he felt a Greek temple on the city's undeveloped banks was ostentatious and, from a municipal angle, a waste of resources. According to a 2008 Washington Post feature, he even vowed, "So long as I live, I'll never let a memorial to Abraham Lincoln be erected in that goddammed swamp."

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The memorial's final plans were delayed from 1901 to 1912, during which time many other less costly and more utilitarian proposals came and went. One alternative was a Lincoln highway that would stretch from Washington to Gettysburg. Another was a more modest memorial near Union Station. Over the decade, Cannon used much of his political clout as chairman of the House Appropriations committee to block the original plans, even proposing to build the Department of Agriculture building in a position that would make constructing the Lincoln Memorial impossible.

In Cannon's defense, at the time the Potomac Flats (as the location was called) was hardly the stateliest part of the city. It was a swamp that hosted the muck of both nature and society. It was a haunt for criminals and vagrants, and dead bodies would appear in the flats from time to time.

But in hindsight, it's clear that Cannon lacked the vision of what the west end of the National Mall could become. After he was finally defeated and saw the finished product, Cannon did something that seems impossible in today's political climate: he admitted he had been wrong.

"I have been in many fights -- some I have lost, many I have won," he said. "It may have been better if I had lost more... I am pleased I lost the one against the Lincoln Memorial."


Have a suggestion for a future "What America Looked Like"? Contact us: nationalchannel@theatlantic.com

Presented by

Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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