Should Old Abe be the next to go?
Let's consider the flawed legacy behind the UW-Madison campus' most beloved statue.
As white-supremacist rhetoric escalates in the era of 45, several campuses and cities across the country are taking stands by removing and renaming places and monuments that honor Confederate figures. Post-Charlottesville, with similar protests in Baltimore and Chicago, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin took his stand recently as well: He moved to remove two Confederate monuments in Forest Hill Cemetery, portraying them as revisionist relics of hatred:
"The larger monument at Madison's Forest Hill Cemetery is not a Civil War monument. It was installed over sixty years after the end of the war. It is a slab of propaganda paid for by a racist organization on public property, when our city was inattentive to both the new form of slavery propagated by the donors with the Black Codes and to the meaning of that despicable fixture honoring slavery, sedition, and oppression."
Those monuments, of course, are much smaller than another that also points to the Civil War era: Abraham Lincoln, the nation's 16th President, sitting atop a throne on Bascom Hill. More than a century after its acquisition, Old Abe remains a patriotic centerpiece of the UW-Madison campus, overlooking generations of students and gazing right into the heart of downtown. Today, Madison's skyline is more condominium than cirrus, and the Capitol teems with bad actors. By now, Abe has seen many waves of campus and local activism come and go and come again. It's unclear whether or not he'd consider himself a target or an ally of any of it.
While Americans generally treat Lincoln as a savior who worked tirelessly to free the slaves and was assassinated for his efforts, the truth about Abe and his politics is much murkier sea of contradictions and incompletions. So while we're removing statues of oppressive white figures, should Old Abe face a similar fate?
Granted, many of the Confederate monuments coming down now were put up during the Jim Crow era or the height of the civil rights movement with the explicit goal of intimidating Black Americans, and the story behind Old Abe is more benign. The the statue pays tribute to the Lincoln administration's involvement in the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which was pivotal in funding UW-Madison at its inception. A replica of sculptor Adolph A. Weinman's work for the state of Kentucky —Lincoln's birth state—the statue came exclusively to Madison through the work of Richard Lloyd Jones and the pockets of Thomas E. Brittingham, who funded its transport. Lincoln was first unveiled in the middle of Bascom on Alumni Day—June 22, 1909—but was moved to its current location a decade later.
There's a distinct patriotism etched into the work: a spread eagle on the back of the chair, names of the 36 states in the base, and Lincoln's trademark scowl gazing over the city. Old Abe plays a key role in campus lore—and UW-Madison marketing. He's one of the first things you'll see or hear of when you get to campus, his throne symbolizing a reminder to keep going wherever a Badger may go. If one rubs his shoe, one desperately needs luck. A more dated tradition has it that he'll stand up when a virgin walks by. Most famously, thousands of graduates ascend the replica each year to sit on Abe's lap for a photograph and a moment of finality. This comes with a whisper of future aspiration in his ear, perhaps a kiss on his cheek.
On top of his role as a good luck charm or a judge of one's bedroom exploits, Lincoln's figure is constantly manipulated and re-framed within the context of student-led activism. Countless demonstrations have started atop Bascom near Lincoln. Whether one places signage in his lap or alters the statue itself, Abe's body becomes a blank canvas for a multitude of agendas and ideologies that seek to align themselves with Lincoln's virtuous image, symbolically placing their opponents (often university officials or state legislators and governors) on the wrong side of history. The examples include Black Lives Matter and Blackout protests in recent memory, but also go much further back. During the era of McCarthyism, students painted Lincoln red in protest of the Wisconsin senator's fraudulent hunt for Communists.
The truth about Lincoln invites this kind of political projection from across the spectrum. While he's no Confederate General, he's far from the great liberator portrayed in the normalized, whitewashed narratives taught since his assassination. Historians have debated and debunked his shifting positions on racial issues for some time—one view, with growing support, claims Lincoln pursued the abolition of slavery only to protect the Union. And he did, in fact, believe in Black folks being subservient to whites. This quote, from a September 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas, has been cherry-picked across social media in the post-Charlottesville noise:
"I will say then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, of having them to marry with white people. I will say in addition, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I suppose, will forever forbid the two races living together upon terms of social and political equality, and inasmuch, as they cannot so live, that while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, that I as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man."
This is white-supremacist thought, no doubt. And while Lincoln consistently opposed slavery, he didn't really have an agenda of immediately freeing Black folks and granting them their inalienable rights. The Emancipation Proclamation didn't free all the slaves right away, and in one draft of that crucial document, Lincoln discussed voluntary colonization for Black folks in Central America—further underscoring that he saw the races as fundamentally different and unequal.
In context, Lincoln was a white man of his time: ambivalent, cynical, and less concerned with Black freedom than most Americans believe. One can also argue that he channeled white-supremacist rhetoric to please his audience, obscuring his true beliefs. But right until his death, he proceeded with an open-mindedness that surely cost him his life; had he remained alive, history suggests he would've worked through his intolerance and indifference to better serve the cause outside of emancipation.
The case for removing Old Abe, in an effort to strip glory from Lincoln's once-destructive statements, would be stronger if he'd kept up the white-supremacist this rhetoric throughout his presidency. The clearer picture reveals a man who was slowly realigning himself with the abolitionist movement, despite the difficulties of navigating the powers of his whiteness and his administration to benefit the Union even when all its citizens weren't intact from the beginning.
Dethroned or not, the mere question of removing Lincoln, in a UW-Madison climate where the system's failings of students of color have reached another fever pitch, opens the door to several new questions about his place in Madison's civic and cultural life. What relevance does he have now to the campus community? Is he a trinket of good luck, a symbol of justice, or a mess in-between? Should the UW and the city fixate on Lincoln's heroism as a marketing tool to celebrate and honor without considering the weight of his shortcomings? Is the ignorance of these shortcomings shorting the community of an honest dialogue around what their nation once was, is now, and may become again?
In the new spree of discourse around American historical figures with racist beliefs, a narrative has taken shape that says leftist sensitivity will one day come for every sacred American figure—right down to Washington and Jefferson. People across the political spectrum have bought into the hysterical idea that taking down monuments is a way of erasing and revising history. This is a disservice to the possibility of having a nuanced discussion about our history. Removing Old Abe is unlikely, but acknowledging the flaws and failings of the Great Emancipator would help Americans challenge their habit of deifying its leaders of war and hatred without considering the consequences. Among white folks in power, there's a prevailing expectation that marginalized and oppressed citizens will remain passive while their neighbors reserve the societal power to reactivate these figures in a resurgence of hatred, cloaked as heritage. The foolishness of this notion doesn't end on the side with gray uniforms. The victors too deserve a thorough examination.