Sign Language on Lincoln’s Hands at The Lincoln Memorial? Truth or Fiction, You Decide.
Updated: Jan 29
The National Park Service says what I’m about to tell you is a “myth.” I'll share the facts so you can decide for yourself.
Have you ever looked closely at Abraham Lincoln’s hands on the Lincoln Memorial statue?
After hearing this story, you may see them with new eyes. And next time you are in Washington DC, in addition to taking an extra-long look at Lincoln’s hands, you’ll probably want to visit another, lesser-known statue created by the same sculptor, located less than 2 miles from the US Capitol.
The Story Starts With a Little Girl in Hartford Connecticut
Alice Cogswell was born August 31, 1805 in Hartford, Connecticut. She was the daughter of Mason Fitch Cogswell, a well-known surgeon who studied at Yale University and received medical training during The American Revolution.
When Alice was two years old, she became sick, probably with either Meningitis or Scarlet Fever. When she recovered, she was Deaf. Her father wanted her to be educated, but there were no schools specifically for Deaf children in North America at that time. So, like many Deaf children of the time (and, tragically, like many Deaf children even today), Alice spent years deprived of language and age-appropriate knowledge.
Alice Meets a Teacher
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, like Mason Cogswell, graduated from Yale University. During a stay in his parents’ home in Hartford, in 1814, Gallaudet became acquainted with Dr. Cogswell and then-9-year-old Alice. Gallaudet became a tutor to Alice, attempting to teach her to read words, but his efforts met with limited success.
The following year, Dr. Cogswell arranged for Gallaudet to travel to Europe to learn methods for teaching Deaf children and to bring his knowledge back to the United States.
Gallaudet first went to England and attempted to learn the methods being employed at the Braidwood School, which emphasized spoken and written language, rather than sign language, in the education of Deaf children.
While in England, he met Laurent Clerc, a Deaf teacher from the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, who was fluent in the langue des signes française (LSF), the native sign language of France. Clerc was in England to make a presentation, and he invited Gallaudet to return to France with him and visit his school in Paris, where LSF was the language of instruction.
A New School
After Gallaudet’s trip to France, Gallaudet and Clerc traveled back to The United States together.
The mythology of American Deaf History, passed down from Deaf person to Deaf person through a silent, oral history, tells the story of a Deaf Frenchman and a hearing American, teaching each other their languages on a ship traveling across The Atlantic Ocean in1816. Gallaudet taught Laurent Clerc English, and Clerc taught the French Sign Language, LSF, to Gallaudet. For years, the details of that voyage were lost to time. But in1952, Laurent Clerc's great-great-grandson produced Clerc's journal, chronicling their 52-day transatlantic journey. The highly-detailed account was handwritten by Clerc and subsequently published by the American School for the Deaf. If you are as intrigued as I was, check out this document. It's fascinating.
On April 15, 1817, Clerc and Gallaudet together established what is now The American School for the Deaf in West Hartford. Alice was among the first pupils. The primary language of instruction was LSF.
Interestingly, there was already at least one sign language in use in North America, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. As the Deaf children of Martha’s Vineyard began to come to the mainland to attend school, LSF and Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language formed the foundation of modern day American Sign Language (ASL). The story of the bilingual community on Martha’s Vineyard, where there were so many Deaf people that being being Deaf was just no big deal, is chronicled in Ellen Groce’s fascinating book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. And even today, Deaf French people and Deaf Americans report that they are able to converse more easily than either group can sign with users of British Sign Language.
(“But what does all this have to do with Abraham Lincoln?” you may be wondering. Bear with me. We're getting there.)
A College for Deaf Students in Washington, DC
Over the next few decades, there was an explosion of education for Deaf students in the United States. The best and brightest students became teachers and worked in the new state schools for the Deaf being established up and down the East Coast. American Sign Language flourished and many of these newly-educated Deaf people became ready to study beyond high school. By the1860s, there was a need for opportunities for higher education for Deaf students.
The United States Congress approved the establishment of Gallaudet College (now University), located on a campus less than two miles from the US Capitol building. And on April 8, 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed the charter.
Edward Miner Gallaudet, son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, was the first president of this newly-formed college.
A Connection Through a Sculptor
Daniel Chester French is best known as the sculptor of The Lincoln Memorial, dedicated in 1922. But he created a large body of work before he was commissioned for the Lincoln statue.
Three decades before he created the Lincoln statue, French was commissioned to create a statue of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell, to be placed on the campus of Gallaudet College. It is a tender piece, depicting Gallaudet teaching young Alice the letter A in ASL.
The ASL Connection - A School for Deaf Students, A US President and a Sculptor
Both Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Chester French, certainly had interactions and familiarity with The Deaf Community. One publication from The National Geographic is reported to claim that French fathered a Deaf son. (I have ordered the book and will report back on my findings.) (Update January 29- I have heard from a very reputable source that the publication does not actually make the claim and that Clerc did not have a Deaf child.)
Lincoln worked in close proximity to Gallaudet College and, even during a time of Civil War, made the decision to personally sign the charter for Gallaudet to confer collegiate degrees. French created a sculpture that depicted a Deaf child being taught American Sign Language (ASL). The statue was installed on a college campus where all the students were Deaf and the primary language in use was ASL.
Really, This is Not Very Subtle or Ambiguous
Look closely at the hands in this sculpture. Alice is signing the letter A in the ASL manual alphabet. Her teacher is also making the same sign on his right hand.
Now take a look at the ASL handshape of the letter L.
Now check out the hands of Abraham Lincoln.
While there is some subtlety to the handshapes, the fist on the left hand, with the thumb on the side, rather than in front of the fingers, is unmistakable as the letter A. And the extended thumb and the lift of the index finger on the right hand, while not a fully-formed sign, appear to be a clear reference to the letter L.
With his knowledge of sign language, Daniel Chester French would have been very unlikely to place the initials A.L. on the hands of Abraham Lincoln unless he intended to do it. The sculptor showed great attention to every detail of his art. The Lincoln Memorial was a commission of great importance, just a short distance from Gallaudet College, and French certainly was aware of the importance of Abraham Lincoln to Gallaudet College.
So even though the National Park Service says the existence of the initials is a myth, many Deaf people, people who know sign language or those who look at the entire history come to the conclusion that it is not.
Next time you are in Washington DC, before you go to The Lincoln Memorial, stop by Gallaudet University and pause near the campus entrance to admire the Gallaudet Memorial. And while you are there, check out The National Deaf Life Museum. Then, when you get to Lincoln, you can decide for yourself if you think the legend is true.
Addendum/Edit January 29, 2023
Over the years, there have been many alternate interpretations for the symbolism of Lincoln's closed and open hands, and I have received several messages citing them. However, I have not been able to find (and no one has provided) a definitive statement preserved from the artist about his intentions and symbolism for Lincoln's hands.
Interestingly, in a 2009 NPR interview, the director, Donna Hassler, of Chesterwood, French's home and studio, now preserved as a museum, explains that the hands on the statue are actually those of the artist, not Lincoln.
French studied casts made of Lincoln's hands when he was alive, says Hassler, but ultimately did not use them as models for the project.
"The hands are clenched, and French thought that wasn't appropriate for this particular monument," she says. "So he ended up casting his own hands in the position where he felt they would rest on the chair."
So in the Lincoln sculpture, you can literally see the hands of the artist.
Howard Holzer, Lincoln scholar and author of Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French, was quoted in a National Geographic interview from 2022,
Yet it’s difficult to say exactly what sculptor Daniel Chester French intended beyond the physical representation. “He seldom spoke about his work,” says Harold Holzer, author of Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French. “My favorite French quote on this was: ‘A statue has to speak for itself, and it seems useless to explain to everyone what it means. I have no doubt that people will read into my statue of Lincoln a great deal I did not consciously think. Whether it will be for good or ill, who can say?’”
So if you search online, you will find theories that the clenched hand represents Lincoln's resolve to hold The Union together or to win the Civil War. The open hand is theorized to represent compassion, or even the welcoming of The Confederacy back as part of The United States. So far, in spite of their frequent references, I have found no sources that confirm those interpretations.
It is quite possible that both interpretations are true. French could have created purposefully complex, subtle or ambiguous symbols on his most well-known work. And it is also possible that the genius and longevity of his work is shown in his choice to allow this ongoing discussion by not answering our questions for us!
Yale University Library, Online Exhibition, Deaf: Cultures and Communication, 1600 to the Present. This exhibit explores the strong connection of Yale University to The Deaf Community and the history of the treatment of Deaf people. It includes information about the dispute between Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet in the late 19th century.
Gallaudet University, Washington DC. Website of the world's only University dedicated specifically to the education of Deaf students.
Monument Man Webinar, Howard Holzer, Lincoln scholar, on the life and art of Daniel Chester French.
The Chesterwood Collection: The Lincoln Memorial Centennial Exhibition. Online exhibition from Chesterwood, the historic home, studio and gardens of Daniel Chester French.
Language First, an advocacy and education group, supporting ASL and English bilingual education for children who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
American Society for Deaf Children, bringing families together through American Sign Language.
Alice Cogswell was a bright and curious child and a quick learner. She also couldn't hear. And, unfortunately, in the early nineteenth century in America, there was no way to teach deaf children. One day, though, an equally curious young man named Thomas Gallaudet, Alice's neighbor, senses Alice's intelligence and agrees to find a way to teach her. Gallaudet's interest in young Alice carries him across the ocean and back and eventually inspires him to create the nation's first school for the deaf, thus improving young Alice's life and the lives of generations of young, deaf students to come.
Laurent Clerc won lasting renown as the deaf teacher who helped Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet establish schools to educate deaf Americans in the 19th century. Now, his character as a young boy growing up in Paris has been captured in the novel Laurent Clerc.
In his own voice, Clerc vividly relates the experiences that led to his later progressive teaching methods. Especially influential was his long stay at the Royal National Institute for the Deaf in Paris, where he encountered sharply distinct personalities — the saintly, inspiring deaf teacher Massieu, the vicious Dr. Itard and his heartless “experiments” on deaf boys, and the “Father of the Deaf,” Abbe Sicard, who could hardly sign. Young adult readers will find his story richly entertaining as well as informative.
School Library Journal Starred Review Gordon, Jean M., ed. The Gallaudet Children’s Dictionary of American Sign Language. illus. by Debbie Tilley. 384p.
K-Gr 4–This long-anticipated and colorfully designed reference work is the first comprehensive American Sign Language dictionary for children published to date. It boasts more than 1,000 signs and includes a searchable DVD, which features young native signers demonstrating each sign and 150 of the practice sentences. Each entry takes up a third of a page and includes the word in bold red. Arranged alphabetically, the words are searchable with a thumb guide and represent a combination of sight words, familiar words, and words relating to animals, major holidays, sports, and school. An important aspect for both Deaf and hearing students are the synonyms listed directly underneath many entries. Since one sign stands for a variety of synonyms, this will help learners develop vocabulary. For example, under the term fake, readers will find the words imposter, pseudo, artificial, and counterfeit. A watercolor illustration humorously depicts the word and is accompanied by a corresponding sentence. The signs are clearly illustrated in black-and-white line drawings of children. The hands and forearms are in bold, resulting in a very clear picture of how to form the sign. Tips about ASL and Deaf culture and etiquette take the place of a word now and then in “Now You Know” boxes. The comprehensive introduction relays important information about ASL, including regional differences, and explains the arrows used to depict the motions of the signs. Highly recommended.–Sara Lissa Paulson, The American Sign Language and English Lower School, New York City
4.54.5 out of 5 stars (10) On April 8, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln and the United States Congress put into effect legislation authorizing the granting of collegiate degrees by the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. At this moment, what became Gallaudet University began a century and a half of offering a collegiate liberal arts education to deaf and hard of hearing students. Featuring more than 250 photographs and illustrations, David F. Armstrong’s The History of Gallaudet University: 150 Years of a Deaf American Institution chronicles its development into a modern, comprehensive American university.
At first a tiny college of fewer than 200 students, Gallaudet’s growth paralleled the emergence of the American Deaf Community and the history of the nation in general. In the same way that the country’s land-grant universities brought higher education to more American students than ever before, Gallaudet offered the same opportunities to deaf students for the first time. Gallaudet mirrored other institutions in addressing major issues of the time, from legislated segregation to the Civil Rights movement that inspired the struggle by deaf people to gain control of the governance of their university. Most critically, this volume details poignantly the evolution of American Sign Language as a language of scholarship at Gallaudet during a time when its use in educational institutions was largely discouraged or prohibited. Through story and image, it traces the historic path that Gallaudet traveled to be recognized as the finest institution of higher education for deaf people in the world.
Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard by Nora Ellen Groce and John W. M. Whiting | Jan 1, 1985
From the seventeenth century to the early years of the twentieth, the population of Martha’s Vineyard manifested an extremely high rate of profound hereditary deafness. In stark contrast to the experience of most Deaf people in our own society, the Vineyarders who were born Deaf were so thoroughly integrated into the daily life of the community that they were not seen―and did not see themselves―as handicapped or as a group apart. Deaf people were included in all aspects of life, such as town politics, jobs, church affairs, and social life. How was this possible?
On the Vineyard, hearing and Deaf islanders alike grew up speaking sign language. This unique sociolinguistic adaptation meant that the usual barriers to communication between the hearing and the Deaf, which so isolate many Deaf people today, did not exist.
Celebrating the gritty reality and color of the city, this lively guide locates the sites where important, or just fascinating, events took place, where figures from American history lived, worked, and died. Includes more than 125 photos from public and private collections.
Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French by Harold Holzer | Mar 5, 2019
"It is a thing as rare as it is welcome—an authoritative book about a visual artist that is both well written and jargon free, and that seamlessly addresses a professional audience as well as the general reader."—The Wall Street Journal
The definitive biography of Daniel Chester French, the artist who created the statue for the Lincoln Memorial, John Harvard in Harvard Yard, and The Minute Man in Concord, Massachusetts. Daniel Chester French (1850–1931) is America's best-known sculptor of public monuments. Harold Holzer's authoritative biography combines rich personal details from French's life with a nuanced study of his artistic evolution and beautiful archival photographs of his life and work.
A fascinating life story written for readers interested in American art, sculpture, and history. Comprehensively researched and written in a lively, engaging manner, readers will be captivated by French's life work and story. His diligent dedication to perfecting his craft over many decades of hard work is an inspiring story of artistic evolution.
Written by an award-winning Abraham Lincoln scholar. A preeminent author of numerous books on Civil War-era art and history, Harold Holzer turns his eye to the development of an important American sculptor whose evolution ran parallel to, and deeply influenced, the development of American sculpture, iconography, and historical memory.
Features a removable roof, the Abraham Lincoln statue and a nameplate
Booklet included with details on the design, architecture and history of the building (English language only)
28 - 1.75 inch basswood cubes
Handcrafted from sustainable Michigan basswood
Printed using non-toxic, mouth safe inks
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