ASL Lessons | Bookstore | Library | ASL University Main ►
Abe Lincoln: Does the Abe Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial show him signing an "A" and an "L"?
By William G. Vicars, EdD,
If you use a bit of imagination when looking at the Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. it may appear that Lincoln's left hand is in the shape of an American Sign Language "A" and if you use even more imagination (along with a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief) it might appear his right hand is in the shape of a relaxed "L."
This has led to the folklore passed around by some in the Deaf Community that the artist (sculptor) Daniel Chester French intentionally included sign language in the statue.
Daniel French apparently knew the ASL alphabet as evidenced by a much earlier statue he created depicting Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (co-founder of Gallaudet University -- the United States' first school for the Deaf) and of his first Deaf student, Alice Cogswell. In that statue Cogswell is shown signing the letter "A."
Jon Guttman, Research Director of the World History Group (which hosts the historynet dot com website, informs us that the idea that Lincoln's hands in the Lincoln Memorial are showing sign language is false (Guttman, n.d.).
The National Park Service lists the idea that "Lincoln's hands are making sign language symbols of his initials "A" and "L" as a myth along with other myths on its Lincoln Memorial Myths web page.
National Park Ranger Mark Reagan says, "Another myth concerning Lincoln's hands is that they are forming the sign language symbols for his initials "A" and "L." I'm tempted to let you believe that. However, I can't let fiction take over fact. The sculptor, Daniel Chester French, used life mask molds of the face and hands to base his work on. Given they were in a fist-like arrangement, he relaxed one of them so the statue wouldn't look tense. Collectively, he wanted Lincoln to show his strength, resolve and confidence in seeing the nation through the Civil War" (Reagan, 2018).
When you point out the expert opinions of historians that the Lincoln initials are a myth there are those who will still be reluctant to give it up. Such individuals might try to bolster their argument by telling you that the artist's cousin or brother was Deaf.
Some might even claim that the artist had a Deaf son.
Douglas E. Evelyn and Paul Dickson on page 117 of their 1992 book "On this Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C." claim that "French had a son who was deaf."
That would be a good trick — considering that Daniel Chester French and his wife Mamie only had one child and she was a girl:
"The wedding between 38-year-old Daniel and 28-year-old Mamie took place in the bride's home in Washington, D.C. After their honeymoon in Lake Placid, N.Y., the couple settled in New York City. Daniel had recently set himself up in a studio there and had bought and furnished a fine four-story townhouse. In August 1889, Mamie gave birth to their daughter Margaret while the couple was staying at the French family farm in Concord, Mass. Margaret would be their only child." (Eaton, 2019)
If Margaret French Cresson was deaf -- extensive research is not turning it up. I invite the public to submit verifiable (or even shoddy) evidence of it.
What is true is that the statue's hands do kinda, sorta, somewhat loosely (if you are perhaps intoxicated, tired, or just really-really want to believe) seem to show Lincoln's initials in the ASL manual alphabet.
Whether the similarity is due to coincidence or due to an actual intention on the part of the artist we will likely never be able to prove or disprove.
Even if the artist didn't intentionally include the letters "A" and "L" into the Abe Lincoln statue -- it still makes an interestingly little discussion topic and even provides a fun memory aid for ASL students learning the letters "A" and "L" of the manual alphabet.
Abraham Lincoln, by Daniel Chester French:
"Lincoln Memorial" by Jeff Kubina, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Evelyn, Douglas E. and Dickson, Paul (1992) On this Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society, page 117: "French had a son who was deaf and the sculptor was familiar with sign language, so Lincoln's left hand, resting on the arm of the chair appears to be shaped in the sign for 'A' while his right hand apparently makes an 'L.'
Retrieved, 12-29-2020 from: https://books.google.is/books?id=y2DspYRi7G4C&q=French+had+a+son+who+was+deaf#v=snippet&q=French%20had%20a%20son%20who%20was%20deaf&f=false
Eaton, A (2019) "The wedding between 38-year-old Daniel and 28-year-old Mamie took place in the bride's home in Washington, D.C. After their honeymoon in Lake Placid, N.Y., the couple settled in New York City. Daniel had recently set himself up in a studio there and had bought and furnished a fine four-story townhouse. In August 1889, Mamie gave birth to their daughter Margaret while the couple was staying at the French family farm in Concord, Mass. Margaret would be their only child." (Source: Aurore Eaton (July 28, 2019) "Daniel Chester French creates the Gallaudet Memorial in Washington, D.C," Looking Back, New Hampshire Union Leader, retrieved 12/29/2020 from https://www.unionleader.com/voices/looking_back/daniel-chester-french-creates-the-gallaudet-memorial-in-washington-d-c/article_eaa9e319-b48e-5a81-8ffd-49eff24ad5b3.html
Guttman, R. (n.d.) "Do Lincoln's Hands Reflect Sign Language?" Historynet, retrieved 12/29/2020 from "https://www.historynet.com/do-lincolns-hands-reflect-sign-language.htm
Kubina, Jeff (17 August 2007) "Lincoln Memoria" Wikimedia Commons, retrieved 12/29/2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_Memorial#/media/File:Lincoln_Memorial.jpg
Regean, Mark (July 21, 2018) Lincoln Memorial Myths, National Park Service, retrieved 12/29/2020 from https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/lincoln-memorial-myths.htm
* Want to help support ASL University? It's easy: DONATE (Thanks!)
* Another way to help is to buy something from Dr. Bill's "Bookstore."
* Want even more ASL resources? Visit the "ASL Training Center!" (Subscription Extension of ASLU)
* Also check out Dr. Bill's channel: www.youtube.com/billvicars
You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University ™
ASL resources by Lifeprint.com © Dr. William Vicars