Illinois Congressman Joe Cannon was determined to stop the Lincoln Memorial from rising on the Mall. He almost succeeded.





THE STORY BEHIND THE CONTENTIOUS STRUGGLE TO GET THE LINCOLN MEMORIAL BUILT can be told by piecing together information from hundreds of sources: books, memoirs, historical newspapers, academic and architectural journals, the Congressional Record, a doctoral thesis, letters and other documents.

An attempt to create a national monument honoring Lincoln in Washington two years after his assassination in 1865 had foundered. Lingering divisions over the Civil War precluded further talk of the idea until Republicans won control of the White House and both houses of Congress in 1896. The Senate Park Commission came up with its proposal in 1901 as part of a larger plan to remake the Mall.

The key obstacle was Republican Congressman Joe Cannon of Illinois, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Like his hero Lincoln, he was self-taught, having left school to support his family at age 14 when his father, a poor country doctor, drowned. He worked as a clerk at a county store for five years before saving $500 to study law. He became a successful country lawyer and then state's attorney. Cannon was able to quit work and enter politics thanks to the business acumen of his brother, with whom he'd entered a financial partnership. By 1902, he'd been in Congress 27 years and was considered one of its best debaters, despite being a self-proclaimed hayseed.

Cigar-chewing "Uncle Joe," as he was known, was an arch-conservative who believed in limited government spending. At $2 million, the Lincoln structure would be the most expensive U.S. monument ever built. (The Washington Monument, built between 1848 and 1888, cost $1.2 million.) He also had little use for anything that wasn't practical. When Congress first designated the reclaimed flats as a future park in 1897, he wanted the park to include a vegetable garden for the poor. He was guided by that same principle in matters of architecture. When Congress wanted to build new office space, he suggested putting skyscrapers atop both ends of the U.S. Capitol.

But, most of all, Cannon couldn't envision Potomac Flats as anything other than what it was. The undeveloped area was hardly a fitting place for a memorial to Lincoln, whom he'd met twice as a young man in Illinois.

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