“Lincoln is without a doubt … the most famous Illinoisan. He is a president from Illinois who helped preserve the union. His importance to the state of Illinois is undeniable,” said Jacob Friefeld, a historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.
Lincoln is revered for abolishing slavery in the South, but his policies that harmed Native Americans are a primary concern for his legacy, said Adam Green, a member of the Chicago Monuments Project advisory committee and professor of American history at the University of Chicago.
“Lincoln is, both as a citizen and as a president, a complicated figure,” Green said. “At the same time that Lincoln was engaged in the policies that he followed as president in relation to the institution of slavery and its eventual impact on African Americans, Lincoln was also someone who was very committed to the policy of Indian removal.”
While waging war and working to end slavery, Lincoln also sought to build a more powerful nation and government through expansion.
“Many of those positions precisely required his commitment to a policy of active, aggressive, and at times violent Indian removal” in order to distribute land to white settlers, Green said.
In a particularly egregious case, 38 men of the Dakota tribe were hanged as a result of actions they were accused of during the Dakota War of 1862. Though Lincoln reduced the death toll by commuting over 200 sentences, his enforcement of capital punishment resulted in the largest mass execution in American history.
In the Land of Lincoln, it might be hard for some to imagine what could tarnish the legacy of “Honest Abe,” the nation’s 16th president, who led the country through perhaps its most challenging moral and political crisis. Or that of Ulysses S. Grant, who helped win the Civil War and whose monument towers above, yes, Lincoln Park.
Yet five statues of Abraham Lincoln, as well as the one of Grant, were among 41 “problematic” monuments flagged by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration as part of a review following last year’s late-night removal of Christopher Columbus statues from two city parks.
The committee leading the Chicago review deliberated in private, and in its initial Feb. 17 report said only that the monuments had been “identified for public discussion” and that there were no immediate plans to remove any of them.
But as the nation continues to face a racial reckoning sparked by protests that began with last year’s police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many long-revered figures of American history, and the monuments honoring them, have come under fresh scrutiny. Lincoln is no exception.
“He still presided over the execution of Native Americans who by and large, were trying to enforce the observance of treaties and trying to retain a hold on land that they believed they had title to as original and Indigenous inhabitants of that land,” Green said.
In another instance, U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children, most of them unarmed, in the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. Green said the tragedy in part reflected the president’s policies.
Lincoln’s record on Black Americans is also not without blemishes. Green noted Lincoln’s prejudices “were reflective of the general character of most white people” in the 19th century, which cast doubt on whether Black and white people could truly live as equals.
This notion took shape most notably in Lincoln’s support for the idea of relocating Black people to other countries upon emancipation, a position that was met with widespread opposition from Black leaders.
The darker aspects of Lincoln’s marks on history accompany his unquestionably central role in the history of the country and of Illinois, adding up to what Green summed up to be “a very complicated picture.”
“There’s no one way to understand these issues. Historians are still arguing about this,” Friefeld said.
Fairfield added he thinks it’s healthy for communities to revisit monuments, grapple with complex histories, and make decisions about who they want to be commemorated in their neighborhoods.
The Chicago Monuments Project identified 41 statues, plaques, and other commemorative structures for review. In addition to statues of Grant, Lincoln, and Presidents William McKinley and George Washington, the list includes several monuments and statues depicting Native Americans and conflicts with white settlers.
Grant, who lived for a time in Galena, Illinois, is renowned for his role as commanding general of the Union Army during the Civil War and for his support of civil rights for Black people. But his legacy includes policies that “were well-intentioned, but ultimately disastrous” for Native Americans, according to the monument project website.
Kate Masur, a historian and professor at Northwestern University who is not on the monument committee, said Grant sought to create a more humane policy toward Native Americans, appointing the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs, a Seneca man named Ely Parker.
However, Grant’s policy proposals faced a lot of opposition.
“Eventually during Grant’s two terms (as president), instead of a more humane policy toward Native Americans emerging, the government fought brutal repeated wars against Native people and continued the process of pushing them off their land,” she said.
“That reality (is that) the same U.S. American national leaders who pursued emancipation, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, also bought into and executed a policy that was totally damaging and horrendous to Native people — that’s the crux of what we’re grappling with here,” Masur said.
The monument of McKinley that is included on the city’s list, created in 1904, was made from a melted-down sculpture of Christopher Columbus.
Kristin Hoganson, a historian, and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign said she thinks a likely reason McKinley’s statue was added to the list is his imperialist policies. Like Masur, she is not on the city’s advisory committee.
“I think of him as an avid imperialist, which is probably why he got flagged,” Hoganson said. “It was a long and bloody guerrilla war and occupation of the Philippines.”
As for George Washington, his ownership of enslaved people raises questions about his legacy, Hoganson said
“My sense is they’re all complicated humans, none of them perfect, all of them flawed in ways that hopefully people will grapple with as the process continues,” Hoganson said.
At a news conference last week, Mayor Lightfoot was asked about the notion that the statues of Lincoln and Washington might be “problematic.”
“What the monuments and murals committee did was identify those statues and murals and other historical markers that are worthy of conversation, and I think they are worthy of conversation,” Lightfoot said. “But let’s be clear, we’re in the Land of Lincoln, and that’s not going to change.”
The city has asked the public “to review the artworks that have been identified, suggest others, and to share your opinions on the role of monuments in Chicago’s public spaces.” The deadline is April 1.
The advisory committee will review the public’s feedback and create a report with recommendations for policy changes, new work and treatment of the monuments, said Bonnie McDonald, a committee co-chair and the president of Landmarks Illinois. The recommendations will then go to the city, including Chicago Park District and Chicago Public Schools.
The choices for the monuments is not limited to leaving them as they are or taking them down. A third option is to provide context through additional plaques, parallel installations or other avenues.
Green compared the monuments to the U.S. Constitution in that they offer values from the past, “but you don’t simply inherit those values in order to pass them on without any alteration, without any comments.”
“If it can happen with the Constitution of the United States, it can certainly happen in relation to any given monument, even if it’s of somebody of incredible prominence and historical value,” he said.