Thomas Ball (1819-1911), sculptor. [Abraham Lincoln with figure of liberty unshackled], ca. 1876: bronze sculpture, 85 x 54 x 32 cm. MS Am 2229 – Bequest of William Whiting Nolen, 1924.
This bronze statue by Boston sculptor Thomas Ball is a model for his Freedmen's Monument in Washington, D.C. In 1879 the wealthy benefactor and abolitionist Moses Kimball donated a replica of the statue to the city of Boston, sited at Park Square. The inscription on its base, "A Race Set Free," elucidates how the monument was intended to champion emancipation.
The original Freedmen's Monument project commenced after Abraham Lincoln's assassination and extended until 1876, lasting throughout the Reconstruction period and attempting to encapsulate its spirit. Beginning with a $5.00 contribution from freedwoman Charlotte Scott of Marietta, Ohio, the sculpture was financed entirely by free blacks to demonstrate public support for an interracial nation.
However, some have interpreted the monument not as a display of emancipation, but instead of white domination. One can view the freedman, with his nudity and kneeling position, as bereft of his dignity and agency, and, contrastingly, the fully clothed Lincoln, with his hand extending over him, as a demonstration of white mastery and supremacy. This version of the sculpture features subtle variants to the freedman such as the inclusion of a liberty cap and the breaking of the chains that bound him, somewhat softening the dominative allusions. Still, the overall purpose and implications of the statue to many observers remained unsatisfactory: "A more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom," remarked Frederick Douglass, who delivered the keynote address at the statue's unveiling in Washington, D.C. on 14 April 1876.
Ultimately, regardless of the ambiguity surrounding the monument, its parallels to the Reconstruction period are clear. Much like Reconstruction, which failed because it could not redefine and restructure a nation built upon racial opposition, the Freedmen's Monument could not effectively build unity and liberty into its project. The monument was dedicated to a new order that it could not comprehend or execute, a misunderstanding that, in turn, manifests itself through the contradictions preserved forever within this bronze sculpture.
MS Am 2229 – Bequest of William Whiting Nolen, 1924.